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A legacy cut loose

Times Staff Writer

In “Tropic of Cancer,” Henry Miller recalls a brief Florida sojourn. Hungry and looking for a handout, he dragged himself into a synagogue. The rabbi impressed him, but the music -- “that piercing lamentation of the Jews” -- transfixed him.

It’s a bit reductive to condense several centuries’ worth of music into two words. But Neil W. Levin -- artistic director of the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, which Naxos is releasing on CD -- is more reductive still. He points out that “there are only 12 notes, and none of them has a Jewish mother.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 26, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Weill work -- An article about Jewish music in the Feb. 15 Sunday Calendar mistakenly referred to Kurt Weill’s stage work “The Eternal Road” as “The Lost Road.” In the same article, composer Lazare Saminsky’s first name was misspelled Lazre.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Weill work -- An article in the Feb. 15 Calendar mistakenly referred to Kurt Weill’s stage work “The Eternal Road” as “The Lost Road.” In the same article, composer Lazare Saminsky’s first name was misspelled Lazre.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Weill work -- An article about Jewish music in the Feb. 15 Sunday Calendar mistakenly referred to Kurt Weill’s stage work “The Eternal Road” as “The Lost Road.” In the same article, composer Lazare Saminsky’s first name was misspelled Lazre.

All the same, many composers with Jewish mothers helped shape 20th century music: Mahler, Schoenberg, Gershwin, Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the new-music gang known as Bang on a Can.

None has garnered fame or influence by dint of religion or ethnicity. That’s true even of the overtly Jewish Bernstein. Would anyone, for instance, go so far as to label “West Side Story” Jewish? Mahler’s religion was a drawback in anti-Semitic 19th century Vienna, so he converted to Catholicism.

Like Mendelssohn a century earlier, Schoenberg converted to Lutheranism, although he converted back while fleeing Nazi Germany. In the case of most other major Jewish composers, their religion has not been of particular interest to their wide publics.

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But guess what? “West Side Story” is Jewish; Raphael Mostel, a composer steeped in Jewish tradition, has identified the show’s opening phrase as aversion of the call of the shofar, the ram’s horn blown on the Jewish New Year.

And however non-Jewish the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, they can nonetheless express the Jewish experience. To prove it, under Levin’s supervision the Milken Archive has recorded about 600 works of American Jewish music, enough to keep Naxos CDs coming for a long time.

Something’s clearly up. Klezmer music, with its folk-inflected Eastern European strains, has become a bestselling subset of world music, and Yiddish music is playing catch-up in popularity among Gentiles. Los Angeles has a Jewish Symphony. A trio of leading cantors have cantillated their way onto PBS, and one of them, Alberto Mizrahi, is being billed as “the Jewish Pavarotti” for a recital next Sunday at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino. Osvaldo Golijov, whose music will be featured by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this month, is a new music sensation who seductively merges his Russian Jewish upbringing with the music of his native Argentina.

One way to gauge this growing interest in Jewish music is to consider that it hasn’t been a category for that long. The critical literature didn’t begin with any seriousness until a century ago, and it got a major boost only recently with the boom in Holocaust studies. With each edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the article on Jewish music has doubled in size and scope. In the latest edition, it runs nearly 100 double-column pages. Read it and be overwhelmed.

What do we speak of when we speak of Jewish music? For starters, there are the complex and often arcane liturgical traditions of the Friday evening and Saturday morning Sabbath services, much of them chanted by a cantor and a rabbi. The variants are great, depending on heritage, nationality and orthodoxy. The folk styles that developed outside the synagogue (where instruments were not allowed and where men and women were segregated and had their own musical styles) are more familiar, particularly klezmer, because of its adaptability to jazz and popular music.

But you need to know nothing about Jewish music to grasp the origins of a cantor’s soulful chanting. There is never any doubt about the ethnicity of the laughing, crying, wheedling, enticing klezmer clarinet. Yiddish folk songs are immediately identifiable as such. Miller’s “piercing lamentation” may be simplistic, but we know what he meant.

With the Diaspora, the sense of identity in Jewish music has remained strong of necessity. Yet there is also no fighting off assimilation, the other principal facet of Jewish culture. Jews argue, and tradition versus assimilation is one thing they argue about.

It is this struggle between identity and assimilation that, in one way or another, makes Jewish music Jewish. It takes a sleuth to discover the hidden shofar call in “West Side Story” or identify the tune of Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” as that of a blessing said over the Torah. These references were undoubtedly subconscious. But one tradition nevertheless informs another.

