Testimonial #31: Solomon Epstein, Cantor and Music Director

“The arts are contagious, and your kid has caught the bug.”

How has your life been indelibly touched by a teacher who utilized the arts for whatever reason and acknowledge how they were instrumental in breaking the mold to allow you to become who you are today?

From age 9, upon hearing a touring performance of “La Boheme”, I wanted only to become an opera singer. At age 18, I entered the Cantors Institute of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York City. On the Music Faculty were some of the most respected musicians in New York: Dean Hugo Weisgall, also Chair of the Composition Department at Queens College, whose operas were premiered by New York City Opera 1959 – 1993; Siegfried Landau, then Music Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic; and Miriam Gideon, Professor of Music at City College of New York.

These musicians insisted that I MUST continue to study Composition seriously. I was 21 at the time, I didn’t want to hear them, because I only wanted to sing opera. No one doubted my musicianship, but my singing, while good, did not seem to be of operatic quality ( much later, that changed; I learned very late that great voice teachers are EXTREMELY rare).

I became a cantor, but around age 38 I had a walloping “mid-life crisis”. I found myself composing constantly. Then I panicked, because I knew I needed vastly more technique in composition and orchestration. I also became aware that the insistent voices of those great teachers had only been hibernating. Now they came roaring out of their cave like an awakened bear. Their voices drove me to pedal as fast as I could to play “catch up”, triggering 12 years (1982 – 1994) of study with 4 composition professors at 3Universities, while at the same time composing opera in a disciplined frenzy.

One result was a 1999 premiere of my opera “The Dybbuk” in Israel, sponsored by a University and a Tel Aviv Foundation. I was thrilled by audience ovations, excellent press reviews, and the incredible dedication of a number of young professional performers.

It would never have occurred to me to take on these increasingly self-challenging efforts in opera composition, if the mandate of those immensely respected teachers had not ultimately caught up with me and pointed me in the direction to realize my best potential.

How are the arts re-igniting your community and sparking innovation and creativity in your local schools?

Though I used the arts (music and theater) continuously in education for 35 years while I was Cantor and Music Director of Synagogues, I am now retired. But speaking from my own experience, I STILL receive surprise E-Mails from former students, now grown and themselves parents, about how transformative their participation in choirs, drama, and musical theater I directed had been for them spiritually and intellectually .

I believe them, because on more than one of these large-scale projects, many parents and the Rabbi would ask me,” How do you do it? My kid is saying to me ‘I have to cancel my soccer practice/piano lesson/baseball practice/dance lesson today, because the cantor says we have to be at play rehearsal which cannot function unless every member of the team is present.’ ”

My answer: “The arts are contagious, and your kid has caught the bug.”

As to the area where I presently reside, there are real problems. I think a great trigger to inspire the current local educational establishment to wake up would be a presentation in person by Frances McGarry.

It would also be wonderful if the children in the Brooklyn Theater Project video could be sponsored on a regional tour, both presenting a sample of their theater work, and speaking to an assembly of kids just as they spoke on the video. I can’t think of anything better than those Brooklyn kids inspiring other kids in underserved regions around the country.

I took my 9-year-old to the opera, and she loved it

I took my 9-year-old to the opera, and she loved it.