By the time Yitzhak Perlman and Cantor Itzhak Meir Helfgott took the stage at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night, August 20, the 16,000 seat amphitheatre was nearly packed.
If you were Jewish, it was friends and neighbors night. There was so much schmoozing and waving, it was easy to mistake the concert for a day in synagogue, or a board meeting.
“This counts for Rosh Hashanah,” a woman told me. “This is instead of going the first day.”
It kind of was. Cantor Helfgott is the virtuoso soloist at the Park Avenue synagogue in Manhattan. He is Orthodox, but no kidding around Orthodox, with the beard, the full black coat and tails, a large black kipa. How religious is he? He is just 40, and already a grandfather.
Perlman is Perlman. Yo Yo Ma. Schindlers List. Every symphony orchestra in the world. And, on occasion, klezmer.
The two were accompanied by members of the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, led by Hankus Netsky. Yes, that’s his name.
Netsky’s not young, but he is far younger than many if not most of the people in the audience. Years ago he took it upon his shoulder to revive and perform the Yiddish repertoire. With Perlman he created the album “Eternal Songs,” on which the concert was based.
The concert was a blend of klezmer dances and liturgical music, Rumanian dances and Psalms. The Shabbas before the wedding, and the party after.
The klezmer was raucous, the crowd was subdued. Maybe it was the classical setting, the members of the L.A. Phil—Perlman called them his “classical mishpocha”—seated in stolid order on the stage. Maybe it was the shifts between party music and prayers. Whatever it was, this was an audience of well-behaved Jews.
They didn’t dance in the aisles. They didn’t stand and dance in their seats. There was no between song toasts with schnapps, no smell of garlic and schmaltz in the air, no sweat, no stomping and no shouts. The music of the shtetl had made it to the big time, and so have we.
Instead of banquet tables of kichel and herring, picnic baskets of chicken breast and white wine. If Cantor Helfgott waved his hands to get the crowd clapping, they followed, but then it died down. They sat, and listened, and applauded when each song was over.
The English translations of the Yiddish and Hebrew words appeared on the giant screens, turning them into the world’s most convenient prayer books.
I couldn’t help but think back to the composers and lyricists of these songs, the original players and singers, half-crazed, half-starved dreamers in their desperate villages, pouring their souls into the music, filling each note with the yearning for safety, for a meal, for Zion, for salvation. Men whose souls burned as bright as the full moon above the Bowl, who would have danced across the chairs, and grabbed and kissed the beautiful clarinetist, in her bright red dress.
But we are well-behaved now, polite. We laughed as Perlman kibitzed.
Netsky described one tune as particularly “catchy.”
“Did you say ‘catchy’ or ‘kvetchy’?” Perlman asked.
“Catchy and kvetchy describes a lot of Jewish music,” Netsky shot back.
The klezmer was catchy, but it didn’t catch. Somewhere between Poland and the Hollywood Hills, we settled down.
Cantor Helfgott;s voice was transcendent, but few seemed t be transported—no tears, no “Oys! No cries of joy.
They ended with “My Yiddishe Mama,” and there was applause, but already people were heading for their cars in the neatly stacked parking. Perlman arrived on stage in an electric scooter and stayed seated in it throughout the performance. He made no pretense of driving off and then back on. With a bit of wicked humor, he told th crowd to imagine there had just been eight curtain calls, and the musicians would consent to an encore.
Then the cantor sang, “Adir Hu,” “Rebuild your house speedily,” he sang, as people began heading home.