Jewish Liturgical Music: The Next Generation
Wed, 09/15/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Shalshelet’s Cantor Ramon Tasat.
Shalshelet’s Cantor Ramon Tasat.

Where are the next great composers of Jewish liturgical music coming from? Who will be the 21st century’s Lewandowski, Carlebach, Friedman, someone whose music will leave an indelible mark on the spiritual growth of Jews in America and across the globe? Needless to say, there is no single answer to those questions, but if anyone is looking harder for the next voice of the Jewish spirit than Cantor Ramon Tasat, we’d like to meet him or her.

The Argentine-born Tasat is a gifted chazan in his own right, but as president of Shalshelet: The Foundation for New Jewish Liturgical Music, he is also an ardent prospector for musical gold. The organization, which was founded in 2003, has staged four international music festivals on a biennial schedule to showcase new compositions. But with its 2010 event, which will take place here, it is stepping onto a larger stage, with plans for even bigger things to come.

“We’ve seen steady growth,” Tasat says. “When we issued the first call for submissions before our 2004 event, we received 157 compositions. I remember thinking, “Maybe that’s all there is out there.’ But for the 2006 and 2008 festivals we received about 300 submissions each, and this year was really incredible — 375 submissions.”

Complicating the task is the openness of their ambition. “We accept solo vocal music, choral music, cantorial music, and people can submit in any format they want, tape, printed, CD,” he says. “Even badly recorded stuff, we try to figure out what it is.”

The composers run the gamut from Orthodox to secular, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, professional musicians and talented hobbyists. There are even occasional submissions from non-Jews. What they have in common is a desire to make music that speaks to the Jewish soul.

What makes for good liturgical music?

Tasat has a simple formula.

“Do the text and the music speak to each other,” he asks. “We try to make sure that the music responds to the phrasing of the text, the subliminal qualities of text respond to the music.”

Shalshelet’s task isn’t over when the curtain comes down on the biannual festival. Like a good matchmaker, the foundation tries to link composers to cantors, choir directors and communities. Most important, it sends out CDs and bound volumes of the sheet music from each festival to cantors around the country.

The response from the cantors has generally been supportive, Tasat says. “They have listened to the music and promoted it among their congregants,” he notes proudly.

And what more could a composer ask than that?

Dec. 4-5: Shalshelet’s 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music, featuring 57 compositions from 40 composers from U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel will be performed in concert and in workshops at Anshe Chesed (251 W. 100th St.). The concert on Dec. 4 will begin at 8:30 p.m.; the workshops the following day will run from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. For more information, go to www.shalshelet.org.