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For two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the rivers of the Jewish Diaspora flowed from Jerusalem across Europe, Asia and Africa. Adapting to the customs and languages of new homes, Jewish culture, including Jewish music, acquired a myriad of cultural accretions to its biblical roots. It would, therefore, appear impossible for a single person to embody, much less demonstrate, such a compendium of diverse riches. Enter Alberto Mizrahi. Born in Greece with a Hebrew surname (meaning “Eastern”) and a Spanish/Ladino first name, Mizrahi came to the United States as a child where he received his musical training as a hazzan (cantor). While he fulfills his liturgical duties in Chicago, Mizrahi has become an ambassador of Jewish music, performing in up to nine languages and in even more musical styles with a discography of over 25 CDs.
Mizrahi appeared at a concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art to benefit the museum’s Judaic art collection – one of two such collections in American art museums – the gift of the late Dr. Abraham Kanof, whose personal Judaic artifacts served as a seed for an ever-expanding collection. In titling his program “Voice of a People,” Mizrahi emphasized the unity of the world’s Jewish communities while featuring its many “voices.” The program was true to his reputation, including offerings from Greek folksongs to Yiddish laments, Sephardic melodies, modern liturgical Hebrew prayers, songs by little known Jewish composers and a couple of eyebrow-raising surprises: a Kiddush (blessing over wine) by the acerbic German composer Kurt Weill and a lullaby composed by Harpo Marx for his friend, tenor Mario Lanza. Mizrahi added Russian to his roster of languages with Lensky’s aria “Kuda, kuda” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, figuratively tipping his hat to tenor Richard Tucker, the mid-twentieth-century cantor and opera star who also had diversified beyond the synagogue. And one song interlaced lines in five languages. The punishing length and diversity of the program, however, is nothing compared to Mizrahi’s all-day Yom Kippur cantorial duties conducted without even a sip of water.
From the strictly musical point of view, Mizrahi’s performance was a tour de force; such a variety of musical styles also require very different vocal techniques. The first three songs were either religious or liturgical, forcing Mizrahi to belt out and linger on high Gs, As and B-flats. No wonder he quipped that he was going to get them over with and go on to something he really wanted to sing. In Lensky’s aria his voice became smoother and operatic; in some of the humorous folksongs there was a hint of the nightclub. Towards the middle of the program Mizrahi took a short breather while his accompanist, pianist Alan Mason, gave a warm performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in F, Op.10, No.1.
Mizrahi himself is a study in diversity and contrasts, his booming tenor and girth earning him the title of the “Jewish Pavarotti.” But in his running commentary from the stage, he also communicated a casual, humorously self-deprecatory charisma as if conversing with friends in his living room. The audience happily forgave him when he forgot the words to one of the songs and had to begin again looking over the shoulder of his accompanist. It was all so charming and smooth that we wondered for a moment whether this was his way of bonding with the audience.
For one number, however, Mizrahi’s manner turned grim as he asked the audience to stand for Maimonides’s prayer “Ani Ma’amin” (I believe) traditionally intoned in memory of the Holocaust – now as a memorial to the victims of the recent slaughter in Mumbai.
For a sample of Mizrahi’s repertoire see http://www.albertomizrahi.com/.