June 6, 2002
Maseng of Many Hats
The multitalented performer is finding ways to innovate Jewish life.
Somebody must have perfected human cloning, because no way is Danny Maseng just one person.
When the singer-songwriter-guitarist-actor-poet-dramatist-lay rabbi-teacher-visionary, who will headline the Fund for Reform Judaism's annual fundraiser at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park on June 13, isn't performing, he may be teaching the Zohar, leading a service at his New York congregation or dashing off a new setting for a passage in Jewish liturgy.
Or he might be working institutionally on innovations in Jewish arts, Jewish worship, Jewish music or Jewish camping.
Maseng , 51, (whose first name is pronounced "Donny") was born in Israel to American parents and jumped onto the fast track as a youngster outside Tel Aviv. Trained in classical guitar as a child, he was playing professionally by age 14 and became a popular singer and actor in Israel while still a teenager, appearing in productions of the Habimah National Theatre.
His first stateside gig was a role in the Broadway production "Only Fools Are Sad" in 1971. Maseng immigrated to the United States in 1975 and worked in theater as an actor, director and designer. In recent years, he's had roles in the "Law & Order" spinoffs and the soap opera "One Life to Live" and has done voice-over narration for documentaries.
Maseng told The Journal he started writing tunes as soon as he started performing as a kid, but didn't get serious about songwriting until the early '80s. "I was always writing music as a singer, but I didn't see myself as a songwriter; it was always about the singing, what sounded good for my voice," he said. One of his early full-length works was a musical titled "Let There Be Light" that never made it into production, but will be released later this year as a concept album.
More recently, he's toured a one-man show called "Wasting Time With Harry Davidowitz." Using the stories of his grandfather, Harry, as a framework, the intimate 90-minute performance traces Maseng's own spiritual journey using homily and song.
After the introspective "Wasting Time," Maseng said, "I wanted to do something big, with big vocal music." The result was "Soul on Fire," which Maseng's Web site describes as "a blend of meditative, uplifting, and ecstatic songs" that form "a musical journey of discovery."
The work combines spoken narration with updated versions of Chasidic, folk and cantorial tunes, as well as Maseng's own compositions (and a song by Irish singer Loreena McKennitt). Maseng may be the first composer to pair the teachings of Reb Nachman of Bratslav with a Zen Buddhist chant.
Maseng started writing liturgical music about three years ago, although his interest in it is not new. "There was something about liturgical music that always spoke to me," he said. Nor was his fascination limited to Jewish music; he said Bach was his favorite composer when he was a youngster.
Although Maseng formed a chamber group to perform liturgical music before he left Israel, he got sidetracked from it for 25 years. Now, he said, "it's literally taken over everything that I've been doing."
Recent commissions from cantors and synagogues include prayer settings, the seven wedding blessings and a Chanukah tune. "For a songwriter to know in advance that your stuff is going to be recorded and paid for is a real luxury," he said.
Maseng is also active in Jewish life on the institutional level. A former arts director at the Reform movement's summer camp in Wisconsin, he's currently the director of the Spielberg Fellowships for the Foundation for Jewish Camping, Inc. He's also a teaching fellow for the worship think-tank Synagogue 2000 and was recently awarded a grant to establish T'hila, the Jewish Arts Institute.
For the past 10 years, he has taught classes in Torah and Jewish mysticism and served as spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim, a Reform synagogue in suburban Westchester County, N.Y.
Maseng's mellifluous, caressing voice, virtuosity on the guitar, eclectic musical styles and multiple talents make him a powerful asset to the forces that are seeking to revitalize Jewish institutional life. But he doesn't seem to have allowed his ego to keep pace with his gifts.
"I don't really believe that human beings create," Maseng told a Vancouver reporter in April. "I believe that God creates, and a person's individual talent is really just special ears or special eyes that have the ability to access something that already exists."
For more information about the Fund for Reform Judaism event, call the Union of American Hebrew Congregations at (323) 653-9962.