From synagogue to stage

Australian-born Shimon Walles will provide the cantorial portion of the Rainbow of Music concert at the Jerusalem Arts Festival.

Shimon Walles (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shimon Walles
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Cantorial material is among the most stirring strains of liturgical music, and it will be one of many styles on offer at the Jerusalem Theater in the second annual Rainbow of Music concert.
The concert, which forms part of this year’s Jerusalem Performing Arts Festival, is sponsored by the Malki Foundation, which supports special-needs children.
As the show title suggests, there will be several genres on display.
It will be pretty crowded on the stage, with the Ramatayim Men’s Choir – directed by Richard Shavei Zion – sharing the spotlight with pianists Raymond Goldstein and Aviva Stanislawski. There will also be three vocal soloists: Israeli Opera tenor Guy Mannheim and modern hassidic vocalist Avremi Roth, with Australian-born Shimon Walles providing the more traditional cantorial fare.
“I will be doing a piece called ‘Se’u Shearim’ by [19thcentury German cantorial composer Louis] Lewandoski, and ‘A Yiddishe Mama’ [by early 20th century cantor Yossele Rosenblatt], and also ‘Rahem Na’ by Rosenblatt,” says the 32-year-old Walles, who will be doing some duets with the other featured vocalists as well.
The Australian, who currently resides in Berlin, was drawn into the world of cantorial music by a close relative.
“My grandfather, Yaakov Gershon Walles, was a wonderful ba’al tefilla [synagogue prayer leader], and he was a Moditzer Hassid and knew all the niggunim [melodies] from Moditz,” he says. The Moditzer Hassidic community was well known for the large body of music it produced.
“My grandfather used to serve as hazan [cantor] in the Old City of Jerusalem for many years, after 1967, as well as in Australia,” he adds. “My family in general is very musical.”
Walles first displayed an interest in singing at an early age.
“I always took a very strong interest in music from the age of about five, and I realized I had a gift for singing when I was about 10,” he recalls. “When I was about 17 or 18, I began singing at weddings, and I got jobs singing at different synagogues in Australia.”
As a young cantor, and with his rich family background in the genre, he is aware of the changes that have come into the discipline in the last few decades, though he says there are not many of them.
“I’d say it has become a bit more commercial in the last 15 years or so, although it has by and large stayed the same,” he says. “I mean, how much could it change? It is a connection with God. The way I look at it is that if a hazan has the right voice for it, he can bring out more and more of the soul in his singing. He can have the power to transform and to inspire.”
Walles says all contemporary cantors feed off the work of their professional forebears. “It is all based on people like Rosenblatt and [Moshe] Koussevitzky and [Gershon] Sirota” – all active in the so called “golden age” of cantorial singing, between the two world wars.
“There are hazanim, like Moshe Stern, who compose new cantorial music, but I think that the works that people like Rosenblatt performed are timeless gems,” he continues. “And I don’t think there will ever be a hazan who will come close to Rosenblatt.”
Even so, shows like the one in which Walles himself is appearing take the art of cantorial singing out of its original habitat – the synagogue – and into the concert hall.
“Yes, these days, you have hazanim singing with philharmonic orchestras, and you have compositions which traditionally were just for voice and organ or piano, and now you have works for a full orchestra,” he notes. “That adds a whole new dimension to what we do, and beautifies hazanut in many ways. That brings in all the instrumentation.”
Presumably, though, there are purists who would prefer to hear their cantorial music in a more intimate setting.
“Yes, there are people who prefer the more traditional approach, but they are both beautiful,” says Walles.
“I think when it comes to praying in a synagogue, people just want to hear the voice. The voice will always remain the supreme musical instrument, and everything else will complement that.”
He says he is very much looking forward to performing with Shavei Zion and the choir, as well as with his fellow featured soloists, even though he considers cantorial singing a higher art form than its operatic sibling.
“I think it was [legendary Italian opera singer Enrico] Caruso who said that it is easy for a cantor to sing opera, but not all opera singers can sing cantorial material.
You have the coloratura [melodic ornamentation] in cantorial music, which makes it a very sophisticated and very complicated genre of music to perform. I would say it is the hardest genre of all music to sing.”
More than anything, Walles says cantorial music is about the emotion the cantor puts into his singing, and the emotional responses it evokes from the audience.
“It connects with the soul, so of course it is going to arouse emotion. But you have to have that connection between the heart and the vocal cords,” he explains. “In fact, they discovered that there is a nerve in the body that connects between the heart and a vocal cord. They say you can sing from the heart, and there’s the proof.”
Cantorial music also moves many people with Holocaust connections, he says. “When I sing, I feel I am connecting with the souls of people who lived in Europe before the Second World War. For me, as a hazan, there is a very strong link there, especially having lived in Europe for a while now. For me, hazanut is eternal, [something that] connects us with the past, the future and the present.” • The concert is next Thursday evening at 8 p.m. in the Rebecca Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater.For tickets and more information about the Rainbow of Music concert: 560-5757, 623-7000 or