‘New York Cantors’
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‘New York Cantors’

Trio of stellar young voices will perform at bergenPAC

From left, Yaakov Lemmer, Azi Schwartz, and Netanel Hershtik are the three New York Cantors.
From left, Yaakov Lemmer, Azi Schwartz, and Netanel Hershtik are the three New York Cantors.

In March 2018, millions of Americans tuned in to their local PBS stations to see “The New York Cantors,” a performance by three rising stars on the American cantorial music scene. Recorded in Amsterdam’s 17th century Portuguese Synagogue, the concert was accompanied by a 33-piece orchestra and an eight-man choir.

The success of that show led to additional appearances by the trio — Yaakov Lemmer of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, Azi Schwartz of the Park Avenue Synagogue, and Netanel Hershtik of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach.

On November 3, the New York Cantors are scheduled to appear at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Mr. Hershtik, who has lived in Teaneck for 10 years, is the son and protégé of Naftali Hershtik, a prominent Israeli cantor formerly of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Mr. Schwartz was one of his father’s many students. He’s also known Mr. Lemmer for years; in fact, he recommended him for his post at Lincoln Square. All three young cantors have long enjoyed singing together.

Mr. Hershtik said that one of the most compelling aspects of joining their voices on one stage is their religious diversity: he identifies as modern Orthodox, Mr. Lemmer is charedi, and Mr. Schwartz works in a Conservative congregation.

“We form a representation of different denominations, and expressing the same prayer in harmony has great significance,” he said. “There is camaraderie and friendship that comes out in the music, and it’s beautiful.”

All three men are superstars, according to the New York Cantors’ agent for live concerts, Moishe Rosenfeld of Brooklyn-based GoldenLand. “They’re incredible soloists and incredible together,” Mr. Rosenfeld said. “Each is young and at the height of his popularity in the cantorial world. Each has tremendous charisma, and when you put them together something magical happens.”

Their most recent joint appearance was on the SummerStage in Central Park last June before an audience of more than 2,500 people, including Englewood’s Mayor Michael Wildes.

BergenPAC already had had its eye on the trio. Its president and CEO, Dominic Roncace, explained, “Part of our non-profit mission is to ensure that everyone in our diverse community feels like BergenPAC is their home for quality entertainment and cultural programming. The New York Cantors have local appeal for our region, but they also tour the world and were featured in a popular PBS special. That makes them a perfect fit for our theater line-up and meeting our mission.”

Mr. Hershtik, who is a 14th-generation cantor, said that there’s a timeless quality to chazanut — Jewish liturgical singing — because its roots reach back to the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem, where the Levites sang and played instruments as part of the daily service.

“Chazanut is not contemporary or entertaining; it’s not elevator music meant to be hummed along to,” he said. “It’s music that serves something very deep in preserving our traditions. Our role as cantors is to present these traditions in an accessible way — in the most magnificent way possible — but the essence is the same as it was thousands of years ago.”

Mr. Rosenfeld added that for many synagogue-goers, the melodies strike a familiar chord from their families’ European heritage, going back centuries if not millennia. “The style sort of gets to your kishkes.”

The music also resonates with people who have never stepped foot inside a Jewish house of worship, he added. “It’s like when people go to the opera for the first time and become turned onto it just because it’s so gorgeous. There were non-Jews in the audience in Central Park, and they really absorbed it because music in general is universal. I can sit and listen to music from India or Afghanistan and really open myself up to it with full enjoyment.”

Three New York Cantors’ concert repertoire is not limited to liturgical music. The trio performs secular Jewish, Israeli, and even Broadway tunes, all in the context of a big orchestral experience.

The playlist for the BergenPAC show includes solos as well as several songs performed together, including “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold), “Avinu Shebashamayim” (Our Father Who is in Heaven), a Sephardic medley, and “Close Every Door” from the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

The concert will be conducted by Andrew Kurtz, the musical director of the Gulf Coast Symphony, and will be accompanied by a local orchestra and a vocal quartet.

Mr. Hershtik said his solos represent a wide range of musical styles and moods “from joyous moments to lamentations.”

These solos include “Kol Nidre” from the Yom Kippur liturgy; “Essa Enai” (I Lift My Eyes) originally sung by 20th-century virtuoso cantor Moshe Koussevitzky; and a seder medley including the “humorous, almost drunk” version of “Chad Gadya” by legendary cantor Moishe Oysher.

A practicing attorney, Mr. Hershtik’s work at the Hampton Synagogue is seasonal, running from May until the end of the high holidays. The rest of the year he and his wife, Tamira, and their four children daven at the Young Israel of Teaneck.

Since he moved to Teaneck in 2009, he has organized an annual Shabbat Chazanut at his shul in memory of Joseph Dresdner, a cantorial music fan and the father of congregant Adina Pultman. “People come from Englewood and from the other side of Teaneck; the place is packed,” he said.

Mr. Hershtik lamented what he sees as a lack of choral and cantorial singing in Bergen County’s Orthodox synagogues. Great emphasis is placed on Torah learning and education, he said, and that is commendable but mainly intellectual. “Where’s the heart and the inspiration? The power of music elevates people’s prayers.”

Mr. Hershtik, who was born in 1978, has appeared in concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and in venues such as Lincoln Center, Vienna Konzerthaus, the Sydney Opera House, and Casino de Paris. He was the first cantor invited to perform a cantorial concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and the first cantor invited to perform at the United Nations, as part of a Holocaust memorial ceremony in 2006.

Mr. Lemmer, who will turn 36 several days after the Englewood concert, was born and bred in Brooklyn. He has appeared at the Tel Aviv Culture Hall with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and throughout the United States, Canada, England, and European culture festivals. He tours with Grammy Award-winning jazz and klezmer musician Frank London. He also works as a licensed special education therapist in Brooklyn.

A 38-year-old native of Israel, Mr. Schwartz has sung with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin RIAS Kammerchor. He has recorded albums and performed in the UN General Assembly Hall, the Capitol Rotunda, the Israeli Knesset, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center. In 2016, he played a cantor in Richard Gere’s movie “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” He is a faculty member of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR in New York City and of the cantorial school of the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.


What: “The New York Cantors,” featuring cantors Netanel Hershtik, Yaakov Lemmer, and Azi Schwartz conducted by Andrew Kurtz, musical director of the Gulf Coast Symphony of Florida

Where: Bergen Performing Arts Center, 30 N. Van Brunt St., Englewood

When: November 3, at 3 p.m.

More information and reservations: Go to bergenpac.org

How much: Tickets range from $29 to $69

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