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Cantors’ Concert: Golden Ages – hasidic revival of cantorial music in Brooklyn


Jeremiah Lockwood (pianino, organ), cantor Yaakov Lemmer (vocal), cantor Shimi Miller (vocal), cantor Yoel Kohn (vocal) 
Airis String Quartet: Aleksandra Czajor-Kowalska (1st violin), Grażyna Zubik (2nd violin), Malwina Tkaczyk (viola), Mateusz Mańka (cello)

In today’s Brooklyn, there is a remarkable music revival bubbling with life, hidden away from view of most music fans. It is located in communities in Williamsburg and Borough Park, and its key players are young Chassidic singers.

In the ultra-Orthodox community, older forms of Jewish music have largely been displaced by pop-music that sounds a lot like what you would hear on the mainstream radio, but with lyrics in Yiddish or prayer book Hebrew, tailored to pious religious themes.

A small but vibrant group of young singers have taken up the style of pre-World War Two cantorial music as their art form of choice, performing tracks recorded almost a century ago as their key repertoire. While some of these singers grew up in families with elder cantors they could learn from, other artists discovered the music directly from old records. In what might look to outsiders like an environment that discourages self-expression, these artists delve into the past to find their own expressive style. Produced by scholar and musician Jeremiah Lockwood, and featuring Yanky Lemmer, Shimmy Miller and Yoel Kohn, three of the key voices of the Chassidic cantorial music scene, Golden Ages is a celebration of new sounds culled from the hidden sonic world of “golden age” cantorial music.

Presenting Golden Ages at Krakow Jewish Culture Festival is important for my artistic career in that it will offer me an opportunity to demonstrate how archival and ethnographic research can be directly channelled into important new creative endeavors. Rather than putting up a wall between my worlds of scholarship and music, I propose to let the worlds meet.

I am also excited about the opportunity for reciprocity this performance offers. Yanky Lemmer, Shimmy Miller and Yoel Kohn have been my principal research participants for many years. Now with this music project, I am able to offer them a world class stage on which to perform their music as they seek for it to be known and heard by the world.

All three cantors have extensive experience as prayer leaders and on concert stages. Their performance opportunities have generally been marked by constraints put in place by local conventions that limit the expressiveness and idiomatic specificity of the early 20th century cantorial genre they are masters of. This is especially true in synagogues, where their style of music is out of sync with contemporary norms. I am seeking to unleash the potentials of the Chassidic cantorial subculture.

My goal with this performance piece is to offer the cantors an opportunity to bring the dynamic performance style of their private world of jam sessions and internet-based videos out into the world of major performance venues and festivals. The goal of this concert is two-fold: On the one hand I am seeking to publicize and promote the concept of archival and ethnographic research as the basis for exciting and dynamic forms of new art.

This performance is part of a public facing agenda of presenting my research that also includes a book and record. Performance is the key element that will demonstrate how ideas can be yoked to life and can generate community and new life possibilities. The second goal relates to the careers and musical lives of the cantors.

While Lemmer, Miller and Kohn are already experienced artists, I am hopeful that the new context of working together and presenting their work in an environment intentionally built around their passions and aesthetics will open up new ideas for them about the possibilities of their careers and the viability of their non-conformist art practices.

The artists presented in this concert, Chassidic cantorial luminaries Yanky Lemmer, Yoel Kohn and Shimmy Miller, create new music shimmering with vitality and muscular virtuosity, but that holds deep roots in the world of early Jewish sacred records. At the dawn of the 20th century, Jewish listeners were entranced by a new style of recorded cantorial music that was inspired by the synagogue but tailored to the dramatic format of new recording technology. Recording star cantors of the 1920s offered Jewish listeners a musical representation of their spiritual lives committed to wax. The deeply emotive and wildly dramatic sound of cantorial records was a pop music phenomenon that was supported by impassioned fans, who bought records, went to cantorial concerts and immersed themselves in the sounds of prayer leading in the synagogue in a culture of sacred listening that has disappeared from contemporary Jewish life. In Golden Ages, these cantorial revivalists brilliantly evoke deep listening practices that once permeated Jewish religious life, inviting listeners on a journey into the archive of sacred sound. The Krakow Jewish Culture Festival is one of the premiere sites of international Jewish music. In this musical scene the cantorial music legacy is oddly absent, or relegated to a conservative approach that does not embrace the qualities of the music as a modernist art form rife with possibilities for cultural synthesis and experimentation. By bringing Golden Ages to the Krakow Festival, we are asserting the vitality and presence of new voices in what is commonly perceived as a “dying” art. The musical life of cantorial revival is not at home in any current Jewish religious institution. Rather, this music is a disruptive practice that seeks to center artists and performance at the core of sacred experience. The cantors find substance for acts of cultural and personal anticonformity in the deep roots music of the Jewish past, performing a style that is no more recognizable among Chassidic Jews than in other Jewish communities. For Chassidic singers, the world of old cantorial records serve as the basis for a contentious art practice that allows them to experiment with artistic identities and to cross the boundaries of their highly conservative birth community, into other musical scenes, embracing the role of outsider artist and musical expert. Presenting these three cantors together and highlighting the orientation of their music towards creativity, youthful experimentation and exuberant repurposing of heritage will open up new conversations about the potentials of sacred music to build bridges across boundaries of identity.

AIRIS String Quartet is one of the most interesting ensembles of the young generation in Poland, Airis String Quartet was founded in 2008 in Kraków. In less than half a year since its inception, it achieved the first significant success, winning the 2nd prize at the International Competition of Contemporary Chamber Music in Kraków.  

 Airis String Quartet performs at home and abroad. The music of the 20th and 21st centuries has had a special place in its wide and varied repertoire for many years. Composers of the young generation often entrust the quartet with premiere performances of their works. The quartet has enjoyed collaborations with such artists as Krzysztof Penderecki, Rafał Augustyn, Miłosz Bembinow, Ib Nørholm, Paweł Łukaszewski, Michał Dobrzyński, Łukasz Pieprzyk, as well as with composers of film music and music for computer games, and among them Garry Schyman (Bioshock), Krzysztof A. Janczak (Dans les pas de Marie Curie) and Arkadiusz Reikowski (Kholat, Father and Son). The ensemble continues to look for new inspirations, often crossing the boundaries of classical music; on Airis String Quartet’s initiative, several new works have been composed as part of the programme ‘Collections’ – priority ‘Composing Commissions’. Several CD Albums, film and game music soundtracks recordings with quartets participation appeared during last 6 years and in 2018 purely quartet debut album “Hartmann” had its premiere.   

The Members of Airis String Quartet teach at music schools and at the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, introducing younger generations to the secrets of chamber music and instrumental studies. 

Tickets (N: 200 / U: 100 PLN) available at and one hour before the concert at the entrance to the venue. 

The Cantors
Shimmi Miller
Joel Kohn
Airis String Quartet