Sunday, July 2
Miami City Ballet whoops it up for its 20th anniversary, with its tour of performances of signature pieces by Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Included are Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free,” which was the inspiration for the musical, “On the Town,” and Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” accompanied, as you might’ve guessed, by songs by the blue-eyed crooner.
June 30-July 2. $25-$95. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500
Monday, July 3
Shaken or stirred, the martini is more than a drink today. It is a symbol. Sculptor Thomas Mann asked artists to riff on it, reinterpreting the conical glass’ shape and context. “The Martini Show” premiered in New Orleans as a benefit for Craft Emergency Relief Fund. It runs here at Altered Space Gallery, through July 24.
Contemporary art+craft+design, 1221 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 452-8121
Tuesday, July 4
What goes great with burgers and dogs? Your radio dial tuned to 89.9 KCRW-FM. Its special Independence Day programming features “a day of music by American artists who embrace the spirit of independence.” The lineup of musical patriots includes Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, Patti Smith and the Dixie Chicks. The presentations feature music as well as interview clips and other materials.
89.9 KCRW-F, ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Wednesday, July 5
Collapsing just moments after a performance of his stirring trio, “In memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich,” at the Jewish Music Commission concert last month, professor Joseph Dorfman was unable to be revived. He died at age 65. In his memory, a concert will be held this evening at Valley Beth Shalom, to benefit the newly founded fund in his name.
7:30 p.m. Free (general), $15 (reserved seats). 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. R.S.V.P., (818) 788-6000.
Thursday, July 6
Gay lovers struggle to deal with their oppressive societies against the backdrop of World War II France in the case of “A Love to Hide (Un Amour à Taire),” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the case of “Zero Degrees of Separation.” The two films are part of this year’s Outfest 24th Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which begins today.
Times, prices and screening venues vary by film. Abovementioned films screen at Directors Guild Theatre, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.
Friday, July 7
More lovers caught on opposite sides of the political fence emerge in the film, “Only Human.” Opening today, the Spanish production tells the farcical tale of Jewish Leni, who brings home her boyfriend, Rafi, to meet the folks. But madness ensues when they find out Rafi is Palestinian.
Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. (818) 981-9811. Laemmle One Colorado, Pasadena. (626) 744-1244. www.laemmle.com” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
7 Days in the Arts
7 Days in The Arts
Saturday, June 3
Left-leaning readers will appreciate tonight’s show featuring political commentary. “Laughing Liberally” is in town for just one night, after a successful February debut at New York City’s Town Hall. Attend to hear comedians/commentators Will Durst, Jim David, Marc Maron, Dean Obeidallah, Rick Overton and Katie Halper skewer Bush and roast the White House.
8:30 p.m. $25-$43. Wadsworth Theatre (on the VA grounds), Building 226, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. (213) 365-3500. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Sunday, June 4
The South Robertson Neighborhoods Council puts on its annual block party “It’s a SoRo World” this weekend.
The free festival will include vendor and food booths representing area businesses, including Nathan’s kosher hot dogs, a block-long kids fun zone and an environmental pavilion.
11 a.m.-4 p.m. South Robertson Boulevard, between Beverlywood Street and Cattaraugus Avenue. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Monday, June 5
“Reel Talk With Stephen Farber,” the preview film screening and conversation series hosted by Movieline’s film critic, returns for another 10-evening series, beginning tonight. Head to the Wadsworth Theatre for a screening of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” the documentary by Chris Paine recently shown at Sundance and Tribeca film fests. Farber will converse with Paine and exec producer Dean Devlin following the movie.
7 p.m. Mondays, June 5-Aug. 14. $20 (individual screenings), $150 (series). Wadsworth Theatre (on the VA grounds), Building 226, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood. (213) 365-3500. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Tuesday, June 6
Writers Bloc’s concept of featuring one renowned author interviewing another has made for unique literary evenings, offering something more than the usual book reading and signing. This evening, their duo will be modern master John Updike, interviewed by L.A.-centric satirical writer Bruce Wagner.
$20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Wednesday, June 7
Don’t call the late Claire Falkenstein’s pieces “sculpture.” She preferred “structures,” OK? The acclaimed artist’s works included gates designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s estate in Venice, Italy, in 1961,and many of her large-scale pieces can still be viewed in touring our fair city. Easier still, Louis Stern Fine Arts presents one in a series of exhibitions displaying works from Falkenstein’s estate. “Claire Falkenstein: Structure and Flow, Works from 1950-1980” is on view through Aug. 26.
Free. 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (310) 276-0147. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Thursday, June 8
They call it California’s Shangri-La; classical music lovers call it home this weekend. It’s Ojai Valley, and today through Sunday, it presents the annual Ojai Music Festival, now in its 60th year. Hear the music of contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov performed by various vocalists and musicians over the course of the four days, attend lectures and take in the beauty of the lush surroundings.
June 8-11. Single tickets on sale. (805) 646-2094.
Friday, June 9
The Contemporary Crafts Market offers decorative, functional and wearable art at all price points this weekend at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. More than 250 artisans will show their stuff — including glassware, jewelry, ceramics, watercolors, wood furniture and plenty more.
10 a.m.-6 p.m. (June 9-11). Free (children 12 and under), $6 (adults). 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
School Violence Goes Extreme
Richard Wagner’s Day of Reckoning
Was Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer, a classical anti-Semite and proto-Nazi or has conventional assumption given him a bad rap?
Who better to consider the question than Wagner himself, and he does on his last day on earth in 1883 in an apologia pro su vida addressed to the ghost of Felix Mendelssohn.
Wagner, whose music is still largely taboo in public performances in Israel, mounts his defense in the American premiere of the play, “Richard and Felix,” currently at the MET Theatre, written by Cornelius Schnauber. While some of the play’s assertions and arguments are still hotly debated by musical scholars and historians, Schnauber presents a much more complex and conflicted Wagner than either his admirers or detractors might like.
One argument revolves around Wagner’s origin. In the play, he mentions his beloved “Jewish father.” This was Ludwig Geyer, an actor who adopted and raised the young Richard after marrying his widowed mother, and who may well have been both the boy’s biological father and of Jewish descent.
Needless to say, the Nazis repressed all such details.
Wagner, played by actor-director Louis Fantasia (after June 1, by Don DeForest Paul), is nothing if not inconsistent. As a youthful anarchist, and later socialist, he rails against Jewish land speculators and capitalists, and in a notorious essay accuses Jewish music and composers of corrupting the German soul.
Yet he greatly admired much of Mendelssohn’s work, particularly the Hebrides Overture, insisted that conductor Hermann Levi premiere his operas, praised Heinrich Heine and, at one point, proclaimed that the Jews are “the noblest of all Germans.”
Like many another husband, he blames part of his reputation on his wife, Cosima, who was a virulent Jew hater.
Schnauber, who directs the USC Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies and has been a leader in fostering German-Jewish relations, said in an interview that the ideas expressed in the play are based primarily on Wagner’s own writings.