Mostel is an interesting case in point. The son of a rabbi and the nephew of the late actor Zero Mostel -- the original Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” -- he is an avant-garde composer who is best known for having formed the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble in the 1980s. The music he writes for the ensemble has little to do with the music of Tibet. Instead, Mostel was attracted to the overtone-rich frequencies of these bowls, which are rubbed to produce their mysteriously spectral sounds.

But speaking from his New York apartment, Mostel says that if he reflects back, he can see where that fascination came from. “My earliest musical memories,” he recalls, “were in the kind of synagogue that has practically disappeared now. The congregation were East European Jews who didn’t know what the modern tuning of a tempered scale was.

“One of the things that impressed me most was hearing music as a means of theological argument. The cantor would emphasize a point by a certain musical turn of phrase, and the congregation would argue with him musically, singing out what they thought to be the meaning of the phrase.”

The worshipers, in other words, were also music critics. “If they thought the cantor sang something too beautifully, if he were too much in love with the sound of his own voice, they would push him ahead.”

Mostel, who is himself a music critic for the New York Jewish newspaper the Forward, discerns his avant-garde roots in this permission to argue: “Because of the Jewish idea of the unknowability of God, one learns to question authority, to question all ideas.”

Every Jew, however, assimilates differently. Another avant-garde composer is Benedict Weisser, an American living in Amsterdam. He comes from a line of cantors. In the 1950s, his father, Albert Weisser, wrote what is still a classic textbook on Jewish music.

Like Mostel, Weisser went off on an experimental direction. But he also found his tradition inescapable: He did the orchestral arrangements for the video and CD of the PBS cantors. These three emote all over the place, and their concerts are not exactly Bang on a Cantor, but Weisser is a sly orchestrator who hints at Minimalism, plays around with ethereal orchestrations and does something different for each number in his quest to bring the trance-like effect and deep spirituality of great cantorial singing to a popular medium.

“We are the cumulative effect of everything we are and what we do,” Weisser said over the phone from Amsterdam as he prepared to leave for the premiere there of his latest work -- an Indonesian gamelan arrangement of a Jewish folk song.

There is nothing so imaginatively far afield as the likes of Mostel or Weisser on the first 10 of the Milken Archive releases. But they range widely in their efforts to find music relevant to the Jewish experience in America.

Included in these early offerings are chants and prayers from Colonial America, Yiddish theater music, excerpts from Weill’s Broadway epic “The Lost Road,” sacred services by Milhaud and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Bernstein juvenilia of little value, and trivial arrangements of Hanukkah songs. The releases aren’t limited to Jewish composers. One disc is devoted to Dave Brubeck’s dated cantata, “The Gates of Justice,” written in 1969 for cantor and black singer, chorus and jazz band.

But the question these days is not what is Jewish music so much as what is great Jewish music. Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is. So is Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg’s “Hydrogen Jukebox.” So too Steve Reich’s “Tehellim” and “Different Trains,” Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and, believe it or not, his “Mass.”

Thus one turns to the Milken releases not to find out about Jewish music but to discover examples. From the first group, two discs stand out, because they are intensely religious, potentially beguiling to a broad audience, and because they contain nary a piercing lamentation. They are the sacred services, each written on the West Coast in the 1940s and intended as much for the concert hall as the synagogue.

The Swiss Jewish composer Ernst Bloch paved the way for them in 1933 with his “Sacred Service,” but it is overblown. These later works, which spring from the Spanish and North African Sephardic tradition rather than the German and Eastern European Ashkenazi one, are by composers who had sunny musical dispositions. Their idea of the liturgy is sweet opulence and exoticism.

The Sabbath service always begins with a welcome to worshipers to the house of God. And Milhaud, who had been one of the Les Six composers in Paris in the ‘20s and who ended his career teaching at Mills College in Oakland, brings a flavorful Provencal quality to his score that is the last word in hospitality. These are tunes you simply don’t want to stop.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s service, commissioned for Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Monica in 1943, is modest, using only an organ to accompany chorus, baritone and a rabbinic reader (Milhaud incorporates orchestra). But it is dazzling, joyous music by a neglected Italian composer who ended his career in Los Angeles, teaching as well as composing.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco, in fact, is exactly the kind of composer one hopes Milken will help revive. It’s time to dig out his glorious Violin Concerto No. 2 (“The Prophets”), which Jascha Heifetz premiered with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini in 1933.

