When he talks about Jewish music, Netanel Hershtik uses a word that one doesn’t usually hear from a musician preparing for an upcoming concert: mission. .
Given that he is a 14th-generation cantor — no, that is not a typo; his family can trace its history of hazanut back that far — the idea of singing Jewish music as a “mission” may not seem incongruous, but the intensity with which he speaks of it informs you instantly that Hershtik is not merely paying lip service. He firmly believes in it.
His impassioned and immensely skilled singing, which will get a much-deserved showcase at the Museum at Eldridge Street on Dec. 2, further proves his point.
“Standing in that synagogue [at Eldridge Street], it’s a mission for me,” Hershtik said in a telephone interview last week. “I have a job to do in this world, to bring [classical hazanut] to the world. I don’t know if there is a music in the world that has more ancient roots.”
Doing so in a concert venue is, he admits, a slightly different experience than he faces as cantor for the Hampton Synagogue.
“For me to stand in front of an audience is a challenge,” the 34-year-old Hershtik said. “The most natural place for me is the amud [prayer leader’s desk]. I was raised singing in synagogue and this is the way I’m used to doing it, facing the ark, with my eyes closed. I don’t look at the people [praying] but I’m aware of them. Everyone is thinking the same thought and I’m trying to evoke that emotion for everyone. I’m not performing, I’m praying.”
It is expected that he will be facing the audience at his upcoming concert, which is co-presented by Pro Musica Hebraica, an organization dedicated to the revival of Jewish music from the classical tradition. Co-founded by Charles and Robyn Krauthammer, Pro Musica Hebraica has produced semi-annual concerts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for a half-dozen years and is now expanding its reach to include New York City.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer, is delightfully candid about his role as the group’s chairman of the board.
“My wife [Robyn] is the one who really knows the music,” he confided in a telephone interview from his Washington office last week. “We have an artistic committee that includes [conductor] James Conlon, [historian and pianist] James Loeffler and Simon Wynberg, who is the artistic director of the ARC Ensemble.
“I’m the barker outside the carnival tent,” he said with a laugh about his usual role in the concerts. “Come and see the dancing ladies, right here on our main stage!”
However, this concert, with its focus on classical hazanut, is a notable exception.
“This is the one time I’ve been involved in programming an event,” Krauthammer said. “This is the music of my childhood, and I’ve worked with Netanel in picking the material for the concert. This is my comfort zone.”
Hershtik is generous in his praise for Pro Musica Hebraica and its founders.
“I admire Charles and Robyn for their feeling that they want to educate people about this music,” he said. “They’re bringing cantorial music to the Kennedy Center [on Dec. 6]. The majority of the people who go there are not people who traditionally go to shul; they’ll be exposed to music they’ve never heard. So it’s kind of an experiment, to see how people respond to such an ancient music. I admire the courage it takes to bring this kind of music to people who are not used to it.”
The Eldridge Street audience, by contrast, should be a bit more familiar with the golden age of cantorial singing. The first hazan at Kahal Adath Jeshurun, the congregation that once occupied the building, was Pinchas Minkowsky, a legendary Russian-born cantor. Because he left behind no recordings, Minkowsky’s name is not as well known as those of Yossele Rosenblatt or Moshe Koussevitzky, but if he has his way, Hershtik will remedy that.
“We’re not performing his music [on Dec. 2], but preparing for this concert introduced me to him, and the Krauthammers asked me to research his work,” the cantor said. “We wanted to present a picture of the whole cantorial tradition, so we will perform established pieces of music, some well-known, some less well-known. But I’m going to take up that research myself. I’m planning on publishing a lot of his music and giving it to the public in recordings as well.”
Consider it another part of Netanel Hershtik’s musical mission.
“From Psalm to Lamentation: A Concert of Cantorial Masterpieces,” featuring Cantor Netanel Hershtik, the Hampton Synagogue Choir and the Amernet String Quartet, takes place Dec. 2, at 3 p.m., at the Museum at the Eldridge Street Synagogue (12 Eldridge St.). For information call (212) 219-0888, or go to http://www.eldridgestreet.org. For more information on Pro Musica Hebraica (including streaming versions of their previous concerts) go to http://promusicahebraica.org.