Asked to speculate whether Wagner, had he lived long enough, would have supported his great admirer, Adolf Hitler, Schnauber gave a definite no.
“Wagner would have considered the Nazi regime as a petty bourgeois dictatorship,” said Schnauber. “Wagner opposed the death penalty and killing. He would have left Germany.”
Schnauber’s generally favorable depiction of Wagner’s character has been widely disputed, however. Among the composer’s strongest critics has been his great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner, who denounced his family’s hereditary anti-Semitism in his book, “Twilight of the Wagners.”
“Richard and Felix” is presented in tandem with the longer one-act “Irma and Emma,” also by Schnauber.
The heroines, played by a flamboyant Laura James and mousey and sly Dorothy Constantine, are residents of an old-age home in post-war Germany. They are semi-senile and confuse time, place and identity, but offer some laughs in their political and sexual observations.
Both plays continue through June 25 on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave. For information, call (323) 957-1152 or visit www.theMETtheatre.com.
School Violence Goes Extreme
Show Celebrates Spectrum of Arlen Songs
It’ll be nostalgia time at the Ford Amphitheatre when Harold Arlen’s greatest tunes come alive again for the concert “The Wonderful Wizard of Song.”
The show’s title is a not-so-subtle allusion to “The Wizard of Oz,” which featured Arlen’s Oscar-winning hit, “Over the Rainbow.”
A prolific composer, Arlen wrote 500 songs featured in 20 Broadway shows and 30 movies, of which more than 20 will be played at the June 1, 2 and 3 evening concerts.
Included in the program are such romantic classics as “Stormy Weather,” “Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Get Happy,” “I Got the World on a String,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
Putting on the show will be Arlen’s son, saxophonist Sam Arlen; George Bugatti’s Three Crooners; a 12-piece orchestra; and an on-screen tribute to the composer by Tony Bennett.
The concert is part of an extended national celebration of Harold Arlen’s centennial; he was born Hyman Arluck, in Buffalo, the son of a cantor and grandson of a rabbi.
In a storyline akin to that of “The Jazz Singer,” Arlen’s father expected him to follow the family tradition and become a cantor or rabbi, or, at least, a classical pianist.
Young Harold sang in his father’s synagogue in his teens, but after moving to New York he became part of the lively jazz culture of the 1920s, Sam Arlen recalled in a phone interview.
After success on Broadway, Harold Arlen worked in Hollywood for the next 20 years and kept sending his songs to his father, the cantor. Eventually, Samuel Arlen started including snippets of his son’s songs in his prayers, telling his Harold, “I think you’re on to something.”
Another family story recalled by Sam Arlen speaks to his father’s creativity and working style. The composer and his wife were driving down Sunset Boulevard when he suddenly told his wife to stop the car and pull over to the side.
She did so, and within a few minutes Arlen had composed the melody to “Over the Rainbow,” which the American Film Institute recently selected as the No. 1 song of all-time.
“There’s a special meaning to having this show in Los Angeles,” said Sam Arlen. “My father, who died in 1986, was an avid golfer, and he loved the city and its atmosphere.”
“The Wonderful Wizard of Song,” 8 p.m., June 1,2 and 3. $32-$29 (adults) $12 (children). For reservations or information, phone the Ford box office at (323) 461-3673, or visit www.FordAmphitheatre.org.
Sweet Sixteen and Ready to Rise
Four Ways to Hear the Days of Awe
The Days of Awe evoke many feelings, but my first thoughts invariably turn to the special music of these days. From the solemn, almost brooding melody of Kol Nidre to the lilting “High Holiday” tune that unifies the music of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is much in which to delight.
Perhaps because this is the only synagogue music that many Jews hear all year, there are fewer alternative versions of the High Holiday liturgy than of, say, “Lecha Dodi” or “Adon Olam.” Still, these albums should help put you in a proper frame of mind.
Leonard Bernstein — “Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish)” and “Chichester Psalms” (Milken Archive/Naxos).
For all his conservatory training, for all the years as musical director of great orchestras, Bernstein was fundamentally a man of the theater; his symphonic and choral works owe more to the stage than to the recital hall. These two Jewish-themed compositions from the 1960s offer a reminder of his powerful sense of drama.
As performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic directed by Gerard Schwarz, the emphasis falls rather unflatteringly on the composition’s occasionally forced drama, amplified by Willard White’s stentorian delivery of Bernstein’s text (which the composer himself admitted was “corny”).
But nobody expresses yearning better than Bernstein: Think about the love songs from “West Side Story” or “Some Other Time” and “Lonely Town” from “On the Town.” The soprano solo, beautifully sung by Yvonne Kenny, in the middle of the symphony is one of the most moving examples of this emotion in all his work.
By contrast, “Chichester Psalms” is remarkably gentle, almost sweet.
Bernstein apparently disdained the piece for precisely that reason, yet it is one of the most effective expressions of both his Jewishness and his deeply spiritual side. This version, featuring Michael White, is quite handsome.
Available at www.amazon.com
Moshe Schulhof — “Moshe Schulhof Sings the Classics: The World’s Greatest Cantorials” (Emes Recordings)
There is a long-standing argument between composers and cantors over what is better to render honor to the Almighty: works that congregants can sing or more difficult, great music written for performance by great voices. To what extent is worship fundamentally participatory? Or can you also find spiritual satisfaction in merely listening?
A powerful argument on behalf of listening comes from recordings of the great cantors of “golden age” chazzans, the Rosenblatts and Sirotas and Hershmanns who dominated Jewish liturgical music in the first third of the 20th century. Schulhof, a powerhouse tenor, very consciously invokes that tradition, offering new renditions of recitatives by Moshe Koussevitsky, Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota and others, backed by the Yuval International Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Mordecai Sobol. Schulhof has the same kind of big, operatic voice as his predecessors (although his top is a bit nasal) and if his recordings of these pieces are a bit studied, they are nevertheless impressive for their sheer pyrotechnics.
Available through Hatikvah Music, 436 Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles or www.hatikvahmusic.com.
Greg Siegle — “Vessels” (MindzEye Music)
Siegle, a young acoustic guitarist in the John Fahey-Leo Kottke vein, has turned his quick, expressive hands to Jewish music. The tunes he essays are mostly familiar ones from Shlomo Carlebach, but he gives them a refreshingly light reading. The result is a very pleasant diversion that should make its way onto a lot of turntables as a prelude to sundown and the holy days.
Available from email@example.com.
Craig Taubman — “Inscribed: Songs for Holy Days” (Craig and Co.)
There is something about the intensity of the High Holidays experience that brings out the best in Jewish composers. Craig Taubman’s previous folk- and pop-tinged CDs have seldom displayed spiritual emotional heat, but “Inscribed” is a cut above his previous work. The production is less busy and Taubman allows his sweet, light tenor to carry more emotional weight. The simplicity of his tunes works to their benefit here, because the weightiness of the themes don’t require anything trickier. The result is Taubman’s best album to date, as befits the solemnity of the Days of Awe.
