Running at a brisk cantor

Cantorial music is drawing interest among religious and secular audiences, says Colin Shachat, set to perform at the Jerusalem Art Festival.

According to Colin Shachat, we may have entered a new golden age of cantorial music. And 48-year-old South African-born Shachat should know. Besides earning his keep as a lawyer and provider of various financial services, Shachat also maintains a highly successful “second career” as a cantor, performing all over the country and abroad in a variety of genre formats.
This Thursday, Shachat will share a stage at the Gerard Behar Center with fellow professionals Simon Cohen and the celebrated Yitzhak Meir Helfgot in the fund-raising Cantor and Choir concert in aid of the OneFamily Fund, which supports victims of terrorism in Israel. The concert is part of this year’s Jerusalem Arts Festival lineup.
While traditional prayer services may be dropping in popularity Shachat, who enjoyed a six-year tenure as cantor of Linksfield Synagogue in Johannesburg prior to making aliya in 1992, believes his singing profession is doing very nicely. “There is growing demand for cantorial music but not necessarily in the place where it was originally performed,” he says. “This type of music has become a Jewish art form, a sort of concept genre. Cantor Helfgot has been partially responsible for that, too.”
Shachat believes there are divided loyalties over cantorial music, with a surprising shift in the support base. “Religious people don’t necessarily want to hear the music in the synagogue. Due to the changing demographics of the Jewish community, the United Synagogue format in Britain, for example, with its cantors and choirs, is dying out. Then again, more and more people want to hear the music in a concert format, away from the synagogue. Audiences are growing outside the synagogue.”
Many of the latter, it seems, would not normally avail themselves of the opportunity to hear cantorial music in its original setting. “There are many secular Jews who want to listen to the music in concert halls. Everything is far more professional these days, with good sound systems and acoustics in the auditoria.”
Add to that a degree of nostalgia. “Many secular Jews may have turned their back on the observance of religion, but they have sweet memories of standing next to a late father or grandfather in a synagogue, and listening to a cantor.”
Although Shachat is naturally delighted with the increase of interest in the art form, there may be a downside to the genre relocation and the lessening of interest of the music’s original consumers. “Cantorial music should be seen in light of the person performing his prayer service duties,” he states. “Part of that is his knowledge of the nusah, the liturgy, which should be correct. You find even in the most religious shuls that the liturgy is deemed less important. I think it is a big mistake because the tradition will eventually be lost. Indeed, within the synagogue milieu, Conservative congregations are stricter about sticking to the liturgy. I don’t entirely understand the reason for that, but that’s the way it is.”
Paradoxically, Shachat says that the evolution of cantorial music over the years has also been helped by extraneous genres. “Music has always been important in Judaism since the time of King David and in the Bible, and the use of music in the temples is well documented. But the cantorial art is a manifestation of the last few hundred years and includes secular influences as well. There have been Christian elements incorporated into it, and operatic ones, too. In fact, one can identify elements from composers like Rossini, Verdi and Mahler in cantorial music today. You can clearly discern operatic influences in the work of many of the 20th-century composers of cantorial music, like Yosseleh Rosenblatt.”
Mind you, sometimes it took a while for non-cantorial additives to be fully embraced. “Initially communities were taken aback, but then they liked it. I believe you’re enhancing the tradition by bringing in things from the outside,” he says.
While cantors have benefited from the upturn in interest, Shachat says he also raises his own market profile by varying his wares. He is a busy member of the Jewish Harmony Singers cantorial threesome with which he has performed programs based on Spanish and Italian folk songs, alongside cantorial material, in Israel and South Africa. Later this year the trio will give a concert in Jerusalem, and a US summer tour beckons.
There are classical outings in the Shachat offerings too, and they have brought handsome rewards. “I have performed all over the world with classical works, such as Mozart arias,” says Shachat.
One concert in particular stands out. “I performed several times with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London, and there was a concert set up for Buckingham Palace in October 2006 and the organizers specifically asked for the Mozart repertoire I performed with the orchestra. I sang for Prince Andrew at the palace, and it was a wonderful occasion for me. My mother was also in the audience. It was a great occasion for her, too.”
Away from the stage, Shachat has also built up a tidy discography of 12 albums to date, including one with stellar cantor-performer Dudu Fisher, featuring a repertoire based on Israeli folk music. “I am involved in different musical experiences – Jewish and secular,” Shachat continues. “I try to be innovative in my musical projects. I generally aim to offer more value than just singing.”
Still, Shachat does have some musical constraints to take into accountwhen choosing his concert material. “I am a baritone, and a lot of thetraditional cantorial repertoire is for tenors and isn’t suitable formy vocal range,” he says, adding that even that can have its pluses.“It has been said that an artist’s skill lies not in what he sings butin what he doesn’t sing. I am cautious about what I sing so as not toexpose my vocal weaknesses. That means I don’t always follow thestandard repertoire, which can make things more interesting.”

The Cantor and Choir concert takesplace at the Gerard Behar Center on March 11 at 8 p.m., featuringcantors Colin Shachat, Yitzhak Meir Helfgot and Simon Cohen, theRamatayim Men’s Choir of Jerusalem conducted by Richard Shavei Tzion,the Kol Rina Quartet and pianist Raymond Goldstein. For moreinformation: or see this week’sBillboard supplement.