Cantor's solemn prayers to blend music of the ages Baritone adds notes to Yom Kippur tradition

September 22, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

For the past 10 days, Cantor Avraham Albrecht, like many Jews, has been preparing for the start of today's solemn holy day, Yom Kippur.

During this time of penitence, he has an added challenge -- preparing to sing his congregation's prayers to God in hourslong services that start at sundown tonight and continue tomorrow until dark. He's been resting his voice and composing melodies for the Jewish Day of Atonement, when followers, through fasting and prayer, ask for forgiveness for their sins.

The task is one that Albrecht, 45, an experienced baritone, is used to.

For the congregation of 1,300 at Beth Tfiloh Congregation on Old Court Road in Pikesville, however, where he became cantor last month, his compositions and soulful delivery present a new approach to an ancient religious tradition. Albrecht describes his music as sometimes reminiscent of Verdi and Schubert -- with a touch of Caribbean rhythms.

"The change is very positive," said congregant Michael Pachino, 32, who heard Albrecht sing at Rosh Hashana services #i celebrating the start of the Jewish year 5757 and of the High Holy Days. "Plenty of people can do that job. But they don't have the passion he expresses."

Albrecht replaced Cantor Abraham Denburg, who retired after nearly three decades at the Modern Orthodox congregation, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

"He was very good," Pachino's father, Hersh, said of the former cantor. "This fellow here is different.

"He has different musical versions. It's all new. Some people are afraid of change. I'm all for it."

Last week, Albrecht stood in the modern, domed Beth Tfiloh sanctuary that holds 1,700 people, anticipating the holiday.

"I'm not nervous," he said. "I only ask God that I will have the right feelings and right intentions. That's my only concern."

Albrecht has been studying music under European cantors since he was a child in Tel Aviv, Israel. He became a cantor at 13, a young age for a liturgical singer.

"I was born with it," he says of his ability. "It's God's doing."

At 22, he moved to New York to become cantor at a congregation in Queens.

"It was very scary," recalled the married father of four daughters. "I didn't go on the streets for a month. I didn't speak a word of English."

Now, in Baltimore, he uses his education at the Manhattan School of Music and Queens College, where he received a degree in philosophy, for his role as the congregation's messenger to God.

"A cantor is someone with a tremendous responsibility on his hands," Albrecht said. "My goal is to bring people closer to God . . . through music, through my singing."

He added, "So much time and thought goes into the music. I compose wherever I am. I can be anywhere."

Albrecht will sing tonight with tenor Benny Warschawski, 21, a student at the University of Maryland College Park.

"This is unusual. Usually, it is a soloist," Albrecht said. "He's my discovery. . . . When he opened his mouth. I said, 'That's it. We're going to do things together.' "

Said Hersh Pachino, who heard the duo at the Rosh Hashana service: "The two of them are outstanding."

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh said Albrecht was hired from a pool of about 50 cantors.

"It was a combination of his vocal abilities and spiritual nature," he said. "He brings a sense of excitement and a sense of the unknown."

Albrecht's appointment coincides with the congregation's new emphasis in music and musical programs for all ages. Beth Tfiloh Day School, which has classes from kindergarten through high school, hired Cantor Aaron Marcus from Boston this summer as choir and music director.

"There was a feeling that with a new cantor that we should have a choir director to revitalize and refresh the choir and be linked to the school," Wohlberg said.

Already, Marcus has set goals. He says he plans to organize an adult chorale after the holiday and another for Jewish high school students.

"I want to introduce a new element of music into the congregation and community and open all possible avenues to get people involved in Jewish music," he said. "Music has a way of appealing to the emotions. It is a very important part of Jewish prayer and services."

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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