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HASC 22 DVD Review

With this year’s HASC concert just a few days away, it seemed like a good time to watch the HASC 22 DVD.  Given that I have never actually been to a HASC concert, I look forward to seeing the DVDs when they come out.  I have seen a bunch of them and own a few of them as well.  To be perfectly honest, there have definitely been years that I looked at the lineup, and while I am sure all the performers were very talented, they didn’t necessarily appeal to me and I didn’t feel the least bit inspired to even borrow the DVD from a friend.

Not so last year’s lineup.  My first reaction when they announced a lineup of Yaakov Shwekey, Boruch Levine, Dovid Gabay and Yehuda Green, was that with the exception of Yehuda Green, the performers all had a similar style and I was expecting a more varied slate to appeal to more of a mixed crowd.  But given that I happen to enjoy that particular style, I was very excited to see the concert, even if I had to wait ten months to catch it on DVD.

Before even getting to the music, one of things that I noticed right off the bat about this DVD was that it didn’t have as polished a feel as some other HASC concerts that I have seen.  Not in the actual filming of the footage, which was fine, but the graphics used to piece the segments  together wasn’t quite as elegant as in some of the earlier productions.

Something else that anyone who is doing a DVD needs to be aware of that has changed in the past few years.  All you producers and performers, pay VERY close attention.

When you appear on someone’s home screen, you are potentially being broadcast on a screen that can be forty inches in diameter or even considerably larger.  That means when there is a close up, we see every single detail, very vividly.  If you didn’t do a good job shaving, we see it.  If you have a piece of spinach stuck between your teeth, we see it, larger than life size.  If the video shows two guys singing together, but the audio only has one voice, it is very, very obvious to us.

So all you performers, make sure you look your best.  Get your suit pressed, take a haircut and don’t even think about going out on stage until you have looked in a mirror.  And all you producers, go over every detail with a fine tooth comb, preferably on a really big screen.  Because while you might not notice every mistake, we, the viewers, will catch every single one.

On to the show.  The opening segment, featuring footage of the concert, a list of performers and sponsors and of course  pictures of Camp HASC was over five minutes long.  Many of the pictures are displayed on some kind of square, rotating graphic.  Honestly, I think I would have preferred a simple slideshow.

Finally, we get to live performers on stage and a very, very cluttered stage it is.  The entire eleven piece orchestra is on stage as are Shloime Kaufman’s six man choir and  a boys choir composed of six boys from Yeshiva Boys Choir.  Lots of microphones.  Lots of speakers.  Wires all over the place.  And a very, very busy background, which changed many times during the evening to highlight the current performer, but almost always featuring more than one graphic and possibly a video or a larger than life close up of the current performer at the same time.  Maybe I am just a minimalist, but for me, clean and uncluttered is the way to go.

Yet there is still some room left on the stage for the first performer, Boruch Levine, who opened the night with the title track from his second album, Chosson Hatorah.  Levine looked very much at ease on stage and he sounded even better.  The background was a giant hodge podge of graphics:  a sefer Torah, pieces of klaf, a picture of a Rav.

Next up, Dovid Gabay, singing Hagomel, the opening song from his second CD.  Gabay also looked like he was having a great time, striding energetically all over the stage.  Again, a very busy background, featuring a page of a Gemara discussing the subject of bentshing Gomel and one section of the background had words moving all over it.  Gabay sounded as good as I have ever heard him and I am sure I was not the only one left wondering when his next CD  will be ready.

The third performer of the night was Yehuda Green, making his HASC debut, with the song Moishe’le’s Niggun.  Green bounced all over the stage, energetically smacking his hand against his thigh and against his microphone.  Again a very full background, this time what looked like a painting, with a video section overlaying the artwork.  (You get the picture, so I will stop mentioning it.)  This is the first time I have ever seen Green perform live and I was pleasantly surprised.

