On June 14, will host a 20th anniversary musical tribute to Joseph Ness, the synagogue’s cantor, musical director and teacher of its bar and bat mitzvah candidates. The gala celebration will include a performance by the Grammy Award-winning Pacifica Quartet and a special tribute from alumnus and composer, pianist and improviser, Gregg Kallor.
It promises to be an evening of wonderful music and heartfelt gratitude for Ness, who has inspired many people with his music over the past 20 years. “Actually,” Ness confesses, “I have been at Beth El for 21 years.” At the suggestion that perhaps he only looks like he’s been there 20, Ness joked, “I don’t know how old I look, but I’m very young in terms of maturity...”
For those who know this warm and charming man and his storied musical career, his self-mocking statement could not be further from the truth. Born in Brooklyn and raised all over the country as a result of his father’s educational career, Ness comes from a long line of musical people.
His father played the piano and composed music. His mother was a Holocaust survivor and always enjoyed singing. Her father and uncles were all cantors. Ness earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Manhattan School of Music.
Feeling the familial pull of cantorial music, he went on to study at The Jewish Theological Center, one of only three schools on the Eastern seaboard that trains cantors.
Over the years, he has composed, conducted, orchestrated and arranged hundreds of pieces of music spanning both the liturgical and concert genres. He has been commissioned by many orchestras and ensembles, including the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Milwaukee Symphony, Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir and The Group for Contemporary Music.
Closer to home, his annual Beth El Music and Arts concert series, featuring major musicians and singer from around the world, is attended by people from all over the greater Hartford area. During his tenure at the synagogue, he has cultivated a tradition of cultural outreach, determined to bring high-quality musical concerts not just to the congregation, but to the entire community.
Patch spoke with Cantor Ness recently about his musical career and being a cantor, his vision for Beth El’s music program, and his deep appreciation for the music of Wagner.
Ness confirmed that the word “cantor” is probably descended from the Latin word “to sing.” “In Hebrew, the word is ‘hazzan.’ There are five schools in the country that are cantorial schools,” states Ness. “All of these schools also teach rabbis. For cantors, the emphasis is on learning music but there is also theological study – the bible, the Talmud. You certainly need that background. The cantor program will give you a stronger dose of music. The rabbis study only theology. They will not study the music.”
Music has always been in Ness’ life from his earliest memories. “We always had classical music in our house. That was the only music we listened to – Beethoven symphonies and that kind of stuff.”
While most people associate cantors with traditional liturgical singing, Ness’ training and education have led him to being a more eclectic, multi-faceted musician, which enriches his secular activities of conducting, composing and orchestrating.
“I get commissioned 99 percent of the time from cantors who want to do a concert with a piece that maybe was originally for vocal or piano and they want to have an orchestral version. Orchestrations are very different from compositions. Orchestrations I can do with one hand tied behind my back. Composition involves much more concentration for me – and dedication. Quite frankly, I wish I could do more of it.”
The 57-year-old Ness studied under renowned contemporary composer Charles Wuorinen while at Manhattan School of Music, a time of his life on which he reflects in practically reverential tones. Yet through the years he has struggled to have to observe a decline in interest in classical music.
He is saddened by what he calls the “tremendously unhealthy situation” of many of today’s orchestras, as many ensembles of every size fight to stay financially viable. He attributes this in part to the troubled economy but he’s also aware of the shift in the pop culture world for the younger generations, who seem more engaged in hip-hop and sports and are rarely exposed to serious music, much less encouraged to study piano and violin.
Ness has done a remarkable job of continuing a tradition of broad, enriching cultural outreach at Beth El, assisted and facilitated by the Gloria Goldenberg Music and & Lecture Series Endowment Fund.
“Gloria is like a second mother to me. She is a wonderful woman who sang in the choir for years. She has always supported me in the kind of things I do.”
Ness has assembled an orchestra of 55 musicians and has programmed highly varied and intellectually probing programs. Audiences have heard 18th century music; Serial modernists such as Schoenberg and Berg; American works by Carter, Babbitt, and Ness’s teacher, Wuorinen; Russian works by, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Kabalevsky; and more traditional staples such as works of Beethoven and Mozart. Interspersed among these concerts are rarities and treats such as Spanish Sephardic pieces and others written by Russian cantor composers.
Ness is proud to acknowledge the rigorous cultural exploration at Beth El, descended from the traditional curiosity and diversity of the Jewish community at large. “As far as I know, ours is the only synagogue in the world that has an orchestra that performs regularly. I have a core of people and it’s embarrassing what I pay them, which is next to nothing – but they come back and I’m eternally grateful for that.”
Ness never expected to be able to form and sustain an orchestra when he came to Beth El, and he realizes a few limitations here and there. “We’re never going to be big enough to perform Bruckner,” who was an Austrian composer of symphonies for very large orchestras, greatly influenced by Wagner. Yet it is Wagner’s music that Ness describes as his musical “religion,” while acknowledging that Wagner’s rabid anti-Semitism still causes controversy, and performances were, until very recently, unofficially banned by the Israel Philharmonic.
Ness points out the struggles of Jewish communities, living in shtetls, frequently unable to get exposure to other music – and unable to enjoy acceptance as Jews. He observed that Gustav Mahler had to convert to Catholicism before attaining a directorship of the Vienna State Opera near the turn of the 20th century.
Ness will continue to bring the best quality of musical diversity and performance he can to Beth El. “Many times, people hear Jewish music with an out-of-tune piano and a clarinet, and sometimes a cantor who can’t sing in tune, either.”
Next December, Ness will present an evening of Brahms concerti. One surmises that everyone will be in tune.