Cantors' Comeback

David Montefiore's mission: preserving Jewish liturgical music

The first thing you notice about David Montefiore is that he's an operatic tenor. Not that he bursts into Mozart arias while sipping coffee at Starbucks (although he will illustrate a point by singing some stray passage in a voice scaled down to avoid disturbing strangers). But he has that tenor personality--outgoing, self-assured, voluble, full of stories about himself and much else besides.

The second thing you notice is that he's cosmopolitan. His hard-to-place accent carries the vaguest suggestion of England (where he was born) and a stronger whiff of the more cultured parts of New York City (where he was raised), and, completely without affectation, he manages to pepper his conversation with bits of Italian, French and Argentine Spanish.

The third thing you notice, something that is apparent from the beginning and soon becomes the dominant aspect of his character, is that Montefiore's greatest passion is neither Mozart nor his own golden throat, but the traditions and performance of Jewish liturgical music. Indeed, he worked in Buenos Aires not as an opera singer but as a cantor in a synagogue.

Montefiore has organized and serves as the executive director of the Cantors' Conservatory. Operating out of the historic Stone Avenue Temple, the Cantors' Conservatory was established this year to maintain an archive of traditional Jewish liturgical music and manuscripts (including the extensive collection of Montefiore's father), use this material to groom student cantors or established professionals in the art of applying bel canto style to synagogue singing, and demonstrate such singing in public performances.

Bel canto, which simply means "beautiful singing," is the vocal manner associated with Italian opera during the first half of the 19th century, before the more dramatic, forceful roles in the works of Wagner and later the Italian verismo or realist composers at the turn of the 20th century required singers to belt out arias like highbrow Ethel Mermans.

It's also the vocal manner associated with cantorial singing until the Holocaust and the years immediately leading to it caused a terrible rupture with the old traditions. Not only were millions of people destroyed, but so were entire libraries of their music.

Meanwhile, in America, many of the greatest voices were departing the synagogue for opera and Broadway stages; Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce are the two best-known examples. And then came what is in Montefiore's opinion the coup de grace--"This movement to create an American liturgical tradition based on Peter, Paul and Mary. In that mesclun of 'Kumbaya' there was no room for fine music," he says. "At the same time, we had the ideology of empowerment--people want to sing along in the service, so you have to give them something easy that they can handle. But if you turn it into a sing-along, the more difficult works of this divinely inspired music fall by the wayside. There should be a better mix.

"Along the way," he says, "we lost the necessary chauvinism, the belief in our culture, that would preserve the traditions of our music, because it was not being nurtured and served up appropriately.

"Then, with society changing and fewer people coming to synagogues, they turned to shtick--fancy slogans and rock bands--in order to interest the youth. The parents, meanwhile, knew nothing about their tradition.

"If we want our culture to survive as a bona fide culture born out of hundreds of years of practice, we'd better not look in the trash heaps but revisit the Jewish manuscripts," he declares. "For Jewish culture, we need to do the equivalent of the 'Mozart Effect,' where you make babies smarter and happier by playing them Mozart in the womb. We need to connect all those synapses that trigger in the Jew the pride and emotion and spirituality of our traditions."

Don't get the idea, though, that Montefiore believes Jews need to isolate and insulate themselves from the rest of the world. To the contrary. Montefiore has long been involved in ecumenical programs; this past January, he was part of a Jewish delegation that sang at the Vatican; he got a kiss and a medal from the Pope himself. Montefiore had no problem doing this despite the Vatican's poor track record, to put it mildly, on Jewish issues through the middle of the last century.

"If there's a good wind blowing," he says, "you should move your rudder and catch that wind in your sails. If somebody wants to extend a hand to us, we should take it."

Here in Tucson, he's about to present a series of performances in three different places of worship, a program called "The Art of the Oratorio." The concert features Nova Cantica Hebraica, consisting of himself, Texas-based cantor and operatic soprano Marie Betcher and mezzo Susan Lubin, with Jeffrey Campbell at the organ. The Pima Community College Orchestra, under the direction of Alexander Tentser, will also perform.

They'll offer music of the 18th century by the likes of Handel, Bach and Mozart. Christians all, you might note, but the texts used in the excerpts to be sung here are drawn from the Old Testament.

"We don't only do Jewish music for Jews," notes Montefiore. But the style of singing displayed in these items is exactly what he hopes to foster among more of today's cantors, the messengers of prayer.