Remembering Marvin Hamlisch: One singular sensation… and what he did for love


It was early 1989, and TV producer Terre Blair called her mother with the exciting news.  “I’m engaged”, she announced.  “I’m getting married to Marvin Hamlisch!”  “Marvin Hamlisch?” the prospective mother-in-law replied.  “You mean the boxer from Las Vegas?”  “No, Mom.  That’s Marvin Hagler,” Terre laughed.  “Marvin Hamlisch is a composer;  he writes songs, and he tours.”  “Just what this family needs,” said Mom.  “An out-of-work songwriter.”

Actually, by the time Hamlisch was 31, he had accomplished as much and certainly won more awards than most composers do in an entire lifetime.  But the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award, as well as three Oscars and four Grammys, are part of his past.  “I don’t know whether it’s my Type A personality, or the way I was raised, or what it is,” mused Hamlisch, “but there’s something in me that tends to only look forward, and not back.”

A clear example of that occurred after his wedding to Terre, which was attended by Liza Minelli, Carly Simon, Ann-Margret, and Roberta Flack, who serenaded the couple with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” “I have a house on Long Island, and when I was single, my office there had most of my memorabilia in it.  When I got married,” recalled Hamlisch, “I decided to take down all the awards, all the photos, and just have a picture of my wife there and a nice little reproduction from the Museum of Art.  So when I’m sitting there, looking at the piano, I’m not thinking about what I should have done, what I could have done, what I had done… I’m just thinking in terms of, now what can I do?” 

The composer also believes all the acclaim can put a crimp in the creative process.  “You never start out focused on trying to win an award or have something become famous.  You just start out wanting to write something good, and I think what happens, unfortunately, is that the trappings of celebrity get in the way.”  Hamlisch also has a new-found perspective on fame and fortune.  “You know, when you’re a bachelor for 45 years, as I was, the things that make you happy tend to be entwined with the things that you do.  If you do a good movie or have a hit song, you go, ‘Ooh, I’m happy!’  Any kind of happiness on its own, like walking along the ocean, or looking at a good piece of art, is never as good as the three Oscars.”

“But when I got married,” he continued, “all that stuff went into another category, so the three Oscars are real fine, but that’s a professional happiness.  That doesn’t beat the happiness of waking up to your wife or sitting in the office with her or walking and talking with her or just thinking about her.  Separating the music world from the ‘world world’ allowed me to get back to how I was when I started all this.  And that’s what you have to do, I think, in order to do well.  You have to always go back to how it was.”

How it was, for the writer of “The Way We Were,” was a Manhattan childhood that included being the youngest student ever admitted to the Juilliard School of Music.  While still in college, he began working on Broadway shows, and composed the Lesley Gore hit “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.”  Hamlisch’s burgeoning career truly soared when he scored a series of films, including “Take The Money And Run,” “The Way We Were,” and “The Sting.”

In 1974, Hamlisch began a year-long tour as accompanist and straight man to the legendary and, at the time, elderly Groucho Marx.  “He was the grandfather I never had, a nice old Jewish man, not at all grouchy.  A real sweetheart of a guy.  But he was getting a little senile, and he used to tell the same joke over and over.  He would say, ‘I bought an anklet for this girl, and I had it inscribed.’  I would ask, ‘What did it say?’  He would answer, ‘Heaven’s above.’ “  Was this joke told onstage or off?  “Anywhere.  Always.  Constantly.”

During that tour, Hamlisch composed the score for “A Chorus Line”.  The day before the play received its first New York press reviews in 1975, he approached its director/choreographer, Michael Bennett.  “I asked him, what happens if we were wrong about the show, if it’s not as good as we think it is?  Michael looked at me and said, ‘Have you done your best?’  I said yes.  He said, ‘Do you think you’ve wasted any time?’  I said no.  He asked, ‘Is there anything up there you’re ashamed of?’  I said no.  He said, ‘That’s all you can do.’”  The Pulitzer, Tony, and a record run on the Great White Way confirmed the duo’s belief that they had a winner.

Hamlisch is busy these days with commercial projects, but he seems more enthused with a symphonic work called “The Anatomy of Peace,” inspired by a book of that name.  “I’m grappling with some big issues right now,” he says.

Fame and fortune has granted Marvin Hamlisch that opportunity, but to him, that aspect of his career is secondary.  “You’re going to think this is really hokey,” he confided, “but I really don’t care if people remember I wrote ‘The Way We Were.’  I mean, hopefully, they’ll play it at a Bar Mitzvah here or there;  that’s fine with me.  But I just hope people connect me somehow with music that had a kind of integrity, and that was melodic.  That’s all I care about.  Forget awards, forget accolades.  I started all this to write good music, and I just want to keep doing that.”


Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News.

Composer Marvin Hamlisch dies at 68


Composer Marvin Hamlisch, who earned critical acclaim and popularity for a prolific output of dozens of motion-picture scores and shows including “The Way We Were,” “The Sting” and “A Chorus Line,” has died in Los Angeles. He was 68.

Hamlisch collapsed after a brief illness and died on Monday, a family spokesman said in a statement. The spokesman gave no more details.

The composer and conductor was the creative force behind more than 40 film scores, including original compositions and musical adaptations such as his arrangement of ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” in the 1973 film “The Sting.”

[From the archive: ‘Chorus Line’ composer’s music still has a kick]

He won two Oscars for best score and best song for “The Way We Were,” also released in 1973, which starred Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. Hamlisch first worked with Streisand as a rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl.”

His other film scores included “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People,” “The Swimmer,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Ice Castles,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Bananas.” His latest effort was for a film based on the life of pianist Liberace.

On Broadway, he won a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for the 1975 musical “A Chorus Line,” which at the time became the most successful show on the Great White Way. He had been working on a new Broadway musical called “Gotta Dance.”

Hamlisch earned the rare distinction of winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.

At the time of his death, he held the position of principal pops conductor for several symphony orchestras across the United States and was scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic in this year’s New Year’s Eve concert.

He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Terre.

Reporting by Christine Kearney; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Matthew Lewis

Planned Wagner concert stopped at Tel Aviv U


Tel Aviv University put a stop to a planned concert of music by German composer Richard Wagner.

In a letter denying the request to hold the concert in a campus auditorium, the university said that Yonatan Livni, founder of the Israel Wagner Society, concealed the organization’s name and its desire to play Wagner when he requested last week to rent the auditorium, Haaretz reported Monday.

Wagner’s music traditionally has been boycotted in Israel. The forerunner to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra stopped performing his music in 1938 following Kristallnacht.

Wagner, who reportedly held anti-Semitic views, was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer.

Let Wagner Be Heard?


Why is it I simply cannot condone the presentation and celebration of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in Los Angeles, arriving with much fanfare this coming spring?

Because Richard Wagner was an extraordinary musician, and an even more extraordinary anti-Semite. Open his own writings: “Religion and Art” (1881) and his essay, “Judaism in Music” (1850). Wagner warns his readers of the “be-Jewing” of modern art and the “Judaic-infected corruption of the cosmopolitan idea.” Jewish music, Wagner argues, is a racial matter that threatens the “purity of German folk culture.” As an artist, Wagner insists that the Jew has never had an art of his own, and to the cultured, the music Jews create is “outlandish, odd, indifferent, cold, unnatural and awry.” The Jewish pathetic attempts at making art are “trivial and absurd,” because of the Jewish “incapacity for life.” 

Such so-called musical “geniuses” as Giacomo Meyerbeer and the Jewish converts to Christianity Felix Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine are not, and cannot be, truly creative, wrote Wagner. Whether the Jew is converted or not, nothing can overcome his artistic inferiority. Baptism cannot wash away the traces of his origin. “The Jew is innately incapable of announcing himself to us artistically.” 

Richard Wagner concluded his essay on “Judaism in Music” with these ominous words: “But bethink ye, that one only thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahaseurus — destruction.” Wagner advocated the Untergang, the destruction, extinction and downfall of all Jews.

We are dealing with no drawing-room anti-Semite. Here’s a mentality that confesses the “rooted dislike of the Jewish nature.” More than dislike. Wagner declared openly and repetitively, “I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and all that is noble in man…. I may well be the last remaining German who, as an artist, has known how to hold his ground in the face of a Judaism which is now all powerful.” He was not the “last.” The dirge cast its deathly shadow over the face of Europe. 

Wagner was no coincidental anti-Semite. He personally and actively orchestrated a circle of racist colleagues, among whom was his son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the most influential exponent of racial anti-Semitism in the 19th century. It was Chamberlain who became a venomous disciple of Wagner’s Aryanism.  It was Wagner’s passionate hatred of Jews that provoked the German philosopher Eugene Dühring to declare that the answer to the Jewish question should be solved by “killing and extirpation.” 

Wagner deplored granting civil rights in 1871 to Jews and applauded political anti-Semitism. Wagner’s writings had great ideological influence on Adolph Hitler, who had Wagner’s operas performed at Bayreuth in connection with Nazi party conventions. 

In his own words, Wagner opened the eyes of people to their “involuntary feeling and instinctive repugnance against the Jewish primal essence.” It is noteworthy that the title Wagner chose for his essay is “Judaism in Music,” not “Jews in Music.” His diatribe cuts deep.

