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Great Performances | Rejoice with Itzhak Perlman

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Excerpt from 'Rejoice': Yism’Khu (They Shall Rejoice) Violinist Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Helfgot perform the opening song Yism’Khu.

Watch Thursday, September 29, 2016 at 10pm on WMHT-TV

Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman and renowned cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot join forces for a musical exploration of liturgical and traditional works in new arrangements for both chamber orchestra and klezmer settings.

The music of Rejoice with Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot showcases the confluence between the violinist’s famed classical technique and Helfgot’s magnificent voice, and is the result of a mutual admiration society. “It was a dream to someday sing with him,” remarks Helfgot. “And now the dream has become real.”  Also featuring reminiscences by Elie Wiesel, Joel Grey, and Neil Sedaka, the program is directed by Joshua Waletzky, whose earlier collaboration with Perlman, In the Fiddler’s House, won a Primetime Emmy in 1995.

For Perlman, the collaboration represents “the completion of a cycle” of accompanying three great voices—Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and now Helfgot, who serves as Chief Cantor at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue. The special also represents for him, “the fulfillment of a dream.” Perlman and Helfgot recently collaborated in a couple of show-stopping performances featured in Great Performances 40th Anniversary Celebration.  In Rejoice with Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, these two incomparable virtuosos unite for an evening of cantorial masterpieces, Yiddish folk and theater tunes, Hassidic melodies, and klezmer instrumentals.

Joined at the piano by music director Dr. Hankus Netsky (Chair of Boston’s New England Conservatory Improvisation Department), Netsky’s Klezmer Conservatory Band, and the Rejoice Chamber Orchestra under the direction of conductor Russell Ger, Perlman and Helfgot present a program of songs that are alternately joyful and intensely moving, but always concluding with a buoyant climax.

Between numbers, Perlman provides elucidating and historical commentary, humorously interacting with Netsky, Helfgot and the audience.

It’s a varied program, ranging from Jack Yellen and Lou Pollack’s “A Yidishe Mame” (immortalized by the legendary Sophie Tucker) to Shlomo Carlbach (“The Singing Rabbi”)’s “Adir Hu” and Cantor Israel Schorr’s “Sheyibone Beys Hamikdosh,” which has become the most popular melody written for a Jewish liturgical text.

Khazones (cantorial music) comprises the original repertoire of the traditional Eastern-European Jewish prayer leader.  Born of a culture whose primary theater was the religious sanctuary, the cantorial art focuses on texts that express both a deep longing for a return to a homeland and a powerful glorification of all that is divine.

“It’s roots music – big-time roots music,” Netsky explains. “It’s Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian and gypsy-influenced folk music with a very strong Jewish accent – as if it’s a Jewish prayer. I liken it to the blues…It has just the right amount of happy and sad – laughter through tears.”

By the 1700s, khazones had spawned a florid vocal style that caught the attention of the most sophisticated composers and performers of that time.  Cantorial music continued to develop through the middle of the 20th century, when extraordinary tenors including Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker made the transition from the synagogues of Brooklyn to the Metropolitan Opera.

The concert’s full musical program is as follows:

  • Yism’Khu (They Shall Rejoice)
  • Rumenische Doyne (Romanian Doina)
  • Shoyfer Shel Moshiakh (Ram’s Horn Of The Messiah)
  • A Dudele (A Song To You)
  • Sheyibone Beys Hamikdosh (May The Holy Temple Be Rebuilt)
  • A Yidishe Mame (A Jewish Mother)
  • Adir Hu/Moyshe Emes (Mighty Is He/Moses Is True)
  • Yism’Khu (closer)

In the folksong, “A Dudele” (A Song To You) the legendary Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yizchok of Berditchev (Ukraine), ponders the intimate nature of his relationship with the Master of the Universe. “Everything I do, everywhere I go, you are with me.”

“Rumenische Doyne,” an actual traditional shepherd’s lament, follows and reminds us just how closely the music of the cantor and klezmer (traditional Jewish folk instrumentalist) are linked.

“Yism’Khu” (Rejoice) embodies the theme of exultation, as it appears in the liturgy of the Sabbath, the day of rest. A traditional Hassidic-style setting based on a klezmer rendition by the great clarinetist Shloimke Beckerman, leads into a spirited dance tune. “Sheyibone Beys Hamikdosh” (May The Temple Be Rebuilt), based on a meditation that observant Jews express in the Amidah prayer three times each day, shows how a fairly simple folk melody can spawn an elaborate composition.