Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center was truly a small piece of heaven last night as the two most iconic names in Jewish music packed the 2,783 seat hall for the 26th annual HASC concert.
First and foremost, the stars of A Time for Music, the yearly tradition started by Jewish music great Sheya Mendlowitz, will always be the children of HASC. As always, they were featured prominently throughout the evening in video presentations, with quite a few present in the audience. Two in particular could be seen dancing in the aisles on several occasions throughout the night, a compelling reminder of the concert’s mission: to use the gift of music as a means of funding Camp HASC. While at most concerts there are generally cameras capturing the performers live and projecting them on large screens on stage, in this case whenever I took the time to notice that part of the stage, the screens displayed either the HASC logo or the concert artwork.
But if the kids of HASC were the headliners of the evening, the supporting cast of Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried and Abie Rotenberg, along with the Freilach Orchestra and the Shira Choir more than did their part in this Suki and Ding production which was one of the best concerts I have had the privilege of attending in recent memory. The mood throughout the evening was electric, with the audience responding with equal enthusiasm to songs that spanned the long careers of both of its headliners.
Interestingly enough, although the concert was billed as a separate seating only event, there was limited mixed seating available in the boxes that lined the sides of the upper levels of the room near the stage. I am guessing those seats were occupied by corporate sponsors and the like. Other than that, the women were seated in the center section of the room, with an additional section of women’s seating available on the far left side of the room. The men were seated in all the other areas on the main level. As for the seating arrangements in the upper tiers, I honestly have no clue what went on up there, other than that there was lots of singing and cheering coming from those areas throughout the night
I can’t tell you exactly what time the concert started because due to the realities of parking in Manhattan, I got to Lincoln Center at about 7:40 and as soon as I walked into the building I could hear that the overture had already started. The fourteen piece Freilach band, headed up by Mendy Hershkowitz (four strings, five horns, two guitars, keyboard and two drums) did a seriously good job throughout the concert although the sound was on the loud side and you could almost feel the vibrations in the air. The usual HASC choir, which over the years has generally featured a group of very talented clean shaven men and has on occasion worn formalwear (feel free to correct me if I am wrong) was absent and replaced instead by the bekeshe clad Shira Choir who did a very nice job.
There were lots of little interludes, with emcee Nachum Segal thanking various sponsors and HASC people. To be brutally honest, I couldn’t get all the names down given my phone’s tendency to autocorrect everything I write, particularly names. Suffice it to say that lots of people were thanked but the only one whose name I remember was singer Sholom Jacobs, a member of last year’s HASC choir who this year sponsored the choir. Three video tributes showed the children of HASC, with one set to an original song composed and sung by HASC counselor Jordan Odinsky and another featuring various staff members expressing their gratitude to all the HASC counselors.
The night kicked off with trumpet player Jim Hynes taking the stage, walking up to the podium whistling the classic HASC overture with his trumpet slung over his shoulder, then playing it slowly on his trumpet. Hynes stopped and walked back behind the curtain and then the overture began for real, a brand new modern piece, which sounded crisp and bright.
The first singer of the evening was one of three surprise performers, Michoel Pruzansky who got the audience warmed up with his song Taaseh from his second album, Pruzbul described by Segal as a fitting tribute to the many acts of chesed that took place following Hurricane Sandy.
It was the stars of the evening who took to the stage next with MBD and Fried sharing a medley of each other’s songs including Maaminim, Hesech Hadaas, Kulam Ahuvim and Ki Hirbeisa. After sharing a hug the two walked off stage amid enthusiastic applause.
A moment for some thoughts on Avraham Fried and MBD. I have been listening to their music for way longer than most of you reading this and while many names have come and gone, these two are still at the top of the Jewish music pyramid. Far be it from me to even attempt to guess the secret to their long lived popularity. Could it be their amazing voices? Some incredible song selections? Their ability to keep up with current trends and evolve with the times even as they stay true to their roots? Some plain, old fashioned mazel? Whatever the reason, it is a joy to watch these two performers and even more so to see the respect and geniune affection that these two renowned performers have for each other. There is no competition here, just two very talented individuals with a love of Jewish music, sharing what the Ribono Shel Olam gave them with Klal Yisroel. My advice to any aspiring singers or the current crop of singers: study these two well, learn from them and then daven very, very hard if you want to ever come close to where they are.
Another thing that came to my mind was that while people are always looking for the latest “hot” song and the newest trend, I have long been a believer in the idea that the annals of Jewish music are a literal treasure trove of musical gems. So while yes, everyone is always looking for the next hit, there are some incredibly magical songs out there. Some are well known classics while others have received less exposure, but either way, are well worth rediscovering.
Back to the show.
Avraham Fried returned to the stage and proved once again how after all these years, he has only gotten better with time. He has a unique ability to connect with the audience and manages to be both endearingly likable, yet dignified, all at the same time. His enthusiasm was infectious and his voice was in top form, belting out hits like Hafachta, Rak Tefila, Don’t Hide From Me, Father Don’t Cry, Keep Climbing, and a medley of K’sheim Sheani, Mareh Kohein and Sisu V’simchu.
Fried introduced his next song Kach Es Sheli, a song that has been the topic of much conversation with many attempting to identify the source of the song’s lyrics. While Fried admitted he isn’t sure of the actual source, he quote the Sh”la who said that the reason Tisha B’av is pushed off if it falls out on Shabbos is because the tears that we shed for the Beis Hamikdash will ultimately become the stones used in itss rebuilding and since building is forbidden on Shabbos, Tisha B’Av, a time when tears are shed over the Churban, cannot take place on Shabbos.
