A Jewish cantor and a Catholic priest in New Rochelle teamed up briefly when the cantor was writing a piece of choral music to be performed in Rome.
The cantor had run into a little difficulty with the text, and the priest helped out. The choral work was premiered by American cantors while they were in Rome last month for an interfaith dialogue, so it’s fitting that there was a bit of interfaith collaboration when the music was in the making.
The composer is Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel, and the priest is Msgr. Ferdinando Berardi, pastor of Holy Family parish. Both faith communities are in New Rochelle, and the men knew each other already through local interfaith activities.
Cantor Contzius has been composing for 15 years and writes choral music for Jewish worship. He is a member of the American Conference of Cantors, and a few months ago he learned about the planned trip to Rome. He made a suggestion to another member: “How about a musical gift for the occasion of this Jewish-Catholic dialogue?” The conference liked the idea.
To express the richness of both faith traditions, Cantor Contzius decided to write the text in Hebrew and Latin.
“That’s a juxtaposition you don’t hear too often, if ever,” he added. “I wanted to do something that would evoke Latin plainchant and Jewish sound.”
The difficulty began when he looked for a psalm to use for the text. The psalms are numbered differently in the Latin Vulgate and the King James editions of the Bible, and, adding to the confusion, there are many different Latin translations.
“I needed something that was definitive in the classic canon, that would be recognizable by the pope.” (The pope participated in the interfaith dialogue but was not able to attend the concert.)
Cantor Contzius had chosen a text from Psalm 115 (so numbered in the New American Bible): “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” He called on Msgr. Berardi for help in finding an appropriate translation.
Msgr. Berardi told CNY that he used his own Latin-language edition of the “Liturgy of the Hours,” which is based on a new translation of the Latin Vulgate, originally translated by St. Jerome in the fourth and early fifth centuries.
Cantor Contzius said that he alternated Hebrew with Latin, then overlapped the two languages so that they “evoke a Bach chorale.” Then Latin comes in, followed by Hebrew, and “the Hebrew sounds like plainchant.” The cantors’ conference liked the piece and sang it Nov. 16 in their concert at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri.
“I felt great relief, and I felt honored,” Cantor Contzius said.
He was not present for the premiere, however. Cantors were required to audition for the event; only 20 were selected out of 450, and he was not among them.
“It would have been nice to be there for the premiere,” he said, “but I’m just happy they performed it, and that it was used for this purpose”—an interfaith gathering.
“What I wanted it to do,” he said, “is to say that we, as the Jewish people, can look at our past with other peoples, cultures and religions, and say it’s not all written in stone. We can move forward and (move) past hurt…and look at the things that are good and continue to be good.
“There are a lot of commonalities between Catholicism and Judaism, and those are the things we should concentrate on, not our differences.”
The performance of Cantor Contzius’ choral work is available on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/MahAshiv.