Itzhak Perlman’s chicken soup for the ear

The violinist has joined cantor Yitzchak Helfgot to produce ‘Jewish comfort music’

By Jenni Frazer, August 30, 2012
Classical meets chazanut: Perlman (left) and Helfgot

Classical meets chazanut: Perlman (left) and Helfgot

One event we are guaranteed not to see: the families of superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman and that of the equally starry cantor, Yitzchak Helfgot, on stage together.

For despite the free-flowing musicality that runs through both families — four of Perlman’s five children are professional musicians — neither man seems disposed to have their children follow directly in their footsteps.
When it comes to each other, however, the violinist and the chazan cannot praise the other highly enough. For Perlman, Helfgot’s soaring virtuoso tenor is “so easy… it’s just effortless”. And for Helfgot, working with Perlman has been “a wonderful opportunity… can you imagine how excited I was?”

What is undoubtedly a dream team has come together for the first time to produce a new album of Jewish music, Eternal Echoes. In 10 tracks, backed by a variety of musicians, both classical and klezmer, the two men provide a musical treat, a flowering of east European culture which Perlman has called “Jewish comfort music”.

Perlman has form in collaboration, having previously made two successful albums with a number of klezmer bands, Live in the Fiddler’s House (I and II). Both he and Helfgot offer warm, soulful sounds that are pure shtetl.

So it comes as a slight surprise to remember that, in fact, both men are Israeli born, though further back their families came from Eastern Europe.

We found that Helfgot was singing at the Mann auditorium. It was like a sign from God

Perlman’s is the better-known story: his parents, Chaim and Shoshana, each left Poland, separately, arriving on kibbutz in 1931 with the Labour Zionist movement before meeting and marrying in Tel Aviv.

“My father did… well, he did pretty much everything,” recalls Perlman. “He went into construction, he worked at everything possible. I am really quite amazed at how brave my parents were. They were strong people, idealists, but they were only in their mid-20s and they had left their families in Poland.

“I have some letters between my father and his family. He had a brother in the Polish army. He wanted the family to leave, but by the time his brother got out of the army, it was too late.”

Neither Chaim nor Shoshana played a musical instrument. Shoshana Perlman’s brother, however, did play the violin — “I assume klezmer” — and the two-year-old Itzhak famously was transfixed by hearing Jascha Heifetz on Israeli radio, in 1947.

“There was something in my ear after I heard Heifetz play,” he says. So he pestered his parents for a violin. “It’s an easy instrument to give to a child,” he laughs today. “Just buy a fiddle.”

Aged three, Perlman was denied entry to the Shulamit Conservatory because he was too small to hold a violin. But, despite contracting polio when he was four, he soon became a phenomenon, a child prodigy who attracted worldwide attention.

Just after Perlman’s barmitzvah in 1958, the American TV impresario Ed Sullivan came to Israel. “He chose an entire line-up of Israeli entertainers for his show — and I was one of them.”

The direct result was that Perlman and his mother — Chaim Perlman followed a year later — moved to New York so that he could attend the prestigious Julliard School of Music.

He arrived in New York with just four words of English to his name — “mother, father, good morning”. And he had left all his friends in Tel Aviv. It was depressing, at first, he admits. But by degrees he became absorbed into American musical society and he now goes back to Israel, feted and garlanded as a master musician, very often working with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

It was on one such trip to Israel that he first encountered Helfgot. “I’d heard of him, of course I had, but we’d never met. Two or three years ago my wife [the violinist Toby Perlman] was taking Bible classes and the teacher said she was going to hear Helfgot, and said he was a big, big star, but we hadn’t heard him sing.”

Then Perlman went to Israel to play with the Israel Philharmonic. ”You know, I’m always on tour, and I really don’t go to concerts. But I was in Tel Aviv and I had a free night, and we found that Helfgot was singing at the Mann Auditorium. It was like a sign from God.”

There was an instant identification by Perlman, well-known for the warm tones of his violin playing, with the warm soulful voice of Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.

“I went backstage to say hello. And I said we should do a record together. Immediately, he said, yes, great. He is such a sweet person.”

It is clear that the two Isaacs, if one can term them that, have rather different backgrounds. Perlman’s home life was traditional although not Orthodox. He recalls going to synagogue, though not every Shabbat, and his mother kept a kosher home.

Cantor Helfgot, in contrast, comes from a strictly Orthodox family in Tel Aviv. Cantorial music — or chazanut, to give it its Hebrew name — was known and loved in his family, but he is the first to become a professional chazan.

Like Perlman, Helfgot was struck by the musical bug at a young age. For him it was listening to Moshe Koussevitzky’s recording of Akavia Ben Mahalalel, when he was only five. “But even then, I knew what I was going to do,” he says.

He was just eight when he made his first record, and spent much of his childhood and teenage years studying voice and nussach (the art of prayer), partly in Frankfurt, before making his debut concert at the age of 23.

Today Helfgot, who cheerfully refers to his golden voice as “a gift from above”, is chief chazan of the Park East Synagogue in New York, and is widely credited with helping to revive the art of chazanut. “There is a slow revival,” he says. “There was a golden age but then a swift decline. But in the last 10 years there has been an upturn. Now everyone likes to listen to liturgical music.”

For Helfgot — who has sung purely classical music as well, in concert — there is a liquidity to much synagogue music. In fact, he says, “if you didn’t know what you were listening to, some of the operatic style of the pieces in shul might make you believe you were listening to Italian lyrics.”

So the appetite for innovation and crossover was evident in both Perlman and Helfgot. Eternal Echoes allows them to explore classical and cantorial themes, some paying homage to Helfgot’s mentor, the remarkable chazan Yossele Rosenblatt, others evoking the music of Perlman’s childhood.

And playing on the album are young musicians, some of whom are graduates of the violinist’s justly famous Perlman Music Programme. It is a perfect synthesis of old and new, traditional and secular, tone and overtone. Listen and enjoy.

‘Eternal Echoes’ is available from Sony Masterworks from September 4. A concert to promote the album is likely to be held at a major London synagogue early next year.

Last updated: 10:51am, August 30 2012