He was the last of the great cantors of the Golden Age and, perhaps, the greatest. So it is fitting that in their efforts to revive classic chazanut, Cantors World’s latest concert is a tribute to Moshe Koussevitzky. His brilliant tenor voice was stilled by death on Aug. 23, 1966, but for former students and colleagues, it still rings in their ears.
“His voice was like a violin, but with the strength of a pipe organ,” says Cantor Benjamin Siller.
Siller, the president of Cantors Ministers Guild of U.S. and Canada, was seven when he first heard Koussevitzky lead services at what is now Young Israel Beth El in Borough Park. It changed the boy’s life utterly.
“My father took me to Beth El to hear Moshe, and I was overwhelmed by his voice,” Siller recalls. “It sounded like an angel singing from heaven. It rang in my ears overnight and I wanted to join the choir.”
Siller’s own career path was set. Ironically, although he did briefly sing in the Beth El choir, he found that he could learn more from watching and listening to Koussevitzky from the congregation.
“I was short and I couldn’t get a glimpse of him,” he says with a chuckle. “I couldn’t learn as much as I did in congregation.”
But Siller’s dedication was unflagging. “I hardly missed a davening of Moshe from 1955 to 1966,” he says. “It was like a school for me.”
Siller would eventually take private lessons with Koussevitzky. “He gave me some voice lessons and some hazanos lessons. But above all, just sitting in the congregation was the greatest learning for me.”
The source of Koussevitzky’s greatness as a chazzan was a three-octave range that combined power and grace.
Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky, co-founder of Cantors World, explains, “What made Koussevitzky great was that he was able to sit on a high C for half an hour, to hit the same note again and again with such musicality that is seldom heard in the cantorial business.”
Like Yossele Rosenblatt before him, Koussevitzky combined great spiritual fervor with exceptional musical technique in such a way that even non-Jews immediately recognized his genius.
“What he did was to offer singing at the same level that you would hear from a Caruso, and he did it in the synagogue, so you had both worlds,” Rogosnitzky says. “It just excited people to know you would hear something that would be second to none, artistic and special. And he would hit those notes that made people shudder. He made Jewish people proud that non-Jews would come to hear him. He had a voice that could be appreciated by anyone who was an aficionado of great singing.”
The great voice was backed by strength and stamina.
“I can remember so many Shabbos services at Beth El where after services ended at 1:30 in the afternoon, quite late, he would be in greater voice than when he started,” says Cantor Robert Vegh, who sang in the choir and as a soloist in the congregation in the early 1960s.
That stamina would stand him in good stead after services as well, Vegh recalls.
“He would stand around soaking wet with perspiration, and his wife would try to whisk him away, but people would line up, huge numbers, to speak to him, and he would be so nice and stand there and talk to people until she would drag him away to change,” Vegh says. “Then he would come back out again and stand around and speak to people, often young people who were thinking about the cantorate, they would ask to sing for him. He would listen and give guidance and advice.”
Koussevitzky was the oldest of four brothers, all of them child prodigies who became accomplished cantors. He enjoyed great success in Eastern Europe before World War II. He served as chazan at two of the most important synagogues in Vilna before succeeding Gershon Sirota as cantor of Warsaw’s famed Tlomatzke Synagogue. His fame spread throughout prewar Europe and he even made an American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1938, but he had no desire to leave the Tlomatzke congregation. Then history intervened and he and his family escaped to the Soviet Union before coming to the United States permanently in 1947.
But he remained equally proud of his nearly legendary prewar success. Vegh recalls one Shabbos afternoon in particular: “An elderly gentleman walked up to him and spoke to him in Yiddish, ‘I want you to know I heard you in Vilna as a young man in the 1920s and I heard you in the early ’30s at the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. I’m so happy to be here to hear you now.’ Moshe was so happy to hear this, it was very exciting to him; he loved to talk about his past.”
Unlike Rosenblatt, Koussevitzky was not a great composer of recitative.
Rogosnitzky explains, “His greatness was not necessarily as a composer, it was more as an interpreter. He added such flavor and every time there was a high note he would sing it. He took all those pieces, most of which were not his own, and gave them a special interpretation.”
To that end, Cantors World enlisted the services of seven of the best contemporary chazanim — Joseph Malovany, Yitzchok Helfgot, Alberto Mizrahi, Israel Rand, Yaakov Stark, Benzion Miller and Yaakov Motzen — to pay tribute to Koussevitzky.
“What’s special about having seven is that every one is going to bring their own interpretation,” Rogosnitzky concludes. “That’s what Moshe was all about.”
“The Songs of Moshe Koussevitzky,” a concert presented by Cantors World, will take place Sunday, Dec. 12, at 8:15 p.m., at Alice Tully Hall (66th Street and Broadway). Tickets are sold out, but check at the Alice Tully Hall box office for returns. There will also be a live satellite feed at Beth El. For more information phone (718) 851-3226 or (866) 3-CANTOR, or go to www.cantorsworld.com.