Still, biography is not musicology. Can an ugly anti-Semite not create a song of beauty? After all, opera is opera and philosophy is philosophy. What has one to do with the other?

I am anguished. I would hear, but my mind and heart cannot segregate the lyric from the song. We are being asked to disassociate, to listen to the art and pretend deafness to the artist’s demonizing of Jews and his evisceration of Jewish culture and talent. 

I admit my bias, my inability to engage in such schismatic play. The issue is not a matter of aesthetics or of culture. It is a matter of self-respect and respect for this great city that justly prides itself on its unity and diversity. To celebrate or commemorate anyone who relentlessly sought the downfall (untergang) of my people or any other people breaks the limits of tolerance. To detach emotionally and morally the life of the composition from the life of the composer tears apart the wholeness of memory. To offer earthly immortality to the designer of destruction of a people’s race, religion or dreams mocks the integrity and the pride of community. To attend or not, in either case, attention must be paid.

In this era of racial and ethnic tension, we need now, more than ever, gestures, projects and programs that bind us together. By all means, let him be heard. And by all means, let him be read. The artist is no disembodied spirit. See him whole. 

And let us discern.

Harold Schulweis is rabbi at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Jewish World Watch. He is the author of many books, including “For Those Who Can’t Believe” (Harper Perennial, 1995), “Finding Each Other in Judaism” (UAHC Press, 2001) and “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights, 2008).

Jazzman Frishberg charts own tuneful territory


One of the great joys of L.A. jazz, from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, was the blossoming of jazz pianist Dave Frishberg into a singer-songwriter of quirky, yet warmly satisfying, material. His tunes navigated a pathway that sidestepped melodramatic cabaret material on one hand and self-absorbed pop music on the other. Frishberg created a ” title=”My Attorney Bernie lyrics”>My Attorney Bernie“: “He’s got Dodger season boxes and an office full of foxes, it’s amazing all the different things your average guy might need a lawyer for.”

Frishberg’s songs are jazz-informed, yet modeled on pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop standards, written by supreme tunesmiths like Alec Wilder and Frank Loesser. While working as a pianist in New York, Frishberg struggled to find his voice as a songwriter, while trying to find a place in the market for himself.

Speaking from his home in Portland, Frishberg said, “When I started, I wanted to write songs that would be recorded; I wanted to be part of that world. But I couldn’t really figure the market out.

“Popular music changed with rock music and I didn’t want any part of that; that was for kids. Then the folk music took over and that was amateurish. But I rediscovered a place for myself in popular music when Brazilian music came in. Those bossa nova songs were so beautiful and graceful. That music showed me there was still a place for beautiful songs.”

His break came in ’71, and it brought him west.

“I’d lived in New York for 15 years. I was getting divorced and I was ready for something new. I had begun writing a couple of years earlier with no success at all. A friend of mine invited me to come to L.A. and write for a TV show he was producing, ‘The Funny Side.’ Nothing I’d written was notable up to that point but I came to L.A. as a songwriter. They wanted a production number on the topic of the week: newspapers or leisure or something like that. I was pleased to learn I could do such a thing. The discipline was good for me and the deadlines were murder. What I did was known as ‘special material,’ which was on its way out at the time.”

The show was short-lived, but Frishberg found himself transplanted into the L.A. jazz community. He played in trumpeter Bill Berry’s Big Band. “That was the best Ellington tribute band around,” Frishberg asserted, “because everybody on the band was an Ellington fan and really knew how the music was supposed to sound.”

Another trumpeter, Jack Sheldon, not only employed Frishberg as a pianist, but also jump-started his career as a solo performer. “I probably played a hundred nights with Jack,” Frishberg said. “He was very generous about giving me the spotlight. At rehearsals I would sing a few things I wrote, not expecting anything. Then on the bandstand, Jack would suddenly say, ‘Dave Frishberg’s going to sing one of his songs….’ I was terrified.”

There’s a long tradition in jazz of instrumentalists who sing, stretching back at least as far as Louis Armstrong. Frishberg is certainly no polished vocalist, but like Bob Dylan, his phrasing and rhythm are absolutely the best for his own songs.

“I started singing because I had to make demos of my songs and I couldn’t find singers to sing them the right way. I didn’t like the way other people sang my songs. I found that I had to write for my own vocal range,” he said.

For stellar interpretations of Frishberg songs, refer to Rosemary Clooney’s “Sweet Kentucky Ham” and Sue Raney’s rendition of the love ballad, “You Are There.”

His album “Quality Time” (Sterling, 1994) saw Frishberg offer political commentary in the song, “My Country Used To Be”: “My country used to be famous for quality, we led the way. Now we buy overseas. Then beg the Japanese, to buy some products, please, made in U.S.A….”

Reverting to type, Frishberg acts as accompanist to vocalist Rebecca Kilgore on their new collaborative album, “Why Fight The Feeling?” (Arbors). It’s a collection of songs by Frank Loesser, whom Frishberg sees as “the first songwriter I wanted to emulate.” It’s easy to consider the casual grace of a Loesser song like “I Believe in You” and see an antecedent for Frishberg’s “I Can’t Take You Nowhere.”

So what’s Frishberg working on these days? “I’m employed, so to speak, at work on a musical. It’s called ‘Vitriol and Violets: Tales from the Algonquin Round Table.’ It’s all very literary, of course, and it’s a big challenge, trying to imagine what Dorothy Parker or Alexander Woolcott were thinking. I’m back to writing ‘special material’ and it requires that I get into character. It’s hard for me to think of what to write about on my own, until someone gives me an assignment and a deadline. And a check, of course.”

Dave Frishberg will perform Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. as part of the Parlor Performances series at Steinway Hall at Fields Piano, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 4713979 or email Jeannine@FrankEntertainment.com

Brooks Arthur brings stars’ hearts and humor to ‘Jewish Songbook’ CD


The decor in Brooks Arthur’s office chronicles what Billboard calls his “career as a behind the scenes superstar of the record industry.”

One photograph depicts Carole King hugging Arthur while working with him after her LP “Tapestry” hit in the 1970s. Nearby is a picture of Bruce Springsteen, who recorded three albums (and his hit song, “Born to Run”) at Arthur’s old 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, N.Y. Pasted to the wall are images from the comedy albums Arthur produced for Jackie Mason, Robin Williams and Adam Sandler, who has employed Arthur as the music supervisor on most of his films — including the new Israeli action spoof “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.” Arthur’s office, in fact, is directly across the hall from the comedy impresario’s office at Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions in Culver City.

Sandler is just one of the artists featured on Arthur’s latest endeavor, “The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of a People,” a recently released CD of new and veteran artists performing classic Jewish songs. Sandler croons a heartfelt (and joke-free) rendition of “Hine Ma Tov” in a duet with his cantor, Marcelo Gindlin of Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (the sheet music from that recording session is taped above Arthur’s desk).

The album’s other 12 tracks include comic Rob Schneider doing the 1940s novelty tune “Bagels and Lox”; saxophonist Dave Koz in an instrumental version of the Yiddish song “Raisins and Almond,”; comic Robert Smigel adding irreverent new lyrics to “Mahzel (Means Good Luck)” in the persona of his puppet character, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog; and “Seinfeld” alumnus Jason Alexander in “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max,” an Allan Sherman ditty about a salesman with too many relatives.


Promo Video: ‘The Jewish Songbook: The Heart And Humor Of A People’

Arthur, sporting a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, says the idea for the “songbook” stems from the childhood years, when he worked at his father’s Brooklyn candy store and avidly listened to Jewish radio.

“All four of my grandparents came from Russia and Poland and spoke Yiddish fluently,” Arthur recalled. “I used to love getting together with them and my parents and listening to the Yiddish station WEVD, because the music made them so happy. After the shows were over, they would go back to their daily routines, but I used to witness them coming alive listening to the Hebrew and Yiddish songs interspersed with comic ditties.

“It’s a dying art form,” Arthur said of that format. “I wanted to produce an album that hearkens back to those days.”

On the CD, Arthur himself performs “Sheyn Vi Di L’vone” (“Beautiful Like the Moon”) with Lainie Kazan; he says he discovered he had a voice while humming along to such tunes on WEVD.

“My parents’ candy store was at the subway station at 22nd Avenue-Bay Parkway, and, at age 9, I’d take the train another five stops to Coney Island, where I could pop some quarters into a booth and make a little acetate recording, a ‘single’ of myself singing,” he recalled.

Arthur also was cantor of the junior congregation at his Orthodox shtibl before launching a career as an audio engineer, overseeing 1960s hits such as “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “The Locomotion” and “Leader of the Pack.” Eventually he won grammys and produced LPs by artists such as Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli.

He segued into movie work when producer Jerry Weintraub asked him to be the music supervisor for his film “The Karate Kid” in 1982. The same year, Weintraub introduced Arthur to Chabad of Westwood, where the musician experienced a Jewish reawakening while dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah.

“I began to take Hebrew lessons and became very interested in learning,” Arthur recalled. “I found myself sponging up Judaism; I hadn’t been drinking that kind of elixir since my bar mitzