Alter and Sirota

(Taken from the Cantors’ Review, December 1971. No author 
or source is mentioned)

Chazan Alter tells a story of his first meeting with Sirota which illustrates the sort of feeling that most of us have had at one time or another.

He was asked to give a concert in Marienbad in 1927 and discovered that Sirota was staying in town. He eventually found his way to Sirota’s hotel determined to meet the great man. We shall let him continue the story in his own words.

“Finally, I was at his door. At my knock I heard his well-placed resonant tones invite me to enter. I came in and greeted him warmly. He was not impressed. He looked me over and asked coldly, ‘Who are you, sir?'”
“Why, I’m Israel Alter.”
“Israel Alter? Is that so?”, and the deep tones bounced back and forth from one wall to the other.
“I imagined Israel Alter to be a much more distinguished looking man; a man with a beard – a mature, stately man. You’re hardly dry behind the ears. You are Israel Alter?”

I mentioned something in defence of my looks and he continued.
“I hear you’re giving a concert here tomorrow night. I have two tickets. I’m coming to hear you.”

When I heard that the room began to whirl around me. Sirota was to be in the audience at my concert. When I regained my composure I asked Sirota how much he had paid for the tickets. He told me that he had paid 40 Kronen for the pair.
“How would it be, Chazan Sirota, if I gave you 80 Kronen for the tickets and you stayed at home?”

Sirota appeared to consider my offer for a moment and then he said, “My dear friend, humility is a wonderful trait, greatly to be desired. For when we Jews think of humility one great soul comes to mind – Moshe Rabbenu. My dear Alter, you will forgive me but you are really not so great that you need be so humble.”

With a heavy heart I left him to prepare my programme for the concert. In those days I was still a young man. I had only two or three original concert recitatives of my own and you could hardly build a programme with just three pieces. So I had chosen some suitable recitatives of other composers. One piece of which I was especially fond in those days was Schlossberg’s R’tzeh.

Well, to sing Schlossberg’s classic before an audience of laymen was one thing, but to sing it for Sirota, this required a Chutzpah of the highest order.

To make matters worse I had planned to open the programme with the R’tzeh. I had thought I might as well put my best foot forward with this familiar piece. Once I had sung this both I and the audience would know how I stood. I might as well get it over with, I had thought. What’s the use of fooling around. This way they could judge whether I had it or not.

Well like it or not, I was stuck. Finally, the time for the concert arrived. I came out onto the stage and took my place in the centre. I cleared my throat, said a silent prayer and nodded to my pianist to begin the introduction to the R’tzeh.

As he began to play the familiar notes I looked around at the audience. And then I saw him. Right down front, in the centre of the third row I could plainly see Sirota’s glowing eyes. On his face was an expression which plainly said, “Now, let’s see what you can do young man.”

Finally the introduction was over and I couldn’t open my mouth. After an awkward pause the pianist began again. Still I couldn’t utter a sound. I edged over to the piano and pleaded with my pianist to do something – anything. Somehow he sensed the problem and looking into the audience he saw Sirota.

Out of the corner of his mouth he hissed at me, “Sing, what are you afraid of?”

“I can’t, I can’t open my mouth,” I hissed back at him.

Finally I made a decision. “Play the introduction again, only play it softly. I’ll try it mezza voce, if it goes through and I warm up, I’ll open up later, if not, I’m through.”

And that’s what we did. Instead of a maestoso introduction, he gave me a soft, calm rendition and somehow I got through it alright. I warmed up sufficiently to get through my first group without further mishap.

During the intermission Sirota came backstage to my dressing room. Without knocking, he opened the door. fixed me with his eyes and said in his deepest tones, “Kein b’nos Zelophchod dovros.” I think this was the most moving compliment paid me. It was doubly good to hear. First of all it pleased me to hear a Chazan quote the Torah and second it was in my honour. The rest of the concert went well..