Available at www.craignco.com
A Race Against Time and Floodwaters
Spectator – A Night of Atypical Tunes
“I like representing the underdog,” said Noreen Green, founder of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony.
Which is why her Aug. 21 concert feting 350 years of American Jewish life will not spotlight famous composers such as George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.
“People can hear those mainstays at the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” the 46-year-old conductor said from her CD-crammed Encino study. “Our symphony aims to perform new or seldom heard pieces, so I’m taking the same approach to explore the journeys that brought Jews here from every corner of the earth.”
It’s what one might expect of the maverick Green, whose well-received ensemble is the only Jewish orchestra of its kind outside Israel. Her upcoming concert, too, is unique because national “350” events are focusing more on lectures and art exhibits (think “From Haven to Home,” which arrives at the Skirball Cultural Center Nov. 10).
After listening to 50 hours of music, the conductor selected “350” repertoire that tells the story in chronological order. The program opens with Meira Warshauer’s “Like Streams in the Desert,” Green’s nod to the 23 Sephardic settlers whose families fled the Spanish Inquisition to Brazil and eventually to New Amsterdam in 1654. The modern classical piece weaves asymmetrical Eastern rhythms into Western-style canons and fugues (overlapping lines of the same melody) to suggest the experience of exile and return.
In the alternatingly lyrical and joyous “Self Portrait With [Mordecai] Gebirtig,” American composer Joel Hoffman transforms songs by the celebrated Krakow folk musician into a klezmer cello concerto. While Gebirtig died in the Holocaust, his work reflects the Yiddish music brought here by 2.5 million Eastern European immigrants between 1881 and 1921.
“I recognized the characters in his songs, as if they might have been my own great aunts and uncles,” Hoffman recalled.
When cellist Barry Gold — also a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — slides his hand across the strings, the whine recalls a cantor bending his voice in shul.
Cantor/composer Meir Finkelstein will bend his own renowned voice when he performs his original compositions of prayers such as “Ma Tovu,” reflecting the trend of new music in the American synagogue.
“Such melodies reflects the variety of Jewish life made possible in the United States,” the conductor said. “It’s like a smorgasbord.”
For information about the concert at the Ford Ampitheatre, call (213) 805-4270 or vist www.lajewishsymphony.com.
Outspoken Asner’s Activism Is No Act
Shoah-Era Music ‘Silenced’ No More
The music of a lost generation of Jewish composers will come to life when the Los Angeles Philharmonic presents “Silenced Voices,” a series of concerts, operas and panel discussions, from Oct. 19 to Nov. 9.
While mainly honoring the composers who were persecuted or perished during the Holocaust, the concerts will also feature the works of Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, whose “degenerate” music was banned by the Nazis.
For conductor James Conlon, bringing the “beautiful and provocative” music of such composers as Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and Bohuslav Martinu to international audiences has been a 10-year crusade.
“These men represented an enormous piece of the music and culture of the 20th century,” Conlon passionately declared in a phone call from Montreal.
“Rediscovering their music is equivalent to a museum which suddenly finds 200 great paintings in its cellar — of course, the museum would exhibit them for the public,” he added.
“Silenced Voices” will open on Tuesday, Oct. 19, with the satirical opera “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” (The Emperor from Atlantis), which Ullmann composed while imprisoned in the Nazis’ “model” camp of Teresienstadt (Terezin).
The protagonist is Emperor Overall, who brings such pain and misery to the world that Death arrives to take him, and everyone else, away. The SS apparently sensed some similarity between “The Emperor” and a contemporary dictator and shut down the work during rehearsals.
An L.A. Phil ensemble and Juilliard School singers will perform the staged production at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles.
On the following Thursday, Oct. 21, a discussion on the concept and context of “Silenced Voices” will be led by Conlon, Rabbis Steven Z. Leder and Gary Greenebaum and Dr. Gary Schiller of the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust. The event will be held on the Irmas campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in West Los Angeles.
The two temple evenings are sponsored by the Ziegler Family Trust, with additional support from the Jewish Community Foundation. All subsequent events will be at the downtown Disney Concert Hall.
Conlon and the Philharmonic will perform Ullmann’s Symphony No. 2 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 on Oct. 23 and 24.
On Oct. 29, 30 and 31, Conlon will lead the Philharmonic in Schulhoff’s Jazz Suite, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.
Dvorak is the only non-Jewish composer represented in the series, but as a composer and Czech nationalist he had a profound effect on such composers as Schulhoff, who was Dvorak’s protégé, Conlon noted.
Pianist Jonathan Biss will be the soloist in the Mendelssohn work.
Concluding the series on Nov. 9 will be a chamber music concert by the Phil’s instrumentalists of works by Schulhoff, Martinu, Ullmann, Klein and Mendelssohn.
Conlon was first drawn to “silenced” composers of the early 20th century by rediscovering the works of Alexander Zemlinsky, a brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, and the conductor recorded most of Zemlinsky’s works in Germany. Conlon’s “discovery” of other names and composers followed.
“I have been a practicing musician for 30 years, and until 10 years ago, I knew hardly anything about these composers from Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest, whose works represented much of the musical ferment of their time,” Conlon said.
Conlon made his New York Philharmonic debut in 1974 and has since spent most of his time in Europe, conducting leading orchestras and serving as principal conductor of the Paris National Opera for the past nine years.
The “Silenced Voices” program are part of his three-year project on “Recovering a Musical Heritage,” although he fears that “I won’t live long enough to integrate the major works of the ‘silenced’ composers into the standard concert repertoire.
“People tend to be afraid when they see the names of unfamiliar composers on a program, but I want to turn that around,” he said.
Given Conlon’s preoccupation with Jewish composers, he is often asked, “usually as the first question,” whether he is Jewish himself.
“Actually, I am an Irish-Italian-German Catholic, but growing up in New York, I absorbed and loved everything Jewish,” the conductor said.
“What the Nazis did was a crime not just against the Jews, but against every human being,” he said. “We can never redress the injustice against the Jewish composers, but we can do what meant most to them, and that is to restore and play their music.”
For ticket and other information on all the listed programs, call (323) 850-2000, or visit www.LAPhil.com.
My Seder With Brando
Music Man Silenced at 82
Film composer Elmer Bernstein, who died last week at the age of 82, was born in New York, the son of immigrants from Ukraine and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After being blacklisted during the McCarthy era he came back to pen such classic scores as "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Man with the Golden Arm," "The Magnificent Seven," "The Age of Innocence" and "The Grifters." In a 1998 interview with The Jewish Journal, he shed light on his musical roots.
"I spoke Yiddish before I spoke English. I was largely brought up, for the first four years of my life, by my grandmother and grandfather. They were "Fiddler on the Roof" kind of people, like people from Anatevka. Their friends used to come over and sit around the kitchen with the glasele te, and I stayed for the stories. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us — I was very fond of her — was conventionally religious.