Instead, Naxos unearths Joseph Achron, a Russian composer whom Heifetz also championed and who wound up writing film scores in Hollywood. Maybe a more gripping performance than Naxos’ (the violinist is Elmar Oliveira, who is accompanied by the Berlin Radio Symphony under Joseph Silverstein) could make Achron’s Violin Concerto No. 1 sound less discursive. It’s a real Jewish concerto in that it takes its motifs from cantillation and Yemenite lamentations but without imagination.

Still, there is something to be said for inviting Achron -- who is remembered mainly for a schmaltzy violin encore, “Hebrew Melody” -- into the Milken mix. It opens more doors. In the 1920s, Achron was in the St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society. This group of composers, followers of Rimsky-Korsakov’s injunction to become Jewish Glinkas, thrived before the Stalinist crackdown.

Few today know of Lazre Saminsky, Mikhail Gniessen, Alexander Krein or Alexander Veprik. But the Los Angeles-based conductor Neal Stulberg does. He has been researching them for the last few years and this week is recording several of their works in Germany for a German radio broadcast later in the year.

Many of these composers, Stulberg said as he was preparing to leave for Dusseldorf, joined the musical experiments that the most exciting Russian composers were pursuing.

“Krein, for one, was known as the Jewish Scriabin,” he said. “But they were all elemental, direct, identity-driven, passionate and excellent craftsmen. Maybe they weren’t all absolutely first-rate, but even second-rate Russian music isn’t so bad.”

At a small gathering the night before our conversation, Stulberg played two piano sonatas by Veprik, who is known, if at all, for his pedagogy. Both were from the ‘20s, when he was in his 20s. The first sounded derivative of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. But the second was distinctive in the bold way it submerged a melody with the character of a Hebraic chant into a rhapsodic, slightly Futurist filigree.

Had I not known the composer, I would have immediately recognized that he was Russian -- but probably not that he was Jewish. That’s the trick of assimilation.

Jewish music can be written to be Jewish, but what ultimately makes most of it Jewish is what a listener brings to it. Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre” was composed by a Gentile. I dismiss the sentimental cello piece as a tourist’s postcard from the ghetto. My Jewish mother cried every time she heard it.

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The forces behind a music archive

The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music was the brainchild of Lowell Milken, younger brother of former junk bond king Michael Milken. They cofounded the Santa Monica-based Milken Family Foundation, established in 1982. The foundation has contributed millions of dollars to Jewish and non-Jewish charitable organizations. But in 1990, according to Lowell Milken, he sought to combine two lifelong passions -- for synagogue life and music -- by starting the archive.

The project is headed by Neil W. Levin, an authority on Jewish music and a professor who teaches the subject at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. The first batch of CDs from the more than 600 works the archive has recorded, about 500 of them for the first time, was released in September.

In promoting the recordings, the archive notes that 2004 marks the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in America. Lowell Milken says that by making more of this music available, “we also hope to encourage present and future composers and performers to express Jewish themes in their music.”

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Music’s long reach

Here is a personal and highly selective sampling of Jewish music on disc.

Steve Reich

“Thallium” (Nonesuch)

There are thousands of Psalm settings, but these four, sung in ancient Hebrew, are given incomparable shine by Reich.

Morton Feldman

“Rothko Chapel” (New Albion)

Within Feldman’s calm, floating, ethereal music are faint traces of Jewish folk song.

Leonard Bernstein

Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”), “Mass” (both Sony Classical)

These highly theatrical pieces are radically different, but both represent Bernstein’s epic struggle with God.

Raphael Mostel

“Ceremonial for the Equinox”

(digital fossils)

Mostel’s Tibetan Bowl Ensemble, drummers and a host of shofar players use Jewish melodies as the core of a mesmerizing celebratory rite.

Ernst Bloch

“Schlomo” (Deutsche Grammophon)

Bernstein’s last recording of one of the few well-known classical pieces with a Jewish theme features cellist Mischa Maisky and the Israel Symphony in an emotionally over-the-top performance.

Philip Glass

“Hydrogen Jukebox” (Nonesuch)

This music theater piece is the collaboration of two practicing Buddhists who can’t hide their Jewish roots.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Violin Concerto No. 2 (“The Prophets”) (RCA Victor)

Jascha Heifetz made his splendid recording of this lyrical work suffused with Hebrew melody in 1954 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Darius Milhaud

“Sacred Service” (Accord)

Gerard Schwarz’s new CD is more than serviceable, but this recording conducted by the composer is sweeter.

Osvaldo Golijov

“The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” (Nonesuch)

Golijov’s breakthrough chamber-music epic comes to ravishing life in a performance by the klezmer and classical clarinetist David Krakauer and the Kronos String Quartet.

Mark Swed is The Times’ classical music critic.


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