Lift up your voice: Tucson’s cantorial soloists inspire

Some are native Tucsonans, one grew up in Moscow, all dreamed of singing — and Tucson’s cantorial soloists also all are women. A few of the younger soloists began singing at local congregations following their B’not Mitzvah, connecting them more deeply to their Judaism. During this High Holiday season, they join Tucson’s two ordained cantors, Avraham Alpert of Congregation Bet Shalom and Janece Cohen of Congregation Or Chadash, in bringing some of Judaism’s most powerful liturgical melodies to life.

Nichole Chorny

Nichole Chorny, 26, became a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Anshei Israel and started leading occasional services shortly thereafter. A 2008 University of Arizona graduate with a degree in music education, she’s now the cantorial soloist at CAI’s Shabbat morning service and also teaches a B’nai Mitzvah class. Chorny will lead a High Holiday teen service at CAI this year.

Although she has taught music in secular schools, “being a new mom, I always wanted to raise my daughter in a Jewish environment,” Chorny told the AJP. “I’m looking forward to the day when I can take her to services, she can hear me sing while she’s sitting with my husband, [Joel Chorny].”

Bryce Megdal

Bryce Megdal, 22, has been very involved at Temple Emanu-El since her Bat Mitzvah. She also attended Tucson Hebrew Academy. Her sing­ing career started in fourth grade when she joined the Tucson Jewish Youth Choir. Last year, she started singing at Temple’s Northwest Friday night service; this year she leads songs at the Saturday morning service.

“I was shy. I always liked singing. I always liked art. I always liked being Jewish,” she says. Megdal graduated from the UA in May with a degree in Judaic studies and studio art. She isn’t sure what’s next: “Maybe I’ll go to grad school in photography, then go to cantorial school,” she told the AJP. “I compose new melodies to Jewish prayers on my guitar. I would eventually like to put them on a CD and build a good Jewish musical reputation, as Debbie Friedman did.”

Last year Megdal studied in Israel for a semester and also traveled to Poland. One of her favorite Yiddish melodies is Shtiler Shtiler (Quiet Quiet), which Megdal says is “so special to me, so meaningful to me.” In Poland, a tour guide asked her to sing it at a pit in the forest where some 800 Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

“It was very emotional for me,” says Megdal. “It was so quiet all around us. All you could hear was my voice. I recall looking up at those trees, the dark sky.”

Emily Ellentuck

Emily Ellentuck, 28, another Tucson native, also speaks of strong emotions while singing Jewish music. Following her Bat Mitzvah in 1997, she and two other girls led songs at Congregation Or Chadash, prior to Cantor Janece Cohen’s arrival a few years later. “Janece became my mentor,” says Ellentuck. “Once she came I started to sing with her. I learned many new tunes and melodies.”

Ellentuck has taught Judaics at THA for the past six years. She will lead all High Holiday services, with Rabbi Helen Cohn, at Congregation M’Kor Hayim. She will also sing at second-day Rosh Hashanah services at CAI, where she serves as cantorial soloist for a musical Shabbat evening service.

Now the mother of two young children, Ellentuck is drawn to the prayer K’Racheim Av, a less common High Holiday prayer that advises parents to show compassion to their children, as it asks, “Do you show compassion to those who revere you?”

“This prayer really gets to me as a parent,” she says. “I try to show the same compassion to my children as God shows to the Jewish people.”

Marjorie Hochberg

Cantorial soloist Marjorie Hoch­berg has been at Temple Emanu-El for the past 14 years. Her full-time position includes co-officiating at many services and teaching Hebrew to seventh graders and adults, as well as editing Temple’s newsletter. “A lot of cantorial soloists are part-time and then some,” says Hochberg. “My work at Temple is my life. I keep studying voice and Judaism. I think that in a lot of ways Judaism is a psalm. A melody may change over time but music is the heart of the service. Sometimes when I lead services it feels like the spirit of the Divine is coming through my body. When it does happen it’s very inspiring.”