I was brought up listening to my grandmother sing Jewish songs all the time. The first songs I learned were in Yiddish. It influenced me in the sense that it’s powerful."
Good Kids, Bad Revenge
Our Favorite Jerry Goldsmith Story
Film composer Jerry Goldsmith, died July 21, age 75. The following is excerpted from a 1997 interview with The Jewish Journal.
“In the score for ‘First Knight,’ the final battle scene was temp-tracked with the ubiquitous ‘Carmina Burana.’ The director said, ‘We’ve got to have a chorus singing in this big battle of six or seven minutes.’ I didn’t know what a chorus was going to do. He said, ‘Don’t even bother writing it. We’ll just use the ‘Carmina Burana.’ At that time, it seemed rather a great idea, because I was so pressed for time. Actually, it was a combination of my agent and my wife who said: ‘Don’t do it. Don’t take the easy way out. Do it right.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do music for it, but the chorus has to say something.’ So I sat there for hours with the director, who’s also Jewish, and I said, ‘Give me some words for the chorus to sing, and I’ll get it translated into Latin, and we’ll be off and running.’ So we picked the Shema. So if you listen to the big battle scene, it’s the Shema translated into Latin with orchestra and chorus.”
How to Win Leaders and Influence People
Orthodox Mother Opens New Opera
File under Incongruities, Major: One of the latest luminaries in the world of grand opera is an Orthodox mother of four from Brooklyn.
In the male-dominated world of opera composition, Deborah Drattell is a rarity, but from childhood she never doubted she would excel in the world of music.
“It was clear from the time I picked up a violin that I would be a musician,” said Drattell, 46, who began playing at 7 as a participant in a program designed to introduce New York schoolchildren to music. She went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago and taught composition and theory at Tulane University in New Orleans through the 1980s.
A composer since age 19, Drattell began with instrumental works for orchestras and chamber groups but eventually included the voice as an important medium, setting texts ranging from poems by Edgar Allan Poe to writings by Sylvia Plath.
“It’s been a slow process,” she told The Journal. “I realized when I started to write for the voice that in my instrumental works I was telling a story…. I wanted to tell a story, and using words seemed the way into the piece for me.”
Her most recent work, “Nicholas and Alexandra,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, will have its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sept. 14, with Mstislav Rostropovich making his Los Angeles Opera debut as conductor and Plácido Domingo in the role of Rasputin.
Opera has occupied most of Drattell’s work time for the past several years.
“I love the collaborative process. It’s the most exciting medium,” said Drattell, who served as composer-in-residence for both the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., from 1998 to 2001.
William Vendice, the Los Angeles Opera’s chorus master, praised Drattell’s music for the voice.
“She obviously has a wonderful ear for how to set the language,” he said. “She has the flow of a singer’s line in mind when she writes music.”
Sascha Goetzel, the assistant conductor for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” is just as impressed with Drattell’s writing.
“It’s very deep and powerful music,” he said. “She wonderfully uses the colors of the orchestra.”
Drattell originally wrote the role of Rasputin for a baritone and wanted Domingo to sing Nicholas, but the tenor asked Drattell to rewrite the opera so he could sing the “mad monk” who holds sway over the royal couple. Drattell accommodated his request as a permanent change in the work.
The saga of Nicholas and Alexandra, Russia’s last czar and czarina before the 1917 revolution, is “a story I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Drattell said, adding that she originally had been intrigued by the story of Anastasia, the self-proclaimed long-lost daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.
Even when she shifted away from a story with a clear female protagonist, she kept Alexandra central, as did the librettist, Nicholas von Hoffman.
“It’s Alexandra’s story: her experiences with Rasputin’s power, her son’s hemophilia,” Drattell said. “As a woman, I find it intriguing to write from the point of view of a woman.”
Drattell’s parents grew up Orthodox, and while they were not strictly observant as adults, she grew up attending the Orthodox Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn and cites the music she heard there as one of her earliest artistic influences. She returned to traditional observance through her husband, a gastroenterologist.
Juggling a demanding musical career with the care of four children is challenging but not impossible, as most of her work is done within a reasonable commute from her Brooklyn home.
“I don’t do that much traveling,” she said.
During the rehearsal period for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” Drattell’s first extended period away from her family, her husband has taken the kids to visit relatives in Israel.
Drattell said the Los Angeles Opera has made “a really amazing leap” in accommodating her rigorous observance, scheduling the premiere of “Nicholas and Alexandra” on a Sunday and slating next week’s dress rehearsal early enough so it will end before Shabbat. “I’ve found Plácido Domingo and the administration here amazingly respectful,” she said.
It’s another milestone in one of serious music’s most idiosyncratic careers.
“I forged my own path,” Drattell said.
The Los Angeles Opera will hold its premiere of
“Nicholas and Alexandra” on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 p.m. Other performances will
be Sept. 17, 23 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available
through the Los Angeles Opera at www.losangelesopera.com , by phone at (213) 365-3500 or in person at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion box office.
7 Days In Arts
Composer’s Score Has a Unique ‘Ring’
Nineteenth century composer and notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner believed that a Jewish composer could never successfully treat serious mythical subject matter in music. But Wagner never anticipated Howard Shore.
Shore does mythologize music successfully — for the second time. With next week’s release of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, audiences will hear more than just a sequel to Shore’s Oscar-winning score. The soft-spoken composer said he’s writing the continuation of a larger work.
"Essentially, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is created as an opera," Shore told The Journal. "I’m writing a nine- or 10-hour piece based on Tolkien’s legends and languages, with a 60-voice mixed choir, a 30-voice boys choir and 10 soloists."
While many might have detected in the first film’s music characteristically Hebrew scales and modes — similar to those found in liturgical tropes — Shore said that he derived the music directly from the text. "The text is the most important to me … the book is always open on my desk."
In order to write the work, Shore immersed himself in Tolkien’s texts. "Because the ‘Lord of the Rings’ was so vast and such a complex piece, it took a lot of research and rereading. What influenced Tolkien to write ‘Lord of the Rings’? I had to understand the period in which it was written. And I also had to understand the 50 years after and how it affected culture around the world."
The period when Tolkien wrote the main text was during World War II. At the time, Tolkien denied that he was writing an allegory about Hitler, claiming instead that his story of power and genocide are universal.
Yet the influence of his times are apparent in his work. In the second book of his epic trilogy, "The Two Towers," Tolkien’s characters face an alliance of two leaders bent on utterly destroying the race of mankind.
While Tolkien used many of the same source materials that Wagner did for his operatic cycle, "The Ring of the Niebelung," Tolkien’s story shows none of Wagner’s characteristic German supremacy or anti-Semitism. This is a story for everyone.
The filmed version of the trilogy has kept the genocidal theme intact in "The Two Towers." "It isn’t just the grand spectacle of battle and the horror of massive deaths," Shore said, "it is the intimacies of war … the fear of war and of families being torn apart."
