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10th Cantors Convention - Leeds

Reflections on the 10th Annual European Cantors Convention, hosted by the Leeds Jewish Community, June 2015. 

Malcolm Miller

Ideas expressed in the academic conference, such as the importance of a balance of traditional nusach (prayer chant) and cantorial singing, with innovation, came to life in the ensuing 10th Annual European Cantors Convention, which was held at the United Hebrew Congregation in Leeds. 

The convention programme was organised by Hirsh Cashdan, working with Cantors Alby Chait, Anthony Gilbert and Yossi Saunders of Leeds) supported by the ECA team of Alex Klein, ECA Convenor (Manchester) Geraldine Auerbach MBE and Barbara Rosenberg.

Connecting the two events was a splendid cantorial Shabbat hosted by the Leeds Jewish Community, including a special appearance by Cantor Elli Jaffe, Choirmaster of the Great Synagogue, Jerusalem, who inspired congregations with his stirring performances of cantorial ‘classics’ by Rosenblatt and Glantz at the UHC Shadwell Lane and Etz Chaim synagogues.  

Aspiring and more experienced cantors from Budapest, Prague, Toronto, New York, Tel-Aviv, Leeds, Manchester and London, gathered to learn from Professors Schleifer and Kligman who participated in the distinguished faculty alongside Cantors Eliyahu Greenblatt and Elli Jaffe from Israel.

Jaffe’s impressive ‘nusach’ lecture-demonstrations illustrated the importance of conveying the rich meanings of Hebrew prayers through artful patterning of melody, phrasing and embellishment.

Together with a Gala Cantorial concert at the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue in Street Lane, the convention as a whole demonstrated the continuing vigour and impetus of the cantorial art, and its potential to respond to contemporary tastes. It also highlighted the enriching value of scholarly research about ‘The Music of Jewish Prayer’, and of projects such as ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ for current and future generations.

Philip Holmes, Manchester

The 10th annual European Cantors' Convention followed on from the first International Conference "Magnified and Sanctified, The music of Jewish prayer", which was held over four days at the university of Leeds.

The Cantors Convention was a fine opportunity for those of us with an interest in Cantorial and Jewish Liturgical music to meet for more intensive exploration of the art of the leader of prayer, studying alongside Cantors from as far afield as Budapest, New York, Toronto, Prague, Los Angeles, Leeds, Jerusalem and even Manchester!       

The two events segued perfectly into one another, with a wonderful shared Shabbat inbetween. First we were treated to a fine Kabbalat Shabbat lead by Minister, Cantor Alby Chait at the United Hebrew Congregation followed by dinner, and then for and all day Shabbat at the Etz Chaim Synagogue, led by Rabbi Kopperman and Cantor Anthony Gilbert, both with the participation of the remarkable Cantor Elli Jaffe, choir master of the Great Synagogue, Jerusalem.

Shabbat also included several droshas and a Seudah Shlishit as well as the Batmitzvah of the brave Mimi, who had lost her father a mere two days previously. This was handled with the utmost sensitivity - surely a fine example, and a challenge to us all, on a day set aside for reflection and recuperation. The emotions of this day stay with me.
The convention proper started on Sunday with a detailed session, (after an early Shacharit), by Rabbi/Cantor Anthony Gilbert, tracing the roots and lineage of his various cantorial predecessors. It proved a veritable history of Judaism in Leeds, and Anglo-Jewry in general. Rabbi Gilbert used his considerable oratorial skills to good effect to both inform and entertain.
Then we got erudite and recondite! Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv, Nusach and Compositions with the marvellous Elli Jaffe – conductor of orchestras and the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir.

