PAS Musical Heritage

Park Avenue Synagogue has a long and illustrious history in the world of Jewish liturgical music. PAS has benefitted from the leadership and musicianship of extraordinary cantors, choir masters and organists. The synagogue has not only preserved the musical legacy of the past, but has also been a leader in the creation of contemporary liturgical music.
 

Cantor Azi Schwartz, 2009-present


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Cantor David Lefkowitz, 1976-2009

Cantor David Lefkowitz joined Park Avenue Synagogue in 1976 and further enhanced the level of music at PAS. His interest in preserving the musical treasures of the great synagogues and composers of Europe led him to discover, research, and give new life to works that had been abandoned for generations. He has catalogued the unpublished manuscripts of composer David Nowakowsky and the archives of Cantor David Putterman. Cantor Lefkowitz also initiated the Annual Shabbat Morning Services of Classical Liturgical Music at PAS, modeled after the choral services of the great synagogues in Eastern Europe. In 1992, under Cantor Lefkowitz’s leadership, Park Avenue Synagogue celebrated its 50th Anniversary Concert of New Liturgical Music. In 2001, at a Gala Dinner Dance, the synagogue community honored him for 25 years of outstanding service and contributions to the congregation. He is admired for his musical talent, his passion in creating music for PAS, and for balancing the American sounds of contemporary commissioned pieces with an appreciation for unknown or forgotten music by cantors and composers from previous centuries. When Cantor Lefkowitz retired in June 2009, the congregation honored him with a gala concert featuring numerous of his cantorial colleagues, many of whom had once served as his Assistant Cantor or had sung in the Park Avenue Synagogue Choir. The congregation also issued a celebratory CD, Cantor David Lefkowitz: Legacy.


 

Cantor David Putterman, 1933-1976

Hazzan David Putterman made many significant contributions to the music of the Conservative Movement. Hoping to inspire talented composers, many of whom were refugees, he commissioned new works in an effort to modernize American cantorial and choral music. In 1943, he inaugurated Park Avenue Synagogue’s Annual Sabbath Evening Liturgical Music Service of New Music. More than 70 composers contributed pieces to the 32 special services held under Hazzan Putterman’s leadership. Cantor Putterman commissioned Leonard Bernstein to compose a new rendition of Hashkivenu, which was premiered at the Third Annual Liturgical Music Service in May of 1945. The following year, the Cantor invited Kurt Weill to compose music for the Fourth Annual Music Service. A few weeks later Weill completed a “blues” Kiddush, which he dedicated to his father, who had been a cantor in Germany. This piece was an instant hit and became the most famous of Hazzan Putterman’s commissions. In 1948 the Annual New Music Service honored the creation of the State of Israel. The following year, Cantor Putterman commissioned Israeli composers to write new pieces for Israel’s first anniversary celebration.



Cantor Putterman’s contributions also reached outside of the synagogue, to the structure of the Conservative cantorial world. In 1923 he was the first cantor to broadcast a religious service on a coast-to-coast radio program. He helped develop the Jewish Theological Seminary’s weekly radio program The Eternal Light and performed on it for several years. In 1947-1948 Cantor Putterman was among the founders of the Cantors Assembly and in 1951-1952 his dream was realized with the establishment of the Cantors Institute and College of Music at The Jewish Theological Seminary. On May 4, 1973, in celebration of his 40th anniversary at the synagogue, Park Avenue Synagogue presented Hazzan Putterman with a citation recognizing “his many contributions to the furtherance of the American Jewish Cultural Heritage. His high standards and ideals in the development, refinement, and creation of Synagogue music have elevated the status of the Hazzan in ourcountry...”

Zavel Zilberts and Max Helfman were two significant composers who were closely identified with Cantor Putterman’s work. Both men contributed music to PAS and also conducted special services here.
 

Cantor Abraham Sukoenig, 1914-1932

The Park Avenue Synagogue musical legacy begins with the cantorate of Abraham Sukoenig, who served the congregation from 1914 to 1932. He was a student of Eduard Birnbaum, the distinguished chief cantor of the Great Synagogue of Koenigsberg in Prussia. In an article in The American Hebrew, Lazar Saminsky, music director of Temple Emanuel, wrote, “There are indeed competent and enthusiastic Jewish musicians who love Jewish music and do not consider it a myth, either. Foremost among them I would mention Cantor Abraham Sukoenig of the Park Avenue Synagogue.” Jacob Friedman, Jr., President of PAS during that time, gave Cantor Sukoenig’s special musical services credit for contributing to the growth of the synagogue’s membership.
 