All three performers were so good that one song each just wasn’t enough, so it was nice to see all three of them back on stage together.  Visually, it was a little disconcerting as Levine, Gabay and Green all pulled up stools and sat down together for a medley of their combined hits.  Gabay and Levine sat on either side of Green, both in black suits and while I couldn’t tell you if they were wearing identical ties, they looked a lot alike.  Green sat in the middle, wearing a black vest and slightly lighter color pants, no tie.  Gabay and Levine sat there swaying side to side (but generally in different directions), while Green did his smacking his hip thing (though not necessarily in time to the music), waving his hands around a lot.  I would have liked to see them look a little more in sync, but if I closed my eyes, I could get past it, because they all sounded great.  The medley began with Gabay singing Av Harachamim from Legabay, a truly gorgeous song.  Levine joined in with Gabay the second time around, but for some reason, while it is very clear from the picture that Gabay is singing, there is no audio and you hear only Levine.  Details, people – you gotta pay attention when you are doing a DVD like this!!   Green joins in on the high part as well and it is truly beautiful.  From there they segue into Green’s Nishmas, which was surprisingly good.  Again, I’m not sure if I got this right, when Levine joins Green on the high part, you see Green’s lips moving, but the first time through, you hear only Levine.  Audio for Green comes through the second time around.  The final song of the medley is Levine’s Kol Haberuim and it was just beautiful to listen to.

After the three openers left the stage, emcee Nachum Segal announced a surprise guest, Yossi Piamenta.  The last time I remember seeing Piamenta at HASC, it was HASC 18 and he was once again accompanied by his son Moni, in his white fedora, singing Kol Hamisameach.  Piamenta seemed to really enjoy himself and it goes without saying that he is an absolute  wizard on the guitar.

The next performer of the evening was Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.  I confess.  I am not a fan of chazanus and I contemplated skipping this part of the concert, but I couldn’t very well write a review if I skipped parts of the DVD, could I?  Good thing I didn’t because Helfgot’s rendition of Kanei from Yossi Green’s 8th Note was absolutely, positively, gorgeous.  I loved every minute of it.

At long last, Nachum Segal finally announced the main performer of the night, Yaakov Shwekey, who  led off with a takeoff on his Birshus introduction, substituting the words “A time for music is upon us” for the opening words.  In case there was an extra inch of room on the stage, there were eight backup dancers on stage, dressed in full chassidishe regalia:  bekeshes, shtreimels and white socks.  I will tell you these guys were quite energetic and Shwekey launched into an equally hearty version of Emes.

Shwekey’s next number was his remake of Dveykus’ In A Vinkele (called “Tatte” on his L’sheim Shomayim album) in both Yiddish and English.  Shwekey was his usual polished self and sounded as good as ever, but he sang this song faster than I would have liked.  By the time he got up to his third song, L’sheim Shomayim, Shwekey seemed very relaxed as he attempted some dance moves and even got playful, smiling as he put his hand over the lens of the video camera for one second, saying “Shalom Aleichim” and shaking hands with an audience member at another.  From a vocal perspective, there is no question that Shwekey, who received top billing on this all star concert, certainly delivered.

While so many of the HASC concerts have had videos, this one wasn’t the usual light Lipa-esque fare.  This was a video tribute in memory of Steven Newman, one of the campers at Camp HASC, accompanied by Yaakov Shwekey and Baruch Levine (on the piano) singing their very memorable duet, V’hu Keili, one of Levine’s best songs.  The video showed pictures of Steven Newman throughout his short life, with dozens of shots of Camp HASC and without saying a word, it brought home just how vital and serious a place Camp HASC really is.  The idea that not all the campers are around to come back for another fun filled summer was beyond sobering and if you can get through this video without being moved to tears, I am sorry to say that you are completely without a heart.

It wouldn’t be a HASC show without surprise guests, would it?  The second surprise of the evening was Abie Rotenberg, singing a new song, composed for the evening.  Note to whoever did the graphics in the actual video:  make sure to spell everyone’s name properly!  (Only one “t” in Abie’s name, not two.)    Before he started playing, Rotenberg spoke about how HASC has taught us all to open our hearts to each other, how much chesed goes on through the HASC program and how many dedicated people devote so much of themselves to these special children.  From there it was an easy segue into his new song, Mi K’amcha Yisroel, a Carlebachy song that for me, was eerily reminiscent of Shlomo Carlebach’s Hashem Oz sung by Srully Williger in HASC 17, particularly the part in the middle where Rotenberg spoke about the mitzvah of Tefillim and how the Tefillin worn by Hakadosh Baruch Hu have the words “Mi K’amcha Yisroel”.  This song was mostly Rotenberg singing with the backup choir.  Again, there were moments where you see Shwekey’s mouth moving, but you don’t hear his voice.  While Shwekey did some minimal harmony throughout the song, it wasn’t until the very end where Shwekey took over and did some beautiful vocals.

