It is one of the greatest singing voices of the 20th century. It could be an earthy baritone, a powerhouse tenor, a piercing falsetto.
But it wasn’t the voice that made Yossele Rosenblatt “the king of cantors,” as he was so often called.
“When he sang, the soul came out,” Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky says. “He did it as a calling, that’s what comes through his singing.”
Rogosnitzky’s youthful face — he looks more like a bar mitzvah boy than the cantor at The Jewish Center — glows as he talks about Rosenblatt, the subject of a tribute concert on Sunday presented by Cantors World, a new membership organization dedicated to chazanut, or cantorial music.
Rogosnitzky, whose appearance belies his 30-something age, is co-founder of the group with Charlie Bernhaut, a real-estate consultant who moonlights as a connoisseur and promoter of Jewish music. The Rosenblatt concert is the latest in a series that Cantors World has produced in the hope of promoting chazanut, both contemporary and classic.
The Rosenblatt tribute, timed to coincide with the famous cantor’s 70th yahrzeit, is a logical programming choice for Cantors World, Rogosnitzky says, not only because he was the most acclaimed of the Golden Age cantors, but also because of his greatest strength as a singer.
“This is the culmination of all we’ve done until now,” he says, sitting easily in a study in the Upper West Side synagogue. “Whenever Rosenblatt sang, it was about connecting to people. Our goal has been to bring all these people under one roof — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and secular Jews. That’s what cantorial singing is all about. You believe in the song and in connecting to God. So Yossele Rosenblatt speaks to both of us and to what we want to do.”
Rogosnitzky has been listening to Rosenblatt’s music since he was a little boy in England and South Africa, where his father was a rabbi. His first encounter with the great cantor was in his less-acclaimed but significant role as a composer, and the voice was a familiar but rather unexpected one.
“When I was 4 years old, I heard my mother singing Rosenblatt’s music,” he recalls with a grin. “She wasn’t a performer, she just sang at home. I remember her singing his ‘Hineni.’ I can think back to sitting on the porch and listening to my mother sing.”
He first heard the maestro himself two years later when the cantor who directed the choir for which young Benny was already a featured soloist played Rosenblatt’s recording of his setting of “Ya’aleh” five times in succession.
“I remember the sincerity and the feeling,” he says in hushed tones. “I could imagine I was standing there with him. He could really transport you.”
Charlie Bernhaut’s first encounter with Rosenblatt’s singing came much later.
“I fell in love with chazanut at the age of 43 in 1977,” the 67-year-old Bernhaut says. Rosenblatt was among the first voices that grabbed him.
“He had a dignity, he set an example,” Bernhaut says. “You can tell when a person believes the words he’s singing.”
Bernhaut came to chazanut in a roundabout way, to say the least.
“I collect old victrolas and people would throw away their old 78s, so when I bought the [record players] they would give me the recordings,” he explains. “Invariably, they would have ten Rosenblatts, five [Zavel] Kwartins and four Carusos.”
Then he started listening to those 78s, and learning. Then he found himself proselytizing for the music.
Bernhaut hosted a radio program on which he played an hour of chazanut every week for 18 years on New Jersey stations.
He programmed the show exclusively from his own record collection, which he now numbers at “14,000 albums of Jewish music, 1,800 of chazanut alone.”
Appropriately enough, it was Yossele Rosenblatt that brought the two men together.
“About five years ago, I attended a Friday night dinner and lecture at the Carlebach shul,” Bernhaut recalls with an ear-to-ear grin. “There was a young cantor giving a talk about Rosenblatt. I introduced myself to him at the dinner afterwards.”
Of course, it was Rogosnitzky. The two recognized one another immediately as kindred spirits.
“I loved his passion and I’m consistently amazed at the depth of his knowledge,” Bernhaut says. “I encouraged him to produce a concert of contemporary chazanut at The Jewish Center, and that planted the seeds for what we are doing now.”
Rogosnitzky smiles broadly, adding, “It’s been a great shidduch.”
A great shidduch perhaps, but an uphill battle to win acceptance for chazanut, both will readily admit. Their concerts have all been sell-outs, and they expect no less for the Rosenblatt tribute, but they are well aware of how much the genre has fallen on hard times in the Jewish world.
“When congregations had a financial shortfall, the cantor was almost always the first to go,” Bernhaut says.
“People come to synagogue to pray, and they want to be involved in the service, to participate,” Rogosnitzky says. “Cantors had to negotiate a difficult path and chazanut [took a back seat] to congregational singing at times.”
For Rogosnitzky, the solution is simple: “I try and make the audience, the congregation themselves the choir.”
And when it works, he finds it as thrilling as any experience in his professional life.
“I get no greater high than to hear a congregation singing together,” he says fervently.
He readily acknowledges that rekindling interest in chazanut is a long-term task, but says that the ability of Cantors World to fill halls with their biannual events suggests that there is an audience out there.
“People are coming to hear this music again,” he says.
And what could be a better way to rediscover the golden age sounds of cantorial music than with a tribute to the most golden of the great cantors?
“Yossele Rosenblatt: Tribute to a Legend” will take place on Sunday, Dec. 21, 8 p.m., at Alice Tully Hall, Broadway and 66th Street. Among the cantors participating will be Joseph Malovany, Moshe Stern and Naftali Herstik. For information, (718) 851-3226 or go to www.CantorsWorld.com. Proceeds of the concert will benefit Israeli victims of terror and the One Family Fund.