NASA launched the twin Voyager spacecrafts into the cosmos in 1977. In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first vessel to explore interstellar space, or the region between stars, and today, both probes float through the Milky Way Galaxy, collecting data for the agency’s Deep Space Network.
Shaarei Tikvah’s Cantor Gerald Cohen composed a piece inspired by the historic spacecrafts, which premiered at the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium on the 40th anniversary of their launch. Several accomplished musicians will perform “Voyagers” at Shaarei Tikvah, 46 Fox Meadow Road, in the temple’s annual concert Saturday, May 11, at 9 p.m.
Cohen, 59, was particularly inspired by the famed Golden Records, the 12-inch, gold-plated phonograph records aboard each of the Voyager spacecrafts. These copper disks contain music and images designed to represent Earth should ever the Voyagers be discovered by alien life. Cohen’s composition weaves excerpts from three songs on the records — Beethoven’s “Cavatina”; “Bhairavi,” an Indian raga; and “Galliard,” a Renaissance dance.
The three pieces served as the launchpoint for Cohen’s original work, he explained. “That’s one way I love to work, to have something as a given … and then improvise a lot on the piano and see how my ideas might grow [from there] ... free association.”
Cohen is an accomplished composer and a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Gramophone Magazine lauded his “linguistic fluidity and melodic gift,” adding his music “reveals a very personal modernism that … offers great emotional rewards.” He has written two full-length operas, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” which premiered at Opera Colorado last January, and “Sarah and Hagar,” based on the story from the book of Genesis. The noted baritone has served as cantor at Shaarei Tikvah for 32 years, starting a full decade before two local congregations, Emanuel Jewish Center of Mount Vernon and Genesis Agudas Achim of Tuckahoe, merged.
He’s been composing and playing piano “basically all my life,” writing his first piece at age 7, and singing earnestly since his early 20s. Equally at home in chamber, choral, opera and liturgical music, Cohen said he is always fishing for new stories to set to music.
“I do a lot of reading, a lot of thinking,” he added. Most often, he prefers audio books; he’s currently immersed in a biography on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
His interest in outer space was the gateway to “Voyagers,” prompting an extensive research period and an enjoyable writing process. Considering man’s fascination with space travel, Cohen said, “All of the lives that have ever been lived here [on Earth] … we’re this tiny, tiny part of this huge universe.”
As a man of science and faith, he added, “For me, there really is no conflict. They complement each other. I feel this great wonder both at the hugeness of the universe … and [as] an important part of my spiritual life.”
Cohen, a Yonkers resident, wrote “Voyagers” for longtime collaborators and featured performers Vasko Dukovski and the Cassatt String Quartet, whom Cohen praised for their matchless technique and experimental approach.
“They’re incredibly adventurous,” he said. “That’s one of the things that inspires me most as a composer, writing for great performers.”
The Manhattan-based Cassatt String Quartet has performed worldwide since its inception in 1985, with appearances in London for the Sapphire Jubilee Celebration of Queen Elizabeth II, the Beijing Modern Music Festival, the Theatre des Champs in Paris and Carnegie Hall. Violinist Jennifer Leshnower joined the ensemble in 1994, making the move from her home in Texas to Ossining.
After many years together, the women bond over personal interests as much as music, Leshnower, 51, said. They shop, grab meals between rehearsals and swap motherhood stories. It has become “an extension of our families,” Leshnower said. They also relish collaborating with other musicians, “folks we’ve worked with … and enjoyed not only their artistry, but their friendships.”
“Voyagers” is the second piece Cohen has composed for the quartet; the first, “Playing for Our Lives,” is a tribute to the the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt).
Sharing the program with Cohen and the quartet — in the temple’s cafe-style concert — is Dukovski, a renowned multi-instrumentalist, on clarinet and Argentine bassist and composer Pablo Aslan. The performance will feature a diverse repertoire, including Aslan’s tangos, klezmer and Romani dances, and Cohen’s piece, “Preludes and Debka,” which is based on a Middle Eastern dance.
“I just love it,” Leshnower said. “We are looking at voyages across musical idioms, genres and styles.”