The next number was a Carlebach medley which started with Yehuda Green singing a beautiful, somewhat chazanish introduction to Simcha L’artzecha.  Green did an awesome job.  Not to be outdone, Dovid Gabay came out next, and echoing Green, also did some chazanus on the low part of the song.  Again, just gorgeous.   Just as an aside, wouldn’t mind if my Shul hired Gabay to daven for the Yomim Noraim!   Finally, Boruch Levine came out, also doing his bit on the low part and again beautifully done.  Last but not least, Yaakov Shwekey joined the group for the high part and again, it was done so well.  I must take a minute to confess that I am not a Carlebach fan.  No hate mail please.  I know Carlebach was the most prolific and successful composer Jewish music has ever seen and of course I love many of his songs, but in general I am not a big fan of the genre.  Having said, I thoroughly enjoyed the medley, done beautifully by the four headliners as they followed up the first song with Yibane, Mihayra, Od Yishama and some niggun that I have heard countless time, but whose name I simply cannot remember.  The only part I had difficulty with was the rotating circular display of Carlebach pictures in the background which made me dizzy.

After that, Green, Gabay and Levine took their leave to be replaced by the venerable Cantor Helfgot who sang what was titled a Racheim medley with Shwekey.  It began with a slow V’liyerushalayim Ircha which quickly segued into Shwekey’s beautiful Im Eshkacheych.  Once again, there were moments where Shwekey was clearly singing a harmony when Helfgot took the high part, but the harmony just wasn’t there on the audio.  From there they moved onto a Yossele Rosenblatt Rachem which was so gorgeous it almost made me not hate chazanus.  There were definitely shots of Shwekey looking clearly delighted to be sharing a stage with Helfgot, though until the final moments of Shwekey’s trademark Racheim, their last song, the two never stood anywhere near each other.  As for Racheim, it just goes to show you how there are certain songs that stand the test of time.  Racheim was the song that put Yaakov Shwekey on the map and helped propel him to stardom.  Eight and a half years later, the song is still a masterpiece and Yaakov Shwekey is still a superstar.

Things really started hopping from here as the stage filled with young boys dressed in assorted Chasidic garb, dancing while Shwekey sang his hit song Ma Ma Ma.  Were they HASC kids?  Children of concert sponsors?  No way to know.  In addition to the regular back up choir, the boys choir was back and they definitely added to the fun.  Once again, in the editing department, there was one moment where Shwekey holds a long note, but even after his mouth is closed, the sound just keeps on coming.   At the very end of the song, the stage got even more crowded as the eight man dancing Chasidim troupe came on stage.  I honestly don’t know how there was room on that stage for the entire orchestra, two backup choirs, and somewhere between fourteen and sixteen dancers.  Oh, and Shwekey.

At long last it was finale time and both backup choirs and all the singers, including Chazan Helfgot were back on stage, singing a long medley of assorted, well, stuff.  It started with one line from the classic Shehechiyanu, moved into Shwekey taking the lead on Mihayra, Gabay doing Legabay, Green reprising Moishele’s Niggun (of course, with everyone singing along).  From there, the tempo stayed the same and they moved into some up-tempo versions of Mama Rochel, Shema Yisroel and V’Zakeini.  (Again, a few moments where you see the boys in the kids choir clearly singing, but the audio is missing.)  I thought they would be done by then, but I was wrong.  The high part of Shwekey’s Im Eshkacheych, followed by Helfgot doing a turn with the rest of Shehechiyanu, and then just a few words each from V’Zakeini, Mehayra, Nishmas, Im Eshkacheych, Mama Rochel till it finally all ended with Shehechiyanu.  It was very nice and there was no question that there were oodles of talent up on that stage, but was I the only one who found themselves growing nostalgic for the good old days when a HASC concert meant a gorgeous English song composed for the evening?

My final thoughts on this DVD?  I would have loved some bonus features:  a few interviews, a couple of outtakes, a few shots of a rehearsal here and there.  I can’t tell you that there weren’t things on this DVD that couldn’t have been done just a little bit cleaner, but if like me, you weren’t able to be at last year’s concert, (or any other HASC concert) this is a great opportunity to see what you missed.  Enjoy!

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