Hochberg grew up in a Reform family in Seattle, where they were members of Temple de Hirsch Sinai. “I sang in the choir from second grade,” she told the AJP. “I wanted to be an opera singer at age 12.” Instead, she attended Reed College in Portland, Ore., for a few years and wound up at the UA in Latin American studies. Hochberg studied Hebrew at the UA and cantillation/trop with various teachers at Temple Emanu-El.

Through the years, “I feel like it’s my job to communicate a certain spiritual energy,” affirms Hochberg.

Leona Mitchell

“It’s wonderful doing what you love to do,” says Leona Mitchell, cantorial soloist at the Institute for Judaic Services and Studies in Saddlebrooke. In addition to cantorial singing, Mitchell has performed one-woman shows such as “Leona Sings Judy” (Garland) four years ago and “Dames on Broadway” two years ago, at Saddlebrooke’s Desert View Theatre. Twenty-five years ago, Mitchell learned cantorial singing from a mentor at Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, Ore.

Since moving to Tucson with her husband six years ago, she has become the sixth-grade Hebrew teacher at Congregation Chaverim and performs B’nai Mitzvah services. She is also a tutor at Congregations Anshei Israel and Or Chadash.

Diana Provolotskaya

Diana Provolotskaya, recently hired as Congregation Chaverim’s cantorial soloist, dreamed of becoming a cantor in her native Moscow. “I grew up in a very religious family, which was absolutely forbidden in Russia, so we were undercover,” Provolotskaya told the AJP. Instead, she trained as a classical singer at the High Music Institute of Ippolitov-Ivanov in Moscow, where she performed for 10 years with the Bolshoi Children’s Choir. Since immigrating with her family to New York City in 1992, Provolotskaya has sung professionally in the United States and Europe. She met her former husband in New York; they moved to Tucson with their three children in 2001.

In Tucson, Provolotskaya has been an annual soloist at Temple Emanu-El’s High Holiday services. She also sings with the Tucson Chamber Artists and is a founding member of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

“I was inspired by Karla Ember” at Chaverim, she says. Her family joined Chaverim in 2008. “I wasn’t familiar with [being] a cantorial soloist. Karla trained me. Three days before Karla was killed she said to me, ‘when I retire I want you to take my place. You have a perfect voice for it.’ She was starting to have health issues with her voice. That’s how it happened, out of this shocking tragedy. I realized it was my destiny” to be a cantorial soloist.

Two years ago, Chaverim’s Rabbi Stephanie Aaron “offered me the opportunity to sing at their Rosh Hashanah service on Mt. Lemmon. People were so crushed. You can’t replace Karla, but I told Rabbi Aaron about our conversation. Rabbi Aaron was very moved by that.”

Chaverim invited various people to sing as guests for around two years, says Provolotskaya. “It was hard to accept anyone after Karla. They hired me in July. ‘Every time you sing at Shabbat services people cry,’ I was told. I said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat. I’m going to learn a lot,” she continues. “I’m so happy I can’t describe it. The people at [Chaverim] are so warm and welcoming.”

Dale Whitmore

For Dale Whitmore, becoming a cantorial soloist “was nothing I ever planned on, but my whole life I have dreamed of singing ‘Avinu Malkeinu.’ I never thought I’d be in a position to do it.” Whitmore and her family joined Congregation Ner Tamid (now Kol Simchah) 18 years ago, when Rabbi Joe Weizenbaum officiated there.

“I was singing in the choir,” says Whitmore, when Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Shafir Lobb asked her to be the cantorial soloist. Choir Director Maya Kashtelyan helped train her for her new role. Whitmore was already a member of the Tucson Community Chorus and now sings with the Tucson Masterworks Chorale and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

Whitmore, a social studies teacher at Canyon Del Oro High School by day, is no stranger to quick learning. “I took my first ballet class at age 27,” she told the AJP. “Two years later I was teaching. I taught ballet for 20 years.”

As Kol Simchah’s cantorial soloist she’s still learning. “It took me a long time to get over performance anxiety in ballet and in teaching. But I’m so blessed,” says Whitmore, adding that being a cantorial soloist “is fun. I just love it. I feel like I’m making a spiritual contribution to my community.”