Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On Chazzanut and Helfgot

Chazzanut has always been a mystery to me. It seemed that the only people really interested in it were our grandparents, who from time to time try to explain to the younger generation how great Koussouvitzky was, or how much they missed Yossele Rosemblatt’s voice. Personally, I couldn’t listen to that type of music for more than a minute; that was the most I could take of that awkward old-Jewish traditional music. In my mind, the Chassidic music we all know today – MBD, Yossi Green, Avraham Fried and so on – was our generations’ “official” music while Chazzanut was a faded trend. My only contact with the Chazzanut world had been going to the Great Synagogue whenever I happened to be in Israel and that was it.

Until I went to Park East Synagogue in Manhattan’s East Side. That is the current home of Yitzhak Meir Helfgot, whom I had heard once before at the Madison Square Garden Daf Yomi Siyum. As soon as he started to lead Kabbolas Shabbos, I got immersed in a new world of music. Suddenly, I was able to understand my grandparents’ great excitement about the great Chazzonim of the beautiful shuls in pre-war Europe. Helfgot started the Kabbolas Shabbos with the popular Carlebach tune “Lechu Neraneno” and displayed all his skill and great vocal range in the coming pieces. There was also a very well organized choir, orchestrated by Cantor Naftali Hershtik's son (I can't remember his name), seamlessly singing the background cords and “Amens”. In Shacharit, I saw women and children rushing to the shul just to hear the final song, the joyful Adon Olam at the end of the service and I came to the conclusion that I was witnessing the rebirth of Chazzanut. I was so impressed that I decided to learn how to enjoy Chazzanut and I purchased Helfgot’s Avot album, featuring the breathtaking Halelu and other great songs. Finally, I learned how to enjoy Chazzanut.

Helfgot is behind the revival of Chazzanut in our days. Never before, since after the WW2, has this genre been so popular and Helfgot is requested at Chuppas and weddings, for a great sum of dollars. The trend is back, and even people such as me who never had any interest in Chazzanut are starting to undrestand the beauty of it.

There is a caveat though. When I say I enjoy Chazzanut today, I mean to say that I enjoy Helfgot - I still can’t bear the old recordings of Yossele and Koussovitzky. I attribute that fact to Helfgot’s Nusach. He sings a lighter version of Chazzanut, mixing old tunes with more contemporary songs, creating a very interesting musical blend. Helfgot has sold-out performances at the Met from time to time and there are many smaller concerts of Chazzanut in a monthly basis in NY today. In the Pessach cruises, it’s not enough to have a good singer anymore; the best ones make sure to get the most popular cantors, a sign of the popularity of Chazzanut in the last years. If you like music and are ready to enjoy something different, go after Helfgot and hear his songs a few times. Don’t let yourself out of the Chazzanut Revolution of our time.

Click here to watch a YouTube video of Helfgot.


Anonymous said...

The chazzonim of the past were way better. listen to Koussovitzki for a sec, thats real chazzonus

Anonymous said...

great post. i dont like chazzonus tough

Anonymous said...

Chazzanut is definitely making a comeback. One great chazzan the american scene is largely unfamiliar with Oshy Tugendhaft. He is the chazzan from the Sydenham Highlands North Shul in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has toured the large North American communties the last four years with his shul choir. He, and his choir have produced four or five albums. I have heard him in Chicago on tour, and in South Africa. In my opinion he is on par with Helfgot and Herstik.

YK said...

I just saw a video of him on youtube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7IIBbxLMHk - I didn't like it much. But maybe live he's better..

Actually, I'm not a big fan o Hershtik. What I do like about his voice is his falsetto, which is very good. But other than that Helfgot is in a different level I think, although I'm not a Chazzanut expert.

If you want to hear another good unknown Chazzan check Moshe Schulhoff on youtube. But Helfgot is Helfgot!


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