Even by adhering to the story, Shore, 56, hopes to leave his own mark. "It was important for me to let my own voice sing," Shore said.
Shore’s own voice began when he was 7 in his native Toronto. "I rented a clarinet because of Benny Goodman. Actually, my mother rented me one. It came in a shoebox with tissue paper, because we couldn’t afford a case. My mother played piano, and I played clarinet."
Shore’s family was very active in the Toronto Jewish community, where his father was the founding president of Beth Shalom Synagogue on Eglington Avenue in 1953.
Shore attended Berklee School of Music in Boston. Afterward, he began playing successfully in a rock band in the ’60s. During the ’70s, he was the founding music director of "Saturday Night Live."
"Film music was my third career. I had always been composing," Shore said. "I chose film as a way to have my compositional ideas recorded.
His more than 50 film scores include "Analyze This," "Dogma," "That Thing You Do!" "Seven," "Ed Wood," "M. Butterfly," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Philadelphia," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Big" and "The Fly."
But the "Rings" scores, according to Shore, are different. "The most exciting thing for me is the Tolkien languages."
For the first film, Shore wrote choir music in five different languages created by Tolkien, an Oxford linguistics professor. For "The Two Towers," Shore added a sixth: "Most of the singing in Rohan and Helm’s Deep is Old English. It is essentially ‘Beowulf.’"
"The Lord of the Rings" scores are Shore’s largest-scale soundtracks to date. Of the filmed versions of the story he added, "We know that we carry great responsibility to create this work. We are all at the service of the ring. We want to do justice to this literary classic."
7 Days In Arts
A Song for Daniel
The call from Grant Gershon, the conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, stunned Sharon Farber.
Last month, Farber, an Israeli-born composer, mailed Gershon her piece, "Mother’s Lament," inspired by the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Farber — who had worked with Pearl’s father, Judea, at the L.A. Shir Choir — said she wrote the dark piece "to cry out my emotions after Daniel’s death."
Yet she wasn’t expecting a response when she put the score in the mail on a Thursday afternoon several weeks ago. She knew the chorale rarely programmed unsolicited music. But by Sunday night, there was a message from Gershon on her answering machine. "He said he found the piece compelling and that he wanted to program it as soon as possible," Farber said.
On Sept. 29, 11 days before Pearl’s 39th birthday, the chorale will present the world premiere of "Mother’s Lament" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The six-minute work — based on a Hebrew poem by the late Israeli poet Nathan Alterman — is part of a concert launching the choir’s 39th season.
Farber, a 29-year-old film and TV composer, says she first heard Alterman’s haunting poem during Israeli Memorial Day commemorations when she was a girl. She had long hoped to set it to music and had just started in January when Judea Pearl asked her to replace him as Shir’s conductor (she had worked closely with him as the group’s principal arranger). A few days later, the news came through the choir grapevine: Judea’s only son, Daniel, had disappeared in Karachi, Pakistan, while working on a story about Islamic radicals.
Suddenly, the 28-line poem — about mothers lamenting dead or missing sons — seemed eerily relevant. While Farber had never met Daniel Pearl, she says she immediately knew she wanted to dedicate the piece to his parents, Judea and Ruth.
"I wrote half of it in a couple of days, but then I had writer’s block and I couldn’t continue," she recalled. "Maybe I was stuck because we didn’t know whether Daniel was dead or alive. When I heard the news he was dead, it was horrible, shocking, but it somehow released something in me, and I quickly finished the piece. I wrote it a cappella — for voices only — because the human voice is so powerful."
Farber recorded her composition and sent it to Judea, who told her he wasn’t ready to listen to the piece. It was only six weeks after the U.S. Embassy in Karachi had obtained a videotape showing Daniel’s execution: "I needed some time to settle things in my mind," Pearl, a UCLA computer science professor, told The Journal.
When the Israeli-born professor was finally able to listen to the piece, he said he played it 17 times in a row. "It was a very intense experience," he said. He especially identified with the final stanza, in which a mother wonders if her son is perhaps "only resting. Perhaps in foreign places."
"The last verse was something very much connected to our minds at the time, when we didn’t know exactly what had happened to Danny or where his body was," Pearl said. "I always end up with tears in my eyes when I hear the last two lines of the poem."
Gershon also strongly responded to the piece. "It’s rare for me to receive an unsolicited score and be so moved by it," he told The Journal. "But I found Sharon’s piece to be beautifully written and I knew immediately that I wanted to program it; it was just a matter of when. You see, our series brochure had already been mailed in April, and I generally program a season a year and a half in advance."
The next morning, the conductor chanced to hear Judea Pearl interviewed on National Public Radio. "It was a strange synchronicity," he said. "Judea was saying that Daniel Pearl was himself an accomplished violinist who passionately believed that music was our best hope to break down barriers between people. When I heard that with Sharon’s piece so wonderfully in my thoughts, I became quite committed to programming it at the earliest possible opportunity."
As it so happens, "Mother’s Lament" will debut a week and a half before the Oct. 10 international music day in Pearl’s memory, organized by the Daniel Pearl Foundation.
Judea Pearl says he and Ruth will attend the chorale concert, although Farber’s work is different than most scheduled by the foundation. "It’s such a tragic piece, and what we’re trying to do through the music day and the foundation is to impart hope through music, because Danny was a bridge builder and we’re trying to emphasize that part of his life," Pearl said. "But I’m extremely moved that Sharon took the initiative to write the piece based on her own feelings." He paused, then added, "I just hope I can sit through it without crying."
For information about the chorale concert, call (213)972-7282. For information about the Foundation concerts, including a folk musicfestival by the California Traditional Music Society Oct. 6, visit www.danielpearl.org .
Unchosen Actor, ‘Chosen’ Director
Arnold, ‘Moses und Aron’
Los Angeles largely ignored Arnold Schoenberg, arguably the most influential and controversial composer of the 20th century, when he labored at USC and UCLA during the last 17 years of his life.
As if to make up for the slight, the city’s musical and cultural institutions will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Schoenberg’s death with an array of concerts, lectures and symposia through next March.
A highlight will be a rare performance of his opera "Moses und Aron" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday, Dec. 9 (regrettably scheduled on the first night of Chanukah).
Conductor Kent Nagano will lead Berlin’s Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester in the one-night-only performance.
The opera, whose central theme is the chosen status of the Jewish people, was composed and written while Schoenberg was still nominally a convert to Christianity. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, he became a Lutheran at age 24, but formally reclaimed his heritage when Hitler came to power in 1933.
Once reconverted, he went all the way, writing to friends that he had decided "to exclusively dedicate the remainder of my life" to the survival of the Jewish people, and "to sacrifice my art for the sake of Jewry."
"Moses und Aron" is based, to a large extent, on Schoenberg’s play "The Biblical Way," which he wrote in the mid-1920s.
USC scholar Moshe Lazar, who has translated "The Biblical Way" from the original German, notes that in the play, Schoenberg projected himself as a fusion of Moses and Aaron, the visionary and the political activist, plus a dash of Theodor Herzl as the man destined to redeem his persecuted people.
For tickets, which range from $34 to $165, call (213) 365-3500.
7 Days In Arts
Wagner Soap Opera
It was meant to be the "not Wagner" concert: Daniel Barenboim, the pride of Israeli music-lovers, conducting his Berlin orchestra, the Staatskapelle, on the last night of this year’s Israel Festival. Little did we know.
The festival had originally announced that the orchestra would appear with Placido Domingo and play extracts from "Die Walkurie." The very idea was denounced by Holocaust survivors and other Israelis who have not forgiven Wagner, known as Hitler’s favorite composer, for being a notorious (and well-documented) Jew-hater.
Israeli MPs beseeched the festival organizers to think again; so did Minister of Culture Matan Vilnai. He didn’t want to limit artistic freedom, you understand, but this was, after all, the Israel Festival, a state occasion. Barenboim, who launched his musical career as a child prodigy in Tel Aviv, got the message. Under protest, he agreed to change the program.
So, on Saturday night in the Jerusalem International Convention Center, 2,000 of us sat down to a rich, disciplined performance of Schumann’s "Fourth Symphony" by one of the world’s great orchestras, followed by an exuberant concert version of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring." When the Diaghilev ballet premiered the "Rite" in Paris in 1914, the audience went wild, some in anger, some in frenzy. The unshockable Israelis took it in their collective stride.
The drama came later. It was planned and choreographed. Barenboim, who has been trying to break the unofficial Israeli taboo on Wagner for years, manipulated the audience the way he manipulates an orchestra. He knew exactly what he wanted. He worked, subtly but firmly, to achieve it.
Israeli concertgoers expect encores. Barenboim gave us one, Tchaikovsky’s "Waltz of the Flowers." It was familiar and soothing after the pagan brass and percussion of the Stravinsky. We were relaxed, enjoying ourselves, and ready for more.
Then, after the applause died down, Barenboim turned to the audience. Speaking quietly, in Hebrew, without a microphone, he said he was talking to us man-to-man (and -woman). He reminded us why he had canceled the Wagner. But now, he went on, the official concert was over. If we really wanted to hear Wagner, they would play it as his "personal encore." Nothing to do with the festival, nothing to do with the orchestra. If not, the musicians would pack up and go home without a fuss.
The vast majority of the audience applauded enthusiastically. Yes, please, maestro. A handful walked out, perhaps in silent protest, perhaps because they had to relieve the baby-sitter (it was after 11). Half a dozen objected. "It’s a disgrace!" the widow of an eminent rabbi shouted. "It’s the music of the concentration camps!" an elderly man bellowed. Others yelled back: "If you don’t want to hear it, go home! You’ve had your money’s worth."
The dialogue continued for half an hour. Barenboim never raised his voice. At one point, the conductor invited a persistent heckler to come onstage and "discuss this like cultured people." The man, 40-something in a white shirt and small black kippah, declined and went on shouting. Another protested in English. "Shut up," someone retorted.
One man did go forward, faced the audience and said: "I was against playing Wagner in the festival, but now I’ve heard the maestro, and I understand that he’s talking about playing outside the state event. Now I’m in favor." More applause.
A man sitting in front of me took out his mobile phone, and I heard him say, "You’d better send a crew straight away." I thought he was a television executive, but he turned out to be an off-duty police superintendent. "I told them to send reinforcements, in case hooligans attack him," he told me later. Happily, it wasn’t necessary.
Finally, Barenboim signaled the orchestra and waited, baton poised, for silence. As they began to play a love song from "Tristan und Isolde," fewer than a dozen objectors walked out, slamming doors and stamping feet.
The rest of us sat enthralled through 10 minutes of wrenching, lyrical tenderness, the antithesis of the Teutonic bombast that turns some Jews (and not only Jews) off Wagner. You could hardly hear anyone breathe, let alone cough.
At the end, the audience gave Barenboim and the Staatskapelle a standing ovation. A middle-aged woman in a long, pastel-pale dress plucked a rose from a window box at the edge of the stage and presented it to the conductor. Barenboim accepted it with tears in his eyes.
This wasn’t the first time Wagner has been played in Israel. A provincial orchestra in Rishon Letzion broke the 50-year barrier a few months ago. But this was Jerusalem, the Israel Festival (disclaimers notwithstanding). It was Daniel Barenboim, a Jewish Israeli cultural icon, and a German ensemble that was the court orchestra of Prussian emperors and East German commissars. Can "The Ring" be far behind?
Crazy for These Guys
At age 5, long before he began writing satirical pop songs and Oscar-nominated film soundtracks, Randy Newman trekked down to the sound stage at 20th Century Fox to watch his Uncle Al conduct the studio orchestra. Uncle Alfred was only 5-feet-4, but the Newman family patriarch seemed larger than life as he conducted his intensely dramatic score from "All About Eve."
"It was a big deal for me," Newman recalled during a recent Journal telephone interview from his sprawling estate in Pacific Palisades. "It had a big effect on me that it was possible to make that noise. It was really the main impetus for my getting into the music business."
For all the Newmans, music is in the blood. Uncle Al (1900-1970) scored many of Fox’s most famous films from the 1930s to the ’60s; Uncle Lionel ran Fox’s music department and shared an Oscar for "Hello Dolly"; Uncle Emil conducted the music for most of John Wayne’s movies; Alfred’s sons Thomas and David are Oscar-nominated film composers; and Alfred’s daughter, Maria, is a respected composer of contemporary classical music (see sidebar).
To honor the centennial of Alfred’s birth, Maria and Randy Newman will perform at the March 4 Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) concert "Cinema Judaica II: A Salute to Alfred Newman." "It’s a tribute to my Uncle Al," explained Newman, who has received 14 Oscar nominations for his work on films such as "The Natural," "Awakenings," "Pleasantville," "Parenthood" and "Toy Story."
Of course, he remains best known for his politically incorrect, bluesy pop ditties satirizing sadists, lechers, liars and bigots. Death threats came his way for "Short People," a parody of prejudice; even Newman is nervous about performing his song, "Rednecks," which makes liberal use of the N-word and describes a racist on TV "with some smart-ass New York Jew."
In "The World Isn’t Fair," the narrator chats with Karl Marx about rich old geezers married to gorgeous young blondes who look like Gwyneth Paltrow. "My music has a high irritation factor," the composer gleefully admitted.
During a Journal interview, the irreverent Randy Newman was most evident when reminiscing about his Uncle Lionel. "He had nicknames for everybody," Newman recalled. "The composer Elmer Bernstein was ‘The Wrong Bernstein.’ [Composer] Jerry Goldsmith he called ‘Gorgeous,’ because he was handsome and had all that hair." (During the March 4 concert, LAJS director Noreen Green will conduct an arrangement of Goldsmith’s score from the 1981 miniseries "Masada.")