 

Other Musical Leaders

 

Colin Fowler, Organist, 2012-present

Colin Fowler began studying music at the age of five, growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City. He continued his training at Interlochen Arts Academy, studying piano with James Giles and organ with Robert Murphy. He received both his Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees from The Juilliard School, studying piano with Abbey Simon and organ with Gerre Hancock and Paul Jacobs.

Although a classically trained musician, he has performed in numerous Broadway productions, including 42nd Street, Jersey Boys and In the Heights. He has been a professor of music at NYU and Nyack College, and is currently the pianist for the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble, touring worldwide. He has also served as the organist and choir director at Calvary Baptist Church since 2002.

Colin has performed in many of the world’s leading halls, and has collaborated with Deborah Voigt, James Galway and the American Brass Quintet, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

 

McNeil Robinson, Organist, 1964-2012

“Neil” Robinson served as Principal Organist of Park Avenue Synagogue from 1964 until 2012. Hazzan David Putterman guided his initial education in Jewish liturgy and ritual and in the nuances of hazzanut. For almost half a century, Neil accompanied the synagogue’s cantors, directed the choirs and composed many settings for the liturgy.

Regarded as one of America's leading virtuosos, McNeil Robinson is recognized as one of the all-time great European and American organists for his prowess as an improviser. One of the most prominent musicians in New York City, Mr. Robinson is Chair of the Organ Department at the Manhattan School of Music. His students have won top awards in national and international organ competitions and many hold prominent positions throughout the United States. He is the Director of Music and Organist at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity. Mr. Robinson has had works commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the San Francisco Symphony, Musica Sacra, numerous American churches, and the American Guild of Organists, and has had his music performed at New York's Lincoln Center, on network radio, and regularly in churches throughout the United States.
 

Click here to read Cantor David Lefkowitz's beautiful remarks from a memorial service held in honor of McNeil Robinson.

 

Cantor Nancy Abramson, 1997-2011


Cantor Nancy Abramson became part of the PAS family in 1997. With her varied experience and expertise, she contributed greatly to the synagogue’s music education programs and choral performances. Her kind and welcoming personality put congregants of all ages at ease. She taught and encouraged many adult and teen congregants to chant Torah, Haftarah, and Megillat Esther, whether in the sanctuary, the Havurah, or Junior Congregation services. She also created the Shabbat Evening Rinah UTefilah (Song and Prayer) service and helped to revive the Annual Musicale Concert.



Cantor Abramson was the first woman member of the Executive Committee of the Cantors Assembly, serving as secretary, then treasurer and currently as senior vice president. Upon being honored at the Synagogue’s Gala in March, 2006, Cantor Abramson said: “I’ve loved every day I have been with PAS because I am able to express my musical spirit and soul in everything I do.”

Cantor Abramson now serves as Director of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. 

 

Abraham Kaplan, Choral Director, 1968-1999

An internationally recognized choral conductor and composer, Abraham Kaplan became one of the most sought after and active young conductors on the musical scene in the first few years after he came to New York from his native Israel. An article in the PAS Bulletin dated May 4, 1976, stated that Abraham Kaplan is hailed as a “dynamic young conductor” and cited for his “dramatic intensity, taut but expressive leadership, and command of the music.”

 

George Crook, Organist, 1952-1965

In his 13 years at PAS, George Crook composed new arrangements and recopied almost all of the congregation’s musical repertory.



 

Isador Geller, Organist and Choirmaster, 1916-1952

Isador Geller served under Hazzan David Nowakowsky, spending 52 years as the choirmaster of the Brody Synagogue in Odessa during one of the greatest periods of development in the history of Jewish music. Fleeing from the Russian Revolution, he came to the United States in about 1915. He joined Park Avenue Synagogue as organist and choirmaster, and worked with both Cantor Sukoenig and Cantor Putterman. He remained until his death in 1952.




                                                           
Adapted in part from “Park Avenue’s Musical History: The Spirit of Our Souls” by Marcia J. Stone in
Unbroken Chain: Celebrating 125 Years (Park Avenue Synagogue, 2008). Much of that article was drawn from the prolific writings of Cantor David Lefkowitz.

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