Stay for the concert; get pshat in a gemara. That’s not what I expected from the Itzhak Perlman / Yitzchok Meir Helfgot performance Tuesday evening at the Hollywood Bowl, but it was the way it turned out.
On to a stage reserved for one of the world’s premier orchestras as well as top contemporary performers, Chazan Helfgot strode out in bekeshe and white shirt without tie, exactly as he might have emerged from his home in Boro Park. The handful of support artists from the Los Angeles Philharmonic looked on with bemused admiration as the tenor’s voice (Perlman has compared him to Pavarotti and Placido Domingo) filled the famed shell of the Bowl and the mostly full amphitheater beyond. Where did he learn to sing like that? What was this other-worldly presence doing on a stage that usually serves the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Mahler?
(The program notes filled us in on Helfgot’s background, starting with his birth in Bnei Brak. It included many of his most important performances, including one at Madison Square Garden for something called “Siyum HaShas.”)
Perlman, the Israeli virtuoso violinist, had collaborated with Helfgot a few months ago at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to great acclaim, and they had also released a CD together. To West Coast snobs, this was a step up. No basketball team plays at the Hollywood Bowl. The Bowl is for music – iconic music.
They did not disappoint the crowd, which did not seem particularly Jewish. To be sure, there was a larger frum cohort in attendance than usual. We had a pretty strong minyan for maariv during intermission. But the vast majority of the crowd showed the same diversity as on other nights.
The Klezmer Conservatory Band led off with a vigorous instrumental, followed by the first Perlman/Helfgot piece, with was Shmelky Brazil’s “Shalom Aleichem.” For perhaps the first time, the City of Angels welcomed the real malachim; the crowd rocked to their presence.
Those angels must have been pleased. The Hollywood Bowl turned into a classroom, instructing LA’s upper-crust about Shabbos. The high-def big screens captured every expression on the faces of the two main performers, as well as the other musicians. But they also provided translations of the lyrics of all the songs. What they could not convey was covered by the banter before each selection between the Klezmer Band’s Jewish conductor, and a delighted and delightful Perlman. (Just how many times do Jews recite Yismechu Bemalchusechah on Shabbos morning? Unfortunately, both of them got it wrong.)
My favorite from their repertoire is the Berditchiver Rebbe’s “A Dudele,” whose lyrics I find to be beyond profound. It sent a chill down my spine to sit among thousands of people who were being challenged to grasp the mystery and majesty of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. (Where are You? Where are You not? You are above; You are below. Wherever I am, You are…)
The audience was sent back to cheder for the duration of the performance. It encountered yearnings for the Beis HaMikdosh (Yismechu Bemalchusechah and Sheyiboneh Beis HaMikdosh ); the modern-classic paean to the Jewish mother, including its firm belief in olam habo (A Yiddishe Mama; maybe not so politically correct in front of all those non-Jews, but what can you do?); and the deep belief in and longing for moshiach, as well as the assumed familiarity of all Jews with the Tehilim they would recite upon his arrival (Shofar Shel Moshiach; the French horn, we were told, would do both tekiah and teruah).
I ran into a prominent Conservative rabbi, who seemed to be having a good time, despite the frequent references to outdated notions like Temple offerings which his denomination rejects.
The crowd had to be fascinated by Perlman. I assume that most came to be in the company of the superstar. Besides the sheer beauty of his music, they had to be impressed with how much he was enjoying being in a Jewish element, how he was relating to both the music and the content of the lyrics.
I hung on to one line of the Shofar Shel Moshiach piece. (It was written for the Zionist Congress of 1897, and later called the Yiddish Hatikvah. Yossele Rosenblatt sang it in the ‘30’s as he toured Palestine.) The song describes a Dovid HaMelech, rising from the grave, holding the shofar with which moshiach’s arrival would be announced. Dovid also has his fiddle, and plays a song of Jewish rebirth and commitment to the living G-d. Here is the line in the original: Un Dovid vet shpiln oyf zayn fidele un vet zingen dos lidele.
Can Dovid do justice to the occasion with one primitive instrument? (OK, it takes a Litvak to think of questions like this, but hear me out.) Who will his drummer be? Shouldn’t he trade in the simple fiddle for an acoustic guitar – and amplified sound?
Aren’t we all too spoiled by over-the-top experiences of mind-bending sound and light combinations to get excited by a simple fiddle?
When we learn the gemara about the songs of the Leviim, do we get skeptical? Poor Chazal. Their sense of music and drama was so impoverished. If they had ever watched a 3D film on IMAX, they wouldn’t have been so excited. Nothing that the ancients did in the days before technology can compare with the thrill of what we have today at our fingertips.
In fact, isn’t this a dilemma we face as a community? We try to find wholesome activities for our kids, but can anything compete with the excitment of a professionally produced video game? How many rabbeim in the primary grades can generate anything as interesting as what their charges are watching at home?
A reviewer in the LA Times questioned why this concert was part of the Classic Tuesday series. Klezmer music and zemiros are hardly part of the classical music repertoire. Maybe so, but Itzhak Perlman demonstrated what they share. What makes music “classical” rather than contemporary is the assumption of timelesness, of the finding that something very old still stirs people, still gives them pleasure even when they have moved on to other forms. In the hands of a Perlman, even a Yiddish song of a genre unfamiliar to much of the audience resonated deeply. Perlman can make his violin – his fiddle – come alive.
So will Dovid, bimheirah beyameinu. And so will the Leviim, when the Bais HaMikdosh is rebuilt.
The concert did not end with the last listed song. They performed a long encore, beginning with Shlomo Carlebach’s Adir Hu, and transitioning to the perfect way to end the evening.
As many thousands stood to leave, they began walking to the words “Moshe emes, v’soroso emes.”
If only they knew.