Newman turns serious when the subject reverts to his Uncle Al. He grew up with tales of how Alfred, the eldest of 10 children, showed talent early on in his working-class family in New Haven, Conn. Since the family was too poor to afford bus fare, young Albert walked 10 miles each way to practice on a friend’s piano; by the age of 12, he was sponsored by Polish composer and pianist Ignacy Paderewski for a recital in New York. But the following year he had to go to work to support his family, so he set off on a vaudeville tour in which he sat at the piano dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy.
At 16, Albert Newman was the youngest conductor ever to appear on Broadway; in 1930, he arrived in Hollywood to make a film with Irving Berlin. He never left. As the general music director at Fox, he went on to compose rich scores to films such as "Wuthering Heights," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "How Green was My Valley" and "The Song of Bernadette."
Along the way, he was adamant that his younger brother Irving (Randy’s father) did not follow his inclination to become a professional songwriter.
"He made my dad become a doctor," said Newman, who began playing piano at age 6. Nevertheless, Uncle Al encouraged Randy’s musical talents, presenting him with bound scores of symphonies like Beethoven’s Third and Shostakovich’s Fifth.
"He was with me the first time I ever recorded with an orchestra," added Newman, now 57. "We did my song ‘Davey the Fat Boy’; he was conducting in the rehearsal, and he was very nervous. He’d get sick before he worked, and my cousin Tom used to say that that had an effect on me, that I was subconsciously trying to emulate him. It was like, you had to vomit for things to work out well."
Only after Alfred’s death, in 1970, did the younger Newman try his hand at film music with a Norman Lear comedy called "Cold Turkey" (1971). He had turned down similar offers for years. "I was scared, and I still am," he admitted. "I had studied composition privately and at UCLA, but I was a slacker. I didn’t think I knew enough to write something that wasn’t bad." He also realized there would be the inevitable comparisons with his famous relatives. "There was a little extra pressure," he once told People. "Standards are high in the family."
Newman managed to live up to them. In 1982, he received his first Oscar nomination for a song composed for Milos Forman’s "Ragtime," which he had scored while remembering tips from Uncle Al. "I still recall a great many things that he said about the orchestra," Newman said. "He said that if something is written well on the piano, it’ll sound good with the orchestra. He said never to condescend upon the characters."
Is it tough for the guy who wrote "Short People" to create cute songs for talking toys? No, Newman said; he likes the challenge of penning the kind of happy or heroic music he wouldn’t necessarily write on his own.
For the LAJS concert, he’ll conduct an arrangement of his Oscar-nominated score for "Avalon," Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical tale of an assimilated Jewish family. Newman related to the story.
"Assimilation was the style for Alfred’s generation, as if anyone would ever mistake us for Christians," said Newman, who had to use the Yiddish dictionary when his father called him a shmegegge. "They all married gentiles, except my father." There were Christmas gatherings in Al’s Pacific Palisades home.
Even so, Newman said, "I have a strong, cultural sense of being Jewish, and I’m glad of it. It’s done something for me in terms of my music and my world view. I believe that I write because of being Jewish, from the position of being the outsider."
During summers with his mother’s Jewish family in New Orleans, young Randy learned a thing or two about racism and anti-Semitism. "I saw those signs on the ice cream wagons," he said in an interview. "It was hot and raining and there was [the word] ‘Colored,’ spelled wrong."
When 8-year-old Randy was once invited to a country club for a cotillion, the girl’s father called to cancel on the night of the ball. "I’m sorry, Randy, my daughter had no right to invite you, because no Jews are allowed [at the club]," he explained.
Newman wrote a song, ‘New Orleans Wins the War," exploring how uncomfortable his father felt as a Jew in the South. Now he’s thinking of writing a new song parodying the anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of Zion." "It would be about a Jewish banking conspiracy meeting," he said. "It would be really funny."
A less pleasant endeavor will be performing his Oscar-nominated song, "A Fool in Love" from "Meet the Parents," at the 2001 Academy Awards ceremony. Newman will attend with as much enthusiasm as his Uncle Al, who, after 45 nominations and nine awards, the most any individual has ever received, used to trudge wearily to the dais when his name was called.
"I remember my father saying to Al, ‘You have to go for your family,’ but Al didn’t like going," Newman recalled. "I don’t like going, either. You sit there for five hours, and it’s a bad vaudeville show. And I have to play for a really tough audience. After all, 80 percent of the people sitting there have already lost."
"Cinema Judaica II: A Salute to Alfred Newman," which also includes works by other composers, takes place March 4 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism. Randy Newman will perform only at the evening concert. For tickets: (818) 753-6681.
On the cover of Jack Bielan’s new CD, “From the Heart of a Jewish Soul,” a pianist plays as his keyboard expands and spirals heavenward. Below, the glow from two yahrtzeit candles joins the keys soaring into the clouds.
The painting is, in a way, Bielan’s portrait.
For the past 14 years, the keyboardist-composer-arranger has been the musical director at Valley Outreach Synagogue, where he conducts an annual Shabbat service with a full gospel choir and High Holy Days services with more than 35 singers and chamber musicians. Bielan has toured with Bobby Vinton, written funk music for Motown Records and worked on arrangements for James Taylor’s gold album, “Sweet Baby James.”
But on Dec. 3, the composer will sail into uncharted musical territory: For the first time ever, he’ll conduct a concert of his own Jewish music. His new CD, to also debut Dec. 3, is the first to feature his original Jewish songs.
Bielan, who has earnest blue eyes and sensitive features, rarely wrote his own lyrics until several years ago. The change came after he endured a parent’s worst nightmare, which began on a dark highway near Barstow on Sept. 17, 1995. Bielan’s 17-year-old son, Blake, and his 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, were en route back to L.A. after transporting equipment to one of their father’s gigs. They never made it home. Around 1 a.m., their van was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Both children, along with the driver, died at the scene.
“From the Heart of a Jewish Soul” was born of Bielan’s subsequent spiritual struggle and his ultimate reconciliation with God. “It’s not music about death, but about praising God and praising life,” he says. “The message is that it’s OK to challenge God at the worst of times, because He can take it.”
Bielan, the son of a kosher butcher, became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Etz Jacob, just across the street from his fourplex on Stanley Avenue in Beverly-Fairfax. His musical education began even earlier, after he demonstrated perfect pitch at the age of 6 on the family’s new May Company spinet piano.
By his senior year at Fairfax High, he was a student by day, while by night he talked philosophy with the working-class people who listened to him strum guitar at Peacock Alley on Eighth Street. At 18, he played keyboards for an incarnation of the Strawberry Alarm Clock (think “Incense and Peppermints”); during the early years of his former marriage, he founded a special events company; and in 1985, he was persuaded to become musical director of Valley Outreach Synagogue, though he initially insisted he knew more about Motown than Moses.
