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Shul or show?

David Olivestone talks on Zoom about chazzanut and the role of cantor

In this early Hebrew language ad for recordings of cantorial music, the dog listened to his master’s voice, just as he would have in English.
In this early Hebrew language ad for recordings of cantorial music, the dog listened to his master’s voice, just as he would have in English.

Cantorial music often can be a divisive issue, but unlike most others it can’t be broken across political or theological or demographic divides. It’s far more personal than that.

Basically, either you like it or you don’t.

If your answer is no, you don’t like it, then your branch on the decision tree dead ends. But if you do, then the next question looms.

Is it performance or is it prayer? Shul or show? Is it finely honed art or is it a plea from a golden-throated supplicant to God; a plea that includes not only the singer but everyone else? And is that everyone else — everyone within earshot, that is — an audience or a spiritual community?

It’s a subjective question with a case-by-case answer that is based on history and philosophy as well as aesthetics and intent.

David Olivestone

It’s a question that David Olivestone has been considering for most of his life; and he’ll address it, by Zoom, for Congregation Rinat Yisrael, on Sunday, January 17. (See below.)

“Cantorial music has been a passion of mine ever since I was a teenager — even though I cannot sing,” Mr. Olivestone said, in a Zoom call from Jerusalem, where he now lives. Back then, however, in the late 1950s, when he was a teenager, he lived in Edgware, the northwest London neighborhood that had a small Orthodox community then and now has a huge one.

“There was a man at our shul who had an extensive collection of records,” Mr. Olivestone said. “I was hooked. I started building my own collection of recordings, and avidly reading about cantors.

“During the last 15 or so years, I have been trying to encourage other people to become interested in cantorial music.”

Mr. Olivestone’s career has taken him from England to Israel, with a 40-year detour to America; 16 of those years were spent in Teaneck. He’s worked in prestigious Jewish institutions — the Hebrew collections at the British Museum in London, the Encyclopedia Judaica in Jerusalem, the Orthodox Union in New York, where “I was the director of communications for about a thousand years,” he said. He’s maintained his interest in cantorial music and the cantors who sing it throughout that time. “When I worked on the encyclopedia, I even got to write some biographies of cantors!” he said.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt turned down lucrative offers from opera houses. (
Photos courtesy David Olivestone)

What is cantorial music? It’s a product of its time and place; although the idea of music as an aid to spirituality and a background to religious services goes back to the Temple in Jerusalem, traditional chazzanaut as we know it “probably grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries,” Mr. Olivestone said. It featured the work, most famously, of such composers as Louis Lewandowski and Salomon Sulzer, some of whose works are familiar to shul-goers today.

“By the end of the 19th century, they had great cantors in what they called choir synagogues in Vienna, Vilna, and other places. These cantors were absolute stars when they began to concertize outside their synagogues. When recordings became popular, Jews all over the world could hear them, and they became household names.

“That’s how the golden age for cantors began,” Mr. Olivestone said. That golden age, which lasted roughly from 1900 to 1960, saw “the great stars come to New York. They were very highly paid, and their records sold in the hundreds of thousands.”

Probably the most famous of those cantors — those great stars — was Yossele Rosenblatt, whose short but eventful life — he died at 51 — included an invitation to “join the Lyric Opera in Chicago — which he turned down,” Mr. Olivestone said. “This became a very big story.” Cantor Rosenblatt, who moved to New York, and who kept up his Orthodox observance no matter what else he was doing, “became part of New York’s cultural scene. When there was a drive for Liberty Bonds during World War I, he was on the steps of the New York Public Library” pushing them. “He stood there next to Caruso,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. He gave concerts “at Carnegie Hall and around the country, of secular and Jewish music; he learned some operatic arias, Italian songs, Russian songs,” and they were immensely popular.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt

After losing all his money in a bad investment — “a dubious Jewish newspaper venture,” Mr. Olivestone said — Cantor Rosenblatt declared bankruptcy. Although that freed him from the obligation to repay his debts, Cantor Rosenblatt felt a moral obligation to do so, so “he went into vaudeville” to make more money.

As the golden age ended — the last of its stars, Moshe Koussevitzky, died in 1966 — a new attitude toward cantorial music appeared. “In the second half of the 20th century, the Young Israel movement brought in more congregational singing,” Mr. Olivestone had. “They had a higher level of Jewishly educated individuals in the synagogue, so many people felt that they didn’t need a cantor. It was hard for the profession; it was hard for cantors to find positions.

“In the last 20 or so years of the previous century, and in this century, cantorial music has moved to the concert stage. Until coronavirus, there were cantorial concerts all over Israel, in New York, and across America.

“It became an art form. People would go to concert halls to enjoy it, but they’d hear it less in shuls.”

That gets Mr. Olivestone to the meat of his discussion. What is chazzanut now? Cantors perform art. It’s a talent-based skill. Cantorial art demands improvisation: cantors also are trained in music theory and composition as well as performance. Jewishly well-educated laypeople are less in need of intermediaries between themselves and God because they know what the words they pray mean, and they know, at least to some extent, how to produce the sounds that propel those words.

So how much is performance? How much is piety? How much does it matter? How can you tell? What are the boundaries? Why should you care?

Mr. Olivestone will discuss all these issues; his presentation includes slides, videos, and recordings. “I want to introduce people to the music and to the art form,” he said; he also wants them to consider when it’s art, when it’s heart, and if it can be both at the same time.


Who: David Olivestone

What: Will discuss “Shul or Show?”

Where: He’ll be at home in Jerusalem; the talk will be on Zoom

When: On Sunday, January 17, at 9:30 a.m.

Under whose auspices: Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck

For whom: Everyone. It’s free and open to the public

How do you get the link? Go to www.rinat.org/adultednews

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