The fact that the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony is making a big deal out of its 18th anniversary concert on Sunday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre — and isn't sure whether it will treat its 20th as a special occasion — is just the latest unique happenstance flowing from Noreen Green's decision to strike up an orchestra different from all other orchestras.
Her idea of forming an ensemble that follows Jewish threads through the classical and pops traditions has had enough staying power to reach a milestone that is itself uniquely Jewish.
In Jewish tradition, Hebrew letters do double-duty as numbers, and 18 takes on a special significance of good luck and blessings. That's because the eighth and 10th letters of the alphabet not only form the numerical value 18, but spell "chai," the word for life. The Jewish toast, "l'chaim" — "to life" — gave rise to a celebratory number in "Fiddler on the Roof," and the same concept is behind the celebratory concert that Green will conduct, featuring her 50-piece ensemble, plus a children's chorus and musical guests.
The commitment to playing music by Jewish composers or inspired by Jewish life and themes hasn't been limiting, says Green, who grew up in Sherman Oaks and is music director of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino.
"Jewish music is symbolic of Jewish experience, and the Jewish experience is the human experience," she says.
Such an encompassing concept demands versatility, and over the years the Jewish Symphony has played avant-garde classical music by Arnold Schoenberg, 20th century works by Ernest Bloch heavily influenced by 19th century Romantic composers, irony-laced show music by Kurt Weill, and lighthearted musical comedy — including a concert rendition 12 years ago of "Grossinger's — the Last Resort," which told the story of the birth of the Borscht Belt comic shtick tradition that gave rise to Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield, among many others.
The L.A. Jewish Symphony also has taken a unique itinerary through Southern California venues. Though it has often been heard at synagogues, universities and Jewish community centers, it also has performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in benefit concerts, put on an evening of works by Jewish women composers at UCLA's Royce Hall — and played in the food court of the Westside Pavilion mall.
It played Gershwin to help celebrate the consecration of a new Jewish cemetery in Simi Valley, and accompanied the likes of Marvin Hamlisch, Theodore Bikel and Lainie Kazan at the Greek Theatre in televised concerts carried on the Jewish Life cable and satellite TV network. It has had Randy Newman guest-conducting portions of his film score for "Avalon," and Leonard Nimoy as dramatic narrator of Ernst Toch's Passover-inspired "Cantata of the Bitter Herbs." It delves into joyful, whirlingly kinetic music from the klezmer tradition — and on many occasions has mustered the gravitas needed for musical remembrances of the Holocaust.
"The mission is to perform concerts and be a community resource, and a showcase for emerging talent, composers and artists," said Green, who while guiding the Jewish Symphony has also been raising her son and daughter, both 15.
Her husband, oncologist and managed care executive Ian Drew, has been another constant as the Jewish Symphony's president. A staff of four part-time employees handles day-to-day business matters, including courting donors to cover much of the orchestra's annual budget of $250,000 to $300,000.
The ensemble's cornerstones include concertmaster Mark Kashper and principal cellist Barry Gold, both members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; principal flutist David Shostac, whose regular group is the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; and principal clarinetist and arranger Zinovy Goro. They're among the paid professionals who form the core of the Jewish Symphony — with volunteers taking the rest of the chairs, among them professional music teachers who enjoy having a performing outlet.
Green doesn't know how many of the players are Jewish — it's not something one asks at an audition — but she guesses that Jews make up a great majority of the volunteers and as many as half of the paid professionals.
For non-Jewish players, she said, "I think there's a curiosity factor" that draws them to the Jewish repertoire. "Musicians want to be challenged. Everybody around town plays film music, or the same [classical] music. We play different music."
The orchestra's audience surveys haven't tried to determine concertgoers' religious or ethnic makeup. Its ongoing education programs, which blend musical and visual art components, are geared toward crossing boundaries, because they are given not only at Jewish day schools but at public schools that include a majority Latino student body.
The focus of the 18 years has been to range through a widening repertoire rather than to grow into a bigger enterprise.
The Ford Amphitheatre, whose summer program highlights L.A.'s ethnic and performing arts diversity, has been an annual stop for the Jewish Symphony since 2004. For Sunday's 18-year "CHAIlights" program, Green promises a blend of Sephardic and Ashkenazic (eastern and central European) Jewish music, the U.S. premiere of "Klezmopolitan Suite" by Swiss composer Niki Reiser, contributions from the 40-voice Jewish Community Children's Choir, and a liturgical solo from the cantorial repertoire by Nathan Lam, now the cantor of Stephen S. Wise Temple — and 40 years ago the one who officiated at her bat mitzvah.