All the while, Bielan averaged 20 weeks a year on the road, but in 1991, he abruptly stopped touring. The then-divorced dad had become a single father, with legal custody of his three children, Blake, Samantha and Megan Rose.
“I coached their Little League teams,” he recalls. “I learned to braid girls’ hair. I made sure my kids were off to school and their homework was done and that they were feeling good about themselves and knew they were loved. My children were my life.”
When the police arrived to deliver the news about the accident, Bielan collapsed in his driveway and shouted at God to return his children. Within the hour, his home was filled with Valley Outreach congregants, who fed him and took care of the funeral arrangements and even identified the bodies.Bielan professed his continued faith at the memorial service; when he conducted High Holy Days services two weeks later, he felt he was “in the best, safest place I could possibly have been.” Valley Outreach President Mickey Bilsky recalls, “It was one of the most inspiring High Holy Days services ever.”
But in the following months, Bielan privately went to war with God. “There is no blasphemy, no obscenity towards God which I have not uttered,” he wrote in an essay. “I would find open fields … and I would scream until there was blood in my throat and I couldn’t scream anymore. I would lay down in the middle of the road and rail at God, demanding that He bring a car to kill me.”
In June 1996, having sunk into an almost comatose depression, Bielan decided to attend Samantha’s junior high graduation and Blake’s high school commencement, both scheduled on the same day. “I was still their father, and I would not have their names acknowledged … without being there,” he explains. And so he sat among the cheering parents, never feeling more alone. “I returned home that night feeling certain of my impending suicide,” he says.
When 8-year-old Megan, who had suddenly, horribly become an only child, crawled into his bed that evening, Bielan changed his mind. “[I] looked at my beautiful, innocent, blue-eyed girl … and felt compelled to say to her, ‘I promise I won’t leave you,'” he recalls. Some hours later, Bielan knelt and addressed God. “I’ve lost two of my children, and I can’t lose You, too,” he whispered. “It was at that specific moment that I truly knew God would forgive me and that He was crying with me.”
It’s been a long road back for Bielan and Megan, now 13, but father and daughter have survived, even thrived. “The loss still hurts every day,” Bielan admits. But he finds joy in composing his liturgical music, and he is grateful that Megan is a healthy, athletic eighth-grader who sings and solos for the Valley Outreach choir. Recently, the family celebrated Megan’s Bat Mitzvah in a lively ceremony with Valley Outreach. And Bielan is engaged to be married next year. “I feel blessed,” he says. “I would never diminish anything that’s happened to me, but I have absolutely no interest in being viewed as a victim. I have love and happiness in my life, and I really do cherish every day.”
“Jack is very positive and very spiritual,” Bilsky says.
“From the Heart of a Jewish Soul” is Bielan’s message for people in trouble. “I want them to feel, ‘If this man survived the worst of losses with courage and faith, I can survive, too,'” he says. “The whole album is in the praise of God.”
For tickets to the Jack Bielan and Friends concert at the Performing Arts Center of Cal State Northridge Dec. 3, call (818) 348-4867 or (818) 677-2488. To order Bielan’s CD, go to www.serenitysong.com
Conversations at the Keyboard
Not long before Leonard Bernstein died, in 1988, the ebullient conductor and composer approached pianist Jeffrey Siegel backstage at Lincoln Center. His business was urgent. He wanted to discuss Siegel’s “keyboard conversations,” concerts with commentary pioneered by Siegel and based on Bernstein’s TV performances of the 1950s and 1960s.
Purists had raised eyebrows about the conversations, contending that a musician should not speak onstage. But Bernstein believed that they could help counter the prevailing apathy toward classical music.
“The last thing he ever said to me was, ‘Never diminish the number of keyboard conversations. It’s the most important work you are doing,'” says Siegel, who took heed.
During half the year, he is a typical concert pianist, playing Mozart or Brahms in a white tie and tails. During the other half, he performs dozens of keyboard conversations in 17 cities, a format he first developed for a community outreach program while studying at Juilliard 30 years ago. It’s nothing like the zany antics of P.D.Q. Bach, he insists. The conversations are part conventional recital, part music appreciation class. Before performing each piece, Siegel discusses the work at hand, plays excerpts to illustrate musical themes and offers tidbits of history. For example, he will tell his audience that Beethoven wrote his mighty “Appassionata” Sonata at the time of his encroaching deafness.
When Siegel appears at the Skirball Cultural Center this week, to benefit the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic, the topic will be the Jewish-American composers George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Bernstein. Siegel will reveal what makes Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” sound bluesy; how Copland suggests a chase in “The Cat and the Mouse”; why the composers are not Jewish artists, but artists who happened to be Jewish.
“It is more difficult for me to perform and speak in the same concert,” Siegel says. “But it makes the concert so much more meaningful for the listener. It allows people to feel like musical ‘insiders,’ to experience more than just a pleasant wash of sound.”
For information on the concert — Oct. 25, 8 p.m., followed by dessert and champagne — call (626) 799-4167.
New Year’s Sounds
The number “three” doesn’t play an especially important part in Jewish lore and customs. But the pre-High Holy Day musical rush brought to my desk several trios of related recordings, so it’s fitting to deal with them in groups of threes.
1. Three sets ostensibly inspired by Jewish mysticism:
Dieter Buwen and Günter Priesner: “Die Sephiroth” (Col Legno). Buwen is both composer and organist, accompanying saxophonist Priesner on this rather academic program of duets. An earnest but dull remnant of late high modernism, the title piece inadvertently points up the limitations of classical sax technique, ignoring the expressive possibilities of the instrument almost completely. Buwen is self-effacing in the extreme, content to provide ground figures for Preisner to bounce off. Strange to think that one could write music this bland about a subject so charged with emotion. Rating: Two Stars.
Hasidic New Wave: “Kabalogy” (JAM). This is HNW’s weakest set to date, a rather tepid collection of Jewish jazz-rock cliches, well played but uninspired. Frank London and Greg Wall are incapable of making an album that is without interest, but I expect more from these guys. And the Dead Kennedys remake attacking Rudy Giuliani is just shrill. Rating: Three Stars.
Zohar: “Keter” (JAM). Wow! Zohar is Uri Caine’s Jewish project (as opposed to his hard-bop piano gigs), spearheaded by his incredibly fluent keyboard work and the vocal gymnastics of Sephardi Cantor Aaron Bensoussan, aided immeasurably by percussionist Gilad, among others. A seamless amalgam of Middle-Eastern and Sephardic musics with post-bop jazz and one of the most exciting records I have heard all year. From a flamenco-ish “Eyshet Chayil” to a salsa-rhythmed ode to the temple, this is brilliant stuff. Caine’s powerful two-handed attack echoes McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, but the results are all his own. A real rarity, a “world music” fusion that preserves the aesthetic integrity of all its parts and that isn’t soporific. Rating: Five Stars.
Relief Is in Sight