A MAN ONCE flew in to Baltimore from California for his grandson's bar mitzvah at Beth El Congregation on Park Heights Avenue. At an appropriate time, he pulled out his cello and, as a gift for the young man, played a melody. The surprise artist was none other than Gregor Piatigorsky, the Russian-born cellist, one of the world's greatest.
Saul Z. Hammerman has been cantor of Beth El Congregation for 38 years, so he's excused for carrying on and on with stories like this, how music fills the halls of the synagogue, how the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra came in to play a kids' pops concert, how Beth El's "one of the finest acoustical synagogues" and how he taught the Naval Academy Glee Club once to sing prayers in Hebrew.
Hammerman's a tenor who studied under famed Heldentenor Paul Althouse. You know about tenors. They stop singing, they start talking. They stop talking, they start singing. In between, if they're cantors like Hammerman, they bring in other singers, people like Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters and Giuseppe Campora. Or violinists like Itzhak Perlman or pianists like Emanuel Ax. Or they commission jazz oratorios from jazz saxophonist Hank Levy on the words of Jeremiah. And talk about it all.
He's all business, though, when he says 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, is special. The guest artist in his long-running Cantor's Concert Series is Beth El family: Chris Merritt, member of Beth El, husband of Beth El member and mezzo Joan Coplan Merritt, father of Beth El Hebrew school children Geri and Ryan, a new homeowner in Pikesville and one of the best Rossini tenors anywhere.
"I first met Chris five years ago at a bar mitzvah and have followed his career closely," said Hammerman. "This is something really special for me as a cantor." For his part, Merritt is delighted to sing for the 1,400 expected. In accepting, he insisted on the cantor's wife, Aileen, as piano accompanist in the recital. Said native Oklahoman Merritt: "The people here, Saul and Aileen, the rabbi, Mark Loeb, and the congregation are wonderful."
A large man with a matching voice, Merritt at Beth El will sing 14 arias and songs in the bel canto and lyric tenor tradition, a program expected to show off an instrument that can bounce rTC notes off rafters or float them as feathers in a summer breeze.
He ends with his high C's extravaganza, "Pour Mon Ami" (For my soul), an aria from Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment." Like Gilbert Duprez, a legendary 19th century tenor, Merritt hits high C's and D's with full-chest voice instead of weak falsettos.
Before Beth El, however, comes another little engagement, Merritt's much-awaited debut at The Metropolitan Opera in New York tonight in Rossini's "Semiramide." A lauded veteran of big opera houses all over the world, Merritt has finally been discovered by The Met, which has shown little interest in bel canto Italian works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.
Merritt will sing in "Semiramide" five times after Nov. 30: Dec. 3 (7:30 p.m.), Dec. 7 (7:30 p.m.), Dec. 12 (7:30 p.m.), Dec. 26 (7:30 p.m.) and Dec. 29 (1:30 p.m., a Met radio broadcast on WBJC (91.5 FM). It's about love, murder, incest and Queen Semiramis, a murderess who ruled over Assyria and Babylonia about 800 B.C.
Merritt credits friend and super soprano Marilyn Horne with the Met gig; they sing together again tonight along with Lella Cuberli and Samuel Ramey.
"Ever since we sang together in 1982," he recalled, "Marilyn's been a strong champion. We've sung together in Covent Garden, Hamburg State Opera, San Francisco, Los Angeles." Riccardo Muti, one of the first-rate opera conductors, takes Merritt, a favorite tenor, on an American tour of Verdi's Requiem in 1992.
Merritt's datebook is stuffed with bel canto Italian. "But there are quite a few French roles I'd like to do . . . Faust, Hoffmann, 'Damnation of Faust'," Merritt said. "I will do a San Francisco project, 'La Favorita' in the original French language."
The 1991-92 season gets even busier: Rossini's "Otello" in Italy; recording "I Puritani" with Zubin Mehta; a concert tour in Japan; "I Puritani" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; Rossini's "Otello" at the Rome Opera, "William Tell" at the San Francisco Opera, the 1992 Salzburg Festival and on the 200th anniversary of Rossini's birth, a Lincoln Center concert.
Beth El concert tickets are $15 to $50. For information and tickets, call 484-0411.
The program for Chris Merritt, tenor, and Aileen G. Hammerman, pianist, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at Beth El Congregation:
"Danza, danza, funiulla," by Francesco Durante; "O del mio dolce ardor," from "Paride ed Elena," by Christoph Willibald von Gluck; "Gia il sole dal Gange," by Allessandro Scarlatti; "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'Elisir d'Amore" by Gaetano Donizetti; "Bella Nice, che d'Amore" and "Vanne, o rosa fortunata," by Vicenzo Bellini; "La promessa" and an aria from "La Cenerentola," by Gioacchino Rossini.
After intermission, "Chanson triste" and "Soupir" by Henri Duparc; "Ouvre tes yeux bleus" by Jules Massenet; "Michele Aria" from Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Saint of Bleeker Street"; "Pour mon Ame" from Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment."