Wednesday, June 3, 2015

In Memoriam: Cantor Lawrence Avery, z"l

In Jewish life, teachers are among those upon whom we bestow great honor. Many of our teachers are remembered with affection for the time they spent with us. But how many of them had a truly lasting impact on our lives?

Cantor Lawrence Avery, z"l, died last week at the age of 88. From 1974 to 1980 Cantor Avery was my teacher and my mentor at HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) in New York City. But he was so much more than that — a spiritual advisor, vocal coach, role model, confidant, and friend.

More than any of my teachers he was the one who made me into a cantor. That was no sure thing in 1974, when I began my cantorial studies after two bumpy years at Clark University. I had no serious musical training up to then. I played guitar by ear, and never had a voice lesson. Though I was a well-regarded Jewish camp song-leader and had written some Hebrew songs (including "Shalom Rav"), the school was taking a gamble in accepting me.

From our very first class with him, I could see that Cantor Avery was someone who drew you in, with eyes that sparkled and the sweetest voice that God ever created. It wasn't just that he had so much to teach and I had so much to learn.  He was like a master magician with a secret knowledge to impart.  And only by paying close attention could you hope to learn it. 

Predicting that our relationship would blossom was hardly a sure thing. In some ways we were opposites. While he was a generation older, short, and impeccably dressed, I was twenty-ish, tall and scruffy. Musically, and Jewishly, we lived in different worlds. Me, the musical world of Bob Dylan and the Beatles; him, the world of great cantors and opera singers. He grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn and was the cantor of a large conservative synagogue in New Rochelle, NY while I, on the other hand, was still (at the time) eating pasta with clam sauce, and sausage pizza, with no desire to live a strictly observant Jewish life.

In spite of those differences each of us saw something intriguing in the other. I saw him as a cantor's cantor, a teacher with an incredible wealth of knowledge.  And that voice of his… Because his tenor voice was light and lyrical rather than powerful, he had to rely on his brains - his phrasing and interpretation - to dazzle you, which he did, always. He was a consummate vocal artist, driven to excellence. Having developed his vocal gifts to their fullest potential, he could communicate like no other cantor I have known.

Perhaps he saw in me the capacity to grow and learn under his tutelage. I think he admired my skill as a song-leader and my ability to inspire young people with music. I know he valued my songwriting - for he was himself a writer of lovely melodies in the style of Israeli composers like Naomi Shemer (songs he played beautifully on the piano!) - and he always encouraged my creative output. On one occasion he praised a blessing I had composed, and created a piano arrangement for it. He would make tapes to help me learn the "nusach," the chanted phrases that constitute the musical DNA of the cantor's art.  And he brought me into his most beloved musical world by patiently nurturing in me a love of opera.

In his late forties, Avery (his birth name was Avery Cohen, a name he changed because Lawrence Avery "sounded more like a tenor") was one of the younger cantors teaching at the school. Most of the others were "old-school" and had no interest in guitars, rock services, or liturgical experimentation. As chair of the faculty a few years later, he would lead the discussion following our weekly Practicum (a mock service that each student had to perform). By discussion I mean "critique," and sometimes the comments could be quite vicious. Only the very best students emerged unscathed, and even the best-of-the-best sometimes had to have their bubbles burst and "brought back down to earth." I was never in such lofty company. On two such occasions, after I was attacked by certain members of the faculty, Cantor Avery rose to my defense, for which I will always be profoundly grateful.

When I saw him several years after graduation, I told him that, during the first year in my first job, not a working day went by when I didn't draw upon the wellspring of knowledge he gave me.  His voice will continue to resonate in my ears for many, many years to come. 

Listen to the voice of Cantor Lawrence Avery:

Read more about Cantor Lawrence Avery:
Here is an article from 1992 in the NY Times by Ari Goldman

PHOTOS: Top photo: thanks to Adina Avery-Grossman. Lower photo: teaching at HUC-JIR on West 68 St, (c. 1974) from Keeping Posted magazine Vol XXXIV No. 3 (from the left, the students pictured are Donald Croll and Elias Roochvarg). Recordings are from live concert LPs originally produced by the American Conference of Cantors.

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