I could listen to him all day. What knowledge, experience, musicianship, sense of fun and humour, all brilliantly illustrated at the piano, and with great vocal skill and dexterity. (He claims to be "no cantor"). What a privilege to be in that small group and witness that outpouring of knowledge and experience. For me, to see and hear, with the benefit of well prepared scores (l have no Hebrew, and a wholly secular background, but l do read music) this wonderful music, broken down, illustrated and performed, l liken it to walking from a darkened room into a lily-filled garden. Such was the insight and clarity he gave.
It didn't end there. It all went from strength to strength. The second Eli, Greenblatt, again hugely experienced, with wonderfully through-composed scores, added clarity, wisdom, insight.
Mark Kligman's talk on the Syrian traditions tied in well with his Keynote lecture on the Sephardic traditions from the previous week, and general contributions from all delegates added to improving all our knowledge. I am certain we can all say that we now know more than we knew before, much was indeed ‘Magnified and Sanctified’.

David Nemtzov, with his quirky take on life as a great Chazzan, and his claim to be the oldest man in Leeds!  He's only 76 for crying out loud – younger I’m sure, than Eliyahu Greenblatt. But all added to the variety, flavour and lightened the event, giving some truly memorable moments of intellectual discourse, peppered with good natured banter, and some disagreement.
Much was added to all the featured talks by the remarkable Professor Eliyahu Schleifer. Described earlier in the week to me by one of his former pupils, as "the Mensch". His gentle but firm assertions of his interpretations of all topics, on which he was supremely knowledgeable, and l have no doubt of his authority, brought measured understanding, which he was patiently willing to explain at length to those of us with gaps in our education. His own presentation on the Kabbalistic interpretation of Kabbalat Shabbat was both enlightening and amazing. Again, it was such a pleasure and a privilege to be in the company of such a fine man. 

A relaxed open mic session on Sunday night, provided great light-hearted relief, with heartfelt contributions from the ever entertaining New Yorker, Leslie Rimer, always quick with a joke. (The old ones are the best ones!) and O Sole Mio from the mighty Hungarians, Greg and Emmanuel. Their voices filled the room, and l played a rocky piano whilst Elli Jaffe turned the pages. All good fun.

A highlight was the Gala concert at the magnificent Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue.  Their Cantor Yossi Saunders charming introduced the guest cantors Greenblatt and Jaffe as well as the locals himself and Alby Chait and some of our guests such as the large voiced Hungarians. The choir of United Hebrew Congregation under Phil Cammerman, who also played clarinet in the local Klezmer group rounded off the evening in splendid style.

Local Chazzanim Yossi Saunders and Alby Chait had their spots. Alby gave a superb talk on the role and responsibilities of a busy Cantor in a community today in Leeds explaining his religious and pastoral duties, listening to and ministering to "the Jew in the pew". These able young men are to be applauded.

Former distinguished cantor of Leeds, David Apfel gave a superb and entertaining session on Shabbat afternoon, on the advice he was given (by his father) or what to do and what not to do as a chazzan – equally applicable today as in his youth.
Finally, all of this would not have been possible without the superb diplomacy and organisational skills of Hirsh Cashdanwho patiently made sure that everyone was doing what was required at the correct time. He calmly made sure that all ran as smoothly as possible, and kept us all in line and informed of events and changes as they inevitably took place. An unenviable job carried out with great aplomb. Thank you Hirsh.

Also none of this would have happened without the amazing work and dedication of Alex, Geraldine, and Barbara. We have no idea what stresses and strains there might have been, but these four fine people made a great event for all participants.                                           

What they said about it......       

Very warm educational opportunity for learning and networking
Robert Marks, cantor, Manchester

All the sessions were well organised and informative
Yehuda Marx, cantor, Manchester

Very positive and very informative
David Nemtzov, Cantor, Toronto

Transcendent! Please continue your work in sustaining cantorial music and presenting a high level of knowledge, scholarship and wisdom.  If you are doing it now, it’s not the ‘sounds of yesteryear’
Lucy Fisher, London 

A positive learning intellectual experience
Philip Holmes, Manchester

Very positive, outstanding lecturers including talks on how to engage with our congregations.
Binyamin Bar,  Minister Southend

Good atmosphere and again I learned a lot
Raphael Rod, Student cantor Prague                                                                 

Updated 20th December 2015