For his final songs, Fried sang Tzama Lecha Nafshi, in honor of the Alte Rebbe’s 200th yahrtzeit, then switching to the upbeat Heyma and inviting the audience to get up on their feet and dance. Fried himself left the stage, singing the song from the aisles and joined by an enthusiastic HASC camper at his return to the stage, a Kodak moment that I can guarantee you will be featured prominently in the HASC pictures.
The great music just went on and on. Mordechai Ben David took the stage next with the dance hit from his Kulam Ahuvim album, Omar Rabbi Akiva, followed by a medley of older, hartzig songs including Va’ani Tefilosi, Ani Maamin and Odcha, dedicated to those of are youth who have strayed off the derech children, serving as a stark reminder that true happiness in this world can only come from Hashem.
Next up was another group of songs including Timche, an older MBD rock song, V’Zocher and Ein Od Milvado, followed by one of my personal favorites, Shir Shel Shalom, a cover of Bobby Vinton’s 1974 hit Moja Droga Ja Cie Kocham. I was more than a little surprised to see that despite the fact that this song is almost forty years old, the crowd absolutely loved it and for me, this song was one of the three best numbers of the night.
At some point in time during MBD’s great performance I was finally able to put my finger on something that had been bothering me, which was that MBD seemed to be spending a lot of time focusing his gaze on the balcony, looking to the side or closing his eyes. I couldn’t quite figure out why and it was obvious to me that a performer as seasoned as MBD clearly knew how to connect with the audience and engage them, yet he clearly avoided doing so. The lightning bolt finally hit during his English medley – the center section on the main level was the women’s section and clearly MBD wasn’t comfortable looking in that direction. I wasn’t offended at all by it and if anyone was, I suggest they take a class on tolerance and respecting other people’s beliefs. A suggestion to concert producers for future separate seating events: while I enjoyed my seat which was dead center, if your performer isn’t comfortable looking at women, maybe don’t seat them in the center of the room.
I was waiting for MBD to speak a little about Hurricane Sandy and he didn’t disappoint, talking about the many volunteers who came from all over to help the many communities ravaged by the late October storm, including his own neighborhood, and how clearly, Hakadosh Baruch Hu must have been smiling seeing the many acts of chesed that were performed. MBD dedicated his next song to fellow Seagate resident Yossi Green, calling him a great human being and a great talmid chochom as he launched into the iconic Anovim. Was I the only one in the audience who was waiting for Yossi Green to walk out onto the HASC stage?
As MBD left the stage to very substantial applause the stage hands brought in a piano and the evening turned into a veritable love fest as Abie Rotenberg was joined by both MBD and Fried, praising the two for using their talents not to fatten their wallets but for the sake of Klal Yisroel. The three sang an assortment of songs including P’rok MBD’s classic Shema Yisroel, Fried’s Koach and V’l’Yerushalayim. While Rotenberg spent considerable time lauding the evening’s two stars, MBD took a moment to return the compliment to the prolific Rotenberg, launching into possibly the most famous song in Jewish history, Rotenberg’s Hamalach, with the audience joining in as well. From there Abie insisted on playing yet one more song, saying that since he had prepared the song, which contains chords he doesn’t normally play, he really wanted to sing it, launching into another one of the night’s most beautiful moments, singing Yossi Green’s heart tuggingly emotional Od Yeshvu, another truly golden moment in a spectacular night.
As Abie left the stage it was clear that the night was winding down to a close and Avraham Fried asked the audience to show their appreciation for MBD, first with their applause and then asking the audience to give MBD a standing ovation. As the audience rose to its feet, MBD wagged his finger admonishingly at Fried who was clearly delighted by the opportunity to arrange this public demonstration of appreciation for MBD who he clearly looks up to. Once again, the affection between the two performers was obvious throughout the night and it clearly added to the magic of the evening.
Fried then asked MBD to share his most memorable story with the audience and MBD related how many, many years ago he went to Australia and sang a collection of Carlebach songs, only to be followed a few months later by Shlomo Carlebach himself who was asked by one bochur why he had to resort to singing MBD’s songs. MBD recalled how years later at a HASC concert, Reb Shlomo jokingly admonished him for “stealing” his songs and he replied that songs are a gift to be shared with people. Carelebach’s response? “Yes, but the gift that you shared was mine!”
Asked to relate his most outstanding memory, Fried recollected how on a visit to Chaifa he received a phone call from a woman whose husband had been in a coma for over a week and had been told there was no hope for recovery. Fried went to the hospital and sang Tanya for the man and several days later contacted the woman to find out how her husband was doing only to find out that he had begun what doctors had termed a miraculous recovery. Meeting the man a few months later, now fully recovered, the man described how during his time in the coma he heard nothing, with one notable exception.
“When you sang for me, I was in a room filled with light with my friends and your music pulled my neshama back down,” related Fried.
With the concert already edging close to the two and a half hour mark, Fried and MBD banter about their families and wouldn’t you know it, the next generation of both the Werdyger and Fried(man) families coming out, with both Yeedle and Benny Friedman emerging from the wings to join the party. The mood was more than festive as Yeedle began his biggest hit but the room went positively ballistic as the opening notes to Benny Friedman’s Yesh Tikva resounded throughout the room, with members of the audience literally dancing in the aisles. While there were many excellent songs sung throughout the concert, there is no doubt that Yesh Tikva was the song of the night, a considerable accomplishment at a concert that was filled with some truly outstanding selections from the two biggest names in Jewish music.
MBD and Fried closed up the night with Usid and a niggun whose name I won’t even venture to guess, but nonetheless a good one. Everyone came back out onstage for the finale of Hinei Ma Tov, Fried’s Yerushalayim and MBD’s Moshiach, finally closing out the night with the signature HASC overture.
HASC 26. This one was really one for the books.