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Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Helfgot
Photo Credits:Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Yitzchak Meir Helfgot
Photo Credits:Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Itzhak Perlman
Photo Credits:Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul cover
Photo Credits:Sony Masterworks


Jane Enkin

WJR's Jane Enkin interviews Itzhak Perlman on his new CD with Cantor Helfgot

by Jane Enkin, October 19, 2012

Warmth and enthusiasm flow from internationally beloved violinist Itzhak Perlman as he tells the story of his new CD Eternal Echoes, Songs and Dances for the Soul. Through word of mouth, he had heard of an amazing cantor, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. One day when Perlman was in Israel to conduct an orchestra, he had an evening free, and learned that Cantor Helfgot was giving a concert. “It's beshert – a sign from God. I have to go hear him. He opened his mouth and gold came out.”

Perlman is especially focused on tone, in voices and instrumental playing, and his first thoughts were of the way that Helfgot's tone reached him. “My second thought was about how amazing it would be for us to do something together.” Perlman went backstage after the concert and Helfgot loved the idea of working together.

Perlman says this CD is “Jewish comfort music – everything that I recognize from my childhood is in this program.” The recording opens with a grand, heartfelt rendition of Rebbe Levi Yitzhok of Berditchev's Yiddish song, A Dudele. A tender Mizmor L'David, showy cantorial pieces, and lively klezmer tunes are featured.

At that concert, explains Perlman, “a lot of the material he was singing I knew from when I was a boy growing up.” In Israel, when Perlman was a child, there were two radio stations, and “you heard what you got.” On Saturday afternoons, they played cantorial and Yiddish music.

Incidentally, Perlman learned conversational Yiddish the classic way – in self defence. His parents spoke Yiddish when they didn't want him to understand. When they realized that he had picked up Yiddish by listening in, “they started speaking Polish – too late for me.”

Itzhak Perlman left Israel as a boy to study violin in New York, his current home. Israeli-born Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot also lives in New York, where he is chief cantor of Park East Synagogue. He devotes himself both to a concert career and synagogue services.

Early in his plans with Cantor Helfgot, Perlman brought in Hankus Netsky. “Of course, I worked with Hankus Netsky in the past, he's a terrific musician, a terrific arranger --of course, he was so enthusiastic.” Netsky, director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, wrote arrangements for the recording, based in some cases on important early recordings of the pieces. He was co-producer and musical supervisor for the project, and wrote fascinating notes for the CD.

Netsky brought in the Klezmer Conservatory Band for some pieces. In others, the violinist and the cantor are accompanied by a chamber orchestra. “Then you have the stark accompaniment of Kol Nidre, just piano and cimbalom. We wanted to include as much variety as possible. I think that's what makes this recording for me so successful. I like to hear it myself.”

“I have a pretty good instinct. I knew what this recording was going to sound like,” says Perlman. He chose small ensembles and a straightforward sound, partly to echo the old recordings he heard as a child. They were not high fidelity or digital recordings, and since they were old, there was always some noise – but they had the intimate feeling that Perlman hopes to offer listeners. “I wanted it to be something like that, not A Dudele accompanied by a symphony of a thousand – I heard that sound in my head even before we began.”

Perlman enjoyed working with Cantor Helfgot, as he has with classical singers like Jessye Norman, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. The cantor and the violinist are in dialogue throughout the recording. “The cantor is immediately affected by the words, and I am affected by his music.” There is some improvisation on the recording, and, as with all his performances, Perlman aims for a sense of spontaneity, responding emotionally in the studio. “If you feel like adding another krekhts, you add a krekhts. It comes out of what I feel.”

Although this is not primarily a klezmer CD, it “didn't hurt,” says Perlman, that he has worked with outstanding klezmer musicians over the years, as you can hear on recordings such as In the Fiddler's House. The violin style throughout Eternal Echoes has more in common with klezmer than with classical music, explains Perlman. “Let's face it, Yiddish is Yiddish.”

Cantorial music comes from a long oral tradition, and it's clear that Cantor Helfgot has learned partly by listening to the recordings we are fortunate to have from the great cantors of the past. Perlman emphasizes the importance for him, too, of listening. “For me, the important thing is to see how it evolves,” -- through concerts and recordings, to hear the history of a musical style. Just like a jazz musician, Perlman points out, he learns by listening to how musicians have shaped various styles over time.

How wonderful, then, that Perlman devotes so much of his time to music education. He holds the Dorothy Richard Starling Foundation Chair at the Julliard School in New York. He is very excited about the Perlman Music Program, founded by his wife Toby Perlman 18 years ago. It is a unique program for young string players, he explains, in approach and in the amount of time devoted to the students. They spend 9 weeks together in the summer, and have more training, travel and performances during the year –in past years, they have been to Israel and to China. While there is stiff competition to qualify for entrance, the program itself is very much noncompetitive in spirit. In addition to their intensive string training, everyone sings in a chorus together, developing repertoire, learning breathing skills, and becoming a cohesive group. Itzhak Perlman credits Toby Perlman's educational philosophy and the wonderful faculty she has assembled for the success of the program. “I just work there,” he says, teaching, conducting and coaching. Perlman selected alumni from the Perlman Music Program to play strings in the chamber orchestra on Eternal Echoes.

He is not sure what new direction he might take -- “Projects just come up out of nowhere.” Meanwhile, he has a full calendar of classical concerts planned, and he and Cantor Helfgot will be performing repertoire from Eternal Echoestogether. Watch for them in Toronto in the spring of 2013.

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