Cantor Erik Contzius: Teach My Lips A Blessing

Cantor Erik Contzius cover art

Cantor Erik Contzius: Teach My Lips A Blessing
2008 / self-produced, featuring the Amor Artis Chamber Choir
20 tracks; 56:49 minutes
Reviewed by Tobin Mueller

Teach My Lips A Blessing is a marvelous collection of spiritually affecting songs by Erik Contzius. Although these are mostly religious Hebrew texts, the music and performances are accessible to everyone. I recommend this CD to any fan of choral works.

Erik Contzius is known to Macjammers simply as “the Cantor.” I imagine he is known to many in New Rochelle as the same. That is where he currently serves as the Cantor (Temple Israel). When I asked Erik to provide some biographical material, he replied with characteristic wit and humility, “My synagogue underwrote the project, so all proceeds go to the Temple. I’m a nice Jewish boy.”

Much of Erik’s music on Macjams employs a similar self-deprecating sense of humor. Although the music on Teach My Lips A Blessing is far more serious, as well it should be, it surpasses anything Erik has shared with us to date, owing to its depth of spiritual power, its sweetly bold writing, and nearly perfect production.

Teach My Lips A Blessing was recorded with the Amor Artis Chamber Choir, conducted by Johannes Somary (who has also conducted London’s Royal Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, among other prestigious groups). There are a few a cappella pieces scattered among the collection, adding to the variety, but most pieces are accompanied by pipe organ, flawlessly played by Christopher Creaghan. The balance between soloists, ensemble and organ is excellent. Recorded at St. Ignatus of Antioch (NYC) and produced by Jon Altschiller (who normally works with people like Ben Folds, Dave Matthews, etc.), the sound achieved captures all the natural ambience of a church/temple setting without ever sacrificing immediacy. The warmth of spirit surrounds, envelopes, comes to the edge of saturation, searing certain emotions to the bone. It’s as if you are there.

Teach My Lips A Blessing is a collection of original devotional compositions. Cantor Erik Contzius’ music is meant to reflect his relationship with the Divine. But they also reflect his varied community interests and lifelong passions that include Hazzanut (cantorial art music), Yiddish folk song, as well as Opera and Broadway. All can be heard influencing this collection.

Erik is also the main baritone soloist, displaying heartfelt dexterity as he navigates the demanding ornamentation of Jewish music while maintaining a sense of light opera showmanship. Don’t get me wrong: every note is imbued with authenticity and meaningfulness. Any flaws only add to the humanity of the songs, never detracting musically.

Additional soloists include: Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky (And Hannah Prayed), Jacob Meiner (a 15 year old student of Erik’s – Psalm 23), the Junior Choir at Contzius’ Shul (singing on two delightful tracks), and Cantor Helene Reps.

The ensemble, Amor Artis, has achieved considerable recognition internationally through its many concerts and extensive discography, encompassing more than forty recordings. The ensemble distinguishes itself through authentic versions in style and setting of Baroque and liturgical Jewish music, paving the way for the performances of these works given in the United States today.

Teach My Lips A Blessing was made as a 100th birthday present for Temple Israel of New Rochelle. Cantor Contzius is giving it out for free to them. The project was underwritten by one generous congregant. All proceeds go to the temple’s music fund.

The music is available for sale as sheet music, as well. Contact Cantor Erik Contzius through his website.

In addition to serving currently as the Cantor of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, Erik has also served as Cantor at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania and Temple Israel of Omaha, Nebraska, and was the Composer-in-Residence at Temple Israel of Northern Westchester.

Directing all musical liturgies for synagogue worship, Cantor Contzius has composed other original works for the synagogue, namely Hineh Ma Tov and Shalom Rav, which have been published by Transcontinental Music Publications, as well as a large self-published catalogue. His composition, And Hannah Prayed, was recently selected to be performed in The Third International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music sponsored by Shalshelet.

In addition to this recording, Erik has performed a solo collection of Jewish art music for both cantor and pipe organ interpretations entitled, How Excellent is Thy Name. He has appeared as a soloist on the recording Celebrate Chanukah with the Westminster Choir College’s Youth Chorale.

Cantor Contzius has performed in many distinguished solo presentations, most recently appearing with the Westchester Chorale under the baton of Maestro Daniel Paget in Handel’s Israel in Egypt. He has presented internationally, performing in a concert entitled “Vergessene Musik—The Forgotten Music of the German Jewish Reform Movement” in Münich, Germany. He has been heard at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City two years consecutively, performing in their Jewish Vienna and Germany concerts. Cantor Contzius also appeared on the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., performing as a soloist in a special concert titled Let Freedom Sing. He was invited to perform at the International Organ Festival of Göteborg, Sweden where he led services at the Great Synagogue of Göteborg. His vocal training is ongoing, having studied with Tom Lomonaco, Carlos Serrano, David Adams, and presently with Dr. Donald Roberts.

Raised in Parsippany, New Jersey, Cantor Contzius received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at Rutgers College and then went on to study abroad at the University of York, England. He received his Master of Sacred Music degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, School of Sacred Music, studying in Israel and New York City. He resides in New Rochelle, New York with his lovely wife Monica and his son Jacob.

Cantor Erik Contzius is a member of the following organizations:
❖American Conference of Cantors (ACC)
❖Kol Hazzanim—Westchester Community of Cantors
❖The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)
❖American Composers Forum (ACF)

1 Hineih Mah Tov
2 Y’did Nefesh
3 Mi Khamokha
4 V’sham’ru
5 T’fillah
6 Yism’khu
7 Eloheinu… R’tzei
8 Shalom Rav
9 Yih’yu L’ratzon
10 Mi Shebeirakh
11 Candle Blessing for Kol Nidrei
12 Y’varekh’kha
13 Ya’aleh V’yavo
14 And Hannah Prayed
15 The Travelers’ Prayer
16 Our Task
17 Psalm 23
18 Psalm 150
19 Lamdeini Elohai
20 Ein Keloheinu


Erik Contzius – New Cantorial Music in the German Reform Style
Review by Jack, Teruah – Jewish Music

There are other histories out there, if we know how to listen for them. Other musics that remind us of how complicated, and interesting, our trip has been and how brutally the 20th century disrupted that trip. But these histories are starting to reassert themselves. We all know about the klezmer revival, and I’ve written many times about reassertion of Sephardic musical culture in west, the explosion in Jewish popular and art musics, and the rise of the songleader folk pop-liturgy. Guess what..chazzanut, that great voice on the pulpit, still has it’s champions and they’re creating a new generation of liturgy work that is vital and compelling. And they’re reconnecting current chazznut with historic traditions that have all but faded from memory in America.

Erik Contzius has a new recording, Teach My Lips a Blessing, of cantorial music in the German Reform tradition. For someone growing up in a mid-20th century Conservative American synagogue, it sounds like it could be from the moon. Shabbat prayers sung over pipe organ, backed by a large mixed choir? It’s a distinctive soundscape that violates Orthodox and Conservative halacha (use of instruments on the Shabbat) and my sense of history (the role of the cantor fading as community prayer practice has become communal and participatory). But that sound!

Contzius has done something magical. This isn’t the mighty voiced lion of a cantor praising and supplicating as the voice of his community. It’s also not a call and response prayer leader. It’s something different. Contzius has a strong clear voice, without the operatic theatrics I’ve heard in many cantors and cantorial recordings (If anything, his voice tends toward Broadway a bit too much at points. ) It’s warm and inviting, and with the choir and organ behind him feels like he’s singing both for and with the community at the same time. This is a very different sensibility than a songleader grabbing a guitar to lead a hundred congregants through an out of tune Shalom Rav. (which is a wonderful thing, too). There is a sense of leadership here, Contzius reaching out through his voice, showing us the way, and bringing us along. I don’t feel the urge to sing when listening to Contzius, but I feel that his singing includes me already. While I love communal singing, there is a power to this way too.

Amazon has graciously provided us with a chance to hear some clips of Contzius recording. In particular listen to V’Shamru. I’ve relistened to it about a dozen times. (I get to cheat. Contzius sent me the album so I get to hear the full recording). It soars, but never so high that it leaves the choir voices behind. And that’s pretty special and may help breath new life into chazzanut.

You can hear more Contzius compositions, learn more about his approach, and purchase this recording via his website or download the tracks through the Amazon player.


Temple Israel of New Rochelle
Erik Contzius, cantor & composer

Where to buy:

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