Memorable Sephardic cantors put on remarkable concert at home of Cantor Louis Danto’s Ashkenazi musical library
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Perhaps one of the best Jewish music events anywhere in the Diaspora during the 2004-05 Season was the Sons of Sepharad concert last week at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue. The concert, featuring some of the world’s greatest Sephardic cantors, took place in the home of Toronto’s most scholarly headquarters of Ashkenazi music and poetry: the Cantor Louis Danto Musical Library, which contains authentic sheet music and poetry from more than 500 years of Yiddish culture.
Cantor Marshall Loomis, president of the Toronto Council of Chazzanim, formally dedicated the Cantor Louis Danto Library with a cheque from the council presented to Louis Danto, the great European-trained bel canto tenor who was also one of the world’s foremost Jewish musicologists and who served Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda for nearly 30 years. Danto’s successor is Moroccan-born cantor Aaron Bensoussan, who has performed all over the world, including Carnegie Hall in New York, the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem Theatre. Bensoussan assembled a team of five world-class Sephardic cantors and musicians to present a concert, which thrilled a capacity audience. The star performers included Greek-born cantor Alberto Mizrahi, currently at Chicago’s Anshe Emeth Synagogue; Casablanca-born cantor Gerard Edery, who has performed everywhere from Morocco to Vilna to New York’s Lincoln Center; George Mgrdichian, who has been credited with taking the Oud (a Mideastern mandolin, but with a sharper sound) from the cabaret to the concert stage; French-born Emmanuel Mann, one of Israel’s top bass players and one of the best jazz bassists anywhere; and drum virtuoso Rex Benincasa.
The concert featured four original liturgical compositions by Bensoussan, including the exciting Yibane Hamikidash whose patriotic text reads: “We shall rebuild the Temple in the city of Zion to fulfill our dream. We will sing a new song and with the song, shall arise the Temple.” Also memorable was Bensoussan’s Sim Shalom near the end of the concert, which began with a five-part unaccompanied vocal slow beginning before entering a major-key fast segment. Not all of the selections were religious. Much to the concert’s credit, several classic songs from the golden age of Spanish Jewry were featured. These are love songs with often sophisticated themes such as one of the most famous Sephardic romantic ballads: the bittersweet Adio Querida, performed by Edery. Mizrahi, early in the concert, performed Yo M’emamori D’un Aire, a slow ballad contrasting night-moonlight with daytime love. The songs, many of them 800 years old, blend major- and minor-key moods with frequently original harmonies, which sound uniquely beautiful today.
There were fast instrumental selections such as the Turkish dance, which combined various Mideastern Jewish motifs with jazz bass lines and drum solos. Frequently, the entire capacity audience clapped along and sang the prayers, which were made even more contemporary by both Benincasa’s exciting drum backups and Bensoussan’s exuberance in arousing the audience to participate.
Special praise is due to concert committee chairman Marty Wolfe who was publicly acclaimed for putting together this concert, which combined a scholarly selection of Sephardic religious and secular-romantic classic songs with a joyous performance, which frequently evoked standing ovations. Truly a memorable evening.