Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Photo/Dario Acosta)
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Photo/Dario Acosta)

Oaklander explores the ‘revolution’ of cantorial music

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, these are the best of times. Even with the pandemic still simmering, he’s been traveling far and wide introducing himself on some of the world’s most august stages. Reached by phone in Switzerland, he was getting set for his Zurich Opera House debut singing Monteverdi’s “Madrigals” in the world premiere of a ballet choreographed by Christian Spuck. In May, he is set to make his Metropolitan Opera debut in the U.S. premiere of Brett Dean’s ”Hamlet,” performing the role of Rosencrantz.

The more he travels, the more the Oakland-based Cohen values opportunities to perform in the Bay Area, and that often means collaborating with the S.F.-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, where he’s been a mainstay in recent years. On March 10, he will return to his liturgical roots for “Cantorial (Re)Volutions,” the season’s concluding program in the PBO’s innovative Jews & Music initiative. The concert-lecture at the JCC of San Francisco will focus on the history of cantorial music, an evolution Cohen will explore alongside Congregation Emanu-El’s Cantor Emeritus Roslyn Barak.

The program includes liturgical settings such as Max Janowski’s “Avinu Malkeinu” and Handel’s “O Lord, whose Mercies numberless” and “How Green Our Fertile Pastures Look,” from “Saul” and “Solomon,” respectively. Ideally contoured for Cohen’s voice, they’re pieces that have become signature works for the countertenor,  a range often described as androgynous. For Cohen, 28, the program offers “a nice encapsulation of the music that brought me to singing, the music I find most enjoyable and meaningful. A lot of singers grow up singing in church. That was my story, but in shul and synagogue.”

Launched by the PBO and UC Berkeley Jewish studies and music scholar Francesco Spagnolo in 2015, the Jews & Music program has illuminated Jewish music’s fascinating feedback loop between sacred and secular settings. With its focus on the evolving role of liturgical performance, “Cantorial (Re)Volutions” illustrates themes that have preoccupied Spagnolo. His research has led him into 17th-century Italian ghettos “working on the idea that the synagogues were public spaces that attracted large audiences, where people came to hear the music that Jews were making,” Spagnolo said.

Spagnolo has found that the audiences included many non-Jews, including important early Baroque composers, turning synagogues into “sites of multicultural encounters,” he said. It’s a perspective that places the Baroque canon in a different light, while also offering “a chance to continue to think in more modern terms about the relationship between the synagogue and the stage. For ‘Cantorial (Re)Volutions’ there are selections presented by both musicians that span the classical cantorial repertoire to more contemporary cantorial compositions, Yiddish art songs and also opera. We’re taking stock of all of this.”

Simply bringing Cohen and Barak together for a musical encounter generates its own wonderful frisson. While Cohen started singing in synagogue as an adolescent and made his way to opera halls, Barak’s journey followed the opposite path, from her conservatory training as an opera singer to her status as one of the most esteemed cantorial voices in America.

Cantor Emeritus Roslyn Barak
Cantor Emeritus Roslyn Barak

Barak plans on presenting an array of material “that reflects the things I’ve done in my career,” she said. Selections will include a Yiddish art song by Lazar Weiner, a Ladino song reflecting her mixed Sephardic-Ashkenazi heritage, an aria from Mascagni’s Jewish-themed opera “L’amico Fritz,” Debbie Friedman’s “You Are the One,” and also “something by one of the great contemporary synagogue composers, Ben Steinberg,” she said.

Of Cohen, Barak said, “Aryeh is a consummate artist, really a star now. And he’s a lovely guy. I think it’ll be fun to do this program with him, though we’re still working out the details.”

In many ways, Cohen literally discovered his voice in a neighborhood Brooklyn synagogue where he filled in for an assistant cantor on maternity leave on Yom Kippur (no pressure!). The senior cantor made him a recording so he could memorize the traditional melodies, or misinai, and he was charged with chanting the entire Amidah, “which meant freely choosing these melodies that God passed on at Mount Sinai, and I practiced everything in my ‘man’ voice, the way I thought I should sound.”

There was one prayer he chanted in the voice that felt most natural, which, in hindsight, he realized was in the countertenor range, though at that point he didn’t know the term. “I wanted to sing one piece in the voice that I was most comfortable with and when I came off the bimah the cantor said, ‘What did you do for that one prayer? Can you do that on everything?’”

He’d prepared everything in a lower range, so he declined, but the next year Cohen embraced the countertenor sound, and that’s where he’s lived vocally ever since. No matter where he performs, he takes the synagogue with him, connecting and interpreting melodic phrases through the filter of missinai.

“People will tell me, you’re so musical,” Cohen said. “Well, I spent my formative teenage years chanting the traditional way, using traditional Jewish scales, musical modes that can sound like klezmer. My job was to shape the text and those modes and bring out the most meaningful experience for the listeners and for me. That developed my musicality. I’m fortunate to be traveling all over. This fall I’m debuting in Moscow and Amsterdam. But to this day I love singing this music.”

Jews & Music: Cantorial (Re)Volutions

8-9:30 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at JCCSF’s Kanbar Hall, 3200 California St., S.F. $25, registration required.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.