With humility, warmth, and a smile that lit up the Hudson Valley Resort’s Manhattan Theater, legendary Israel performer Yehoram Gaon accepted the Zamir Choral Foundation’s Hallel V’Zimrah Award in a ceremony on Wednesday evening, July 24 that highlighted this year’s 24th annual North American Jewish Choral Festival. Gaon, 73, was recognized for his life-long work as the embodiment of Israeli culture: as an actor, whose iconic performances include Kazablan in the stage production and movie musical of the same name, and Yoni Netanyahu in Operation Thunderbolt; as a director of films including Ani Yerushalami and From Toledo to Jerusalem, celebrating Jerusalem and Sephardic culture; as a radio and television personality who continues to host popular programs including a weekly radio broadcast about life in Israel and a daily educational television program for children; and as a statesman who served eight years on the Jerusalem Muncipal Council, holding portfolios for Cultural Affairs and Special Needs Education.
But it is surely as a singer with more than 70 albums to his credit (a single, Ten Li Koach, from his most recent album, was just released in June) that Gaon has achieved his greatest international renown, and it was that side of his work that thrilled the Choral Festival audience as he offered a short musical program as his “acceptance speech.” Gaon began with his signature selection, Hineni Kan (…I am here, like circling birds, I am here, looking from the roofs; I am here, like a stone in the fence, like a rock, like a well - I am the one who always returns… ) He then continued with several selections in which the audience served as choral accompaniment (prepared in advance by Festival Founder and Director Matthew Lazar, who also accompanied Gaon at the piano), including the Ladino favorite, Cuando El Rey Nimrod (…Abraham, our father, dear father, blessed father, star of Israel…) and Avihu Medina’s popular, Mizrachi-flavored setting of text from Psalm 47, Shab’chi Yerushalayim. For that selection, Gaon was joined on stage by Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, reprising the duet the two had performed in May, 2012 when the Zamir Choral Foundation presented a program at Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrating the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.
Gaon ended his brief appearance by singing Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh,” with its own “bitter and sweet” moments. The busy performer had accepted the Foundation’s invitation to be its honoree in February, but in deference to a previous commitment, had planned to join the Festival in progress on Tuesday morning and then remain until its conclusion. A happy conflict emerged later when his nephew became engaged and set a July 25 wedding date. Gaon explained that his family would “blacken the name of Yehoram Gaon forever” if he failed to attend the ceremony, but he was eager to honor his commitment to the Foundation and the Choral Festival, so he re- arranged his schedule so that he could be at both celebrations – even though it left him barely 40 hours on American soil!
Yehoram Gaon joined a long list of worthy recipients of the Hallel V’Zimrah Award, and the brief but powerful performance of this youthful septuagenarian delighted the 400 Festival participants and guests in attendance.