We are only one month away from The Most Beautiful Selichot service at Park East Synagogue. Chief Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot has stunned audiences with his powerhouse voice leaving everyone feeling inspired. One individual’s perspective of this most astonishing performance could be considered the “best seat in the house.” This is reserved for the talented Maestro Russell Ger, who gives us an inside look into what it means to conduct such a historical service.
How long have you worked with Park East Synagogue as a conductor?
I started at Park East towards the end of 2011, so I have been there for more than a decade.
What makes Park East Synagogue’s Selichot service so special?
I think that the quality of the voices and musicianship of the singers is totally unique in the Jewish world. I have conducted many choirs in Australia, Canada, and the USA, and Park East is a cut above the rest. Cantor Helfgot has an instrument that is exceptional for its power, range, and stamina and so any ensemble that performs with him has to be top-notch. That special combination of his voice matched with a superb choir is something to behold.
Do you have a meaningful moment from a previous year’s service you would like to recall and share?
The first time we rehearsed Halben in 2013 was very special because Cantor Benny had asked me only a few days beforehand to create a brand new arrangement of this beautiful piece. (I think it had only existed as a cantorial work with organ accompaniment.) The choir sight read my challenging arrangement with characteristic aplomb. I complimented them and said that very few choirs could read something like that at sight. I said I was very proud to work with them. Cantor Helfgot then said he was proud that Park East had a choirmaster who could compose an arrangement like that in a couple of days. So when we performed it for the first time a couple of days later, [we] all felt part of something special.
How would you describe Cantor Helfgot’s take on the repertoire usually performed for this service?
Cantor Helfgot is a throwback to the golden age of Chazzanut, where many Cantors were classically trained tenors with great range and power.
During the service, how are you feeling as you conduct the choir and Cantor Helfgot?
Having done the Selichot service with Cantor Helfgot more than ten times, I know how he phrases and breathes and shapes everything. This gives me the freedom to be very present and spontaneously respond to whatever he is doing vocally and musically. My favorite is when the music does what is called “tone painting,” where the composer paints the text in sound – for example, there is a phrase in Shma Koleinu “Al tashlicheinu milfanecha”, where the prayer beseeches Hashem not to cast us out from His presence. The word milfanecha – “Your presence” – is written up very high and loud for the whole choir, which creates the sense of celestial majesty of G-d’s being. I always find moments like this stirring and uplifting.