Wednesday, October 5th | 10 Tishri 5783

August 15, 2018 8:22 am

Tapping Into the ‘Golden Age’ of Cantorial Music for the 21st Century

avatar by Carin M. Smilk /

A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Aryeh Leib Hurwitz is attuned to all things musical. A chazzan (“cantor”) and ordained Chabad rabbi born and raised in Brooklyn, he studied at yeshivahs around the world while honing his voice and performing skills.

The 29-year-old father of nearly three-year-old twins has been on stage in Berlin and Johannesburg. He has sung before NBA crowds. He can belt out familiar pieces from Fiddler on the Roof and Les Misérables, croon at weddings, and headline a jazz band. And, of course, he sings in synagogue during the High Holidays in the classic tradition of chazzonus, the quasi-operatic Jewish music of more than a century ago — music that transports listeners back in time.

Here, he shares a bit about himself and the Eastern European musical tradition that is his hallmark.

Q: Is cantorial music entertainment, spiritual nourishment, or both — and how so?

A: In the 19th century, cantorial music was the only form of Jewish entertainment. You looked forward to going to the synagogue to hear your favorite cantor perform, and with that, receive spiritual nourishment. Of course, that has changed significantly over the decades, in time and place. Today, cantorial music is an art performed globally on the High Holidays. However, its art is beautiful year-round, and it still plays the role of both entertainment and spiritual nourishment in various communities around the globe.

Q:  How has cantorial music changed in the past two decades since the turn of the 21st century?

A: The golden age of chazzonus was in the early 1900s. There’s been a major decline since the likes of Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt, Moishe Oysher, Moshe Koussevitzky, and so on. Having said that, since the turn of the century there has been a nice comeback unfolding. With cantorial music now available with the click of a button (YouTube) and people appropriating cultures, there are many different occasions where cantorial music is on display.

Q: What is its role in Jewish life?

A: The cantor is the shliach tzibbur, the “representative of the community.” Their job is to pray to the Almighty on their behalf. Cantorial music is the tool that the chazzan uses to spiritually connect the congregant with God. That’s why it’s largely associated with the High Holidays and life-cycle milestones.

Q: Is cantorial music meant to affect the worshipper? Does it complement prayer or is it singular in nature?

A: Cantorial music is based in the essence of nusach ha’tefillah, the “modes of the prayers,” which have been passed down for generations since the time of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is holiness in the music. When used in its true form, it absolutely affects the worshiper, and it also compliments the prayer.

Q: What is the voice range of a cantor? Are they mostly tenors?

A: Most have been tenors historically, like the “Cantors of the Golden Age.” I am a tenor. But today, it’s more common to be a baritone. … I would say maybe 25 percent of cantors today are baritones. And, of course, within those general definitions are different types and ranges.

Q: What is the difference between the concert chazzan and the synagogue chazzan?

A: Let’s start with the important job of the synagogue chazzan. The chazzan is sincere, humble, and pours his heart out to the Almighty. The concert chazzan can be a true entertainer, or he can be a synagogue cantor giving a concert. Does the music fit with nusach ha’tefillah? Is it a piece that connects one spiritually? Or is it a piece that is a joy to listen to? The greats did both at a high level.

Q: Do niggunim and cantorial music serve different purposes?

A: Completely. Niggunim is Jewish music meant for everyone to join in and be inspired by together. Cantorial niggunim is an art that is best done with the participants silent.

Q: What does music mean to you and your religious life?

A: Music is a tool to connect. Unlike many career musicians, for a religious Jew, music is another form of serving God, whether dance music, classical music, or cantorial music.

Q: What are your most memorable moments on stage?

A: My most memorable moments were certainly singing as the very first cantor ever to perform a Jewish song in the main hall of the Berliner Philharmonie in Germany, home of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra — with a 70-piece orchestra. I was also fortunate enough to perform in three cantorial concerts in Johannesburg, South Africa. And to perform the US national anthem before two different NBA games for “Jewish Heritage Night” events: for the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City and the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center in New York City.

Q: Who is your musical role model?

A: So many … if I had to choose one: Moshe Koussevitzky. He served as a cantor in Vilna and Warsaw, escaping the Nazis with his family during the Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union. They came to the United States in 1947; five years later, he became cantor of Temple Beth-El in Borough Park (Brooklyn). He was one of four brothers, all cantors. In December 1947, they sang together in a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Q: Do strong voices run in families?

A: They certainly can, yes. Parents, siblings, and children can all have beautiful voices. I have a brother who’s a wedding singer. I come from a family with musical lines. But it is an art to be studied. The cantorial greats, they worked to refine their voices.

Q: Do you have a favorite musical city?

A: Nashville, Tennessee. I have performed there a few times and will be going again. It’s an entire city that has an appreciation of and love for music — all music. I find that fascinating.

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