Here is my recollection of the chazan extraordinaire, from a working draft of the chapter on the "performer" in my current book project (posted 11/1/2010).
Cantor Louis Danto was a happy Hazzan. His chanting was upbeat and peppy. I heard him often at the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center as a child and teen ager in the fifties and sixties. I knew then that Danto was a world class singer, a tenor whose beautiful voice was trained yet ethereal. And I could see that he comprehended and loved the words of the prayers and cherished their meanings. I did not know at the time that he had studied at Yeshivas and in conservatories in Europe, that he had won prizes, that he later would go on to perform worldwide, to record many albums of Jewish songs, of folk, popular, romantic and operatic music.
As a kid in Atlantic Beach, I did not know that later he’d be celebrated for his unmatched graceful yet ornate bel canto artistry, for his classical vocalization and his just plain beautiful singing. I just loved his extraordinary rendition of the shehechiyanu blessing after the Kiddush on a Yom Tov holiday. In it we simply praise God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this special day. His blessing rang out with such emotion and expressivity that it just lifted my soul. I can recall vividly to this day Danto’s ringing repeated conclusion of the blessing, “…to this day,” “Lazman hazeh, lazman hazeh…” And I’ve tried at every holiday to replicate the joy of that singing as best as I can in my own prosaic chanting of the same blessing.
Danto defined for me how a formal davening should sound. Wow, he set the bar way high up. His lyrical davening changed the character of the sanctuary. From listening to him I learned that a good chazzan like Danto creates a palpable focus, a presence, a joyous and numinous, holy quality in the house of prayer.
Not every congregation can be fortunate enough to have such a performer. Many synagogues still do have professional cantors who lead the services. However, for reasons that I have yet to figure out, many congregations these days want basically untrained volunteers to lead the prayers.
Whatever the style, at every service in an actual brick-and-mortar synagogue, Jewish prayer is an orchestrated performance, led by a leader and joined by an involved congregation. The synagogue members attending the service act at times as a performing chorus and at other times as a listening audience.... to be continued in my book...
You can hear and see a clip of Cantor Danto's mastery at a concert in Brooklyn in 1982: Moshe Koussevitzky Memorial Concert, Chapter 3, Cantor Louis Danto זצ"ל from Arthur Rubin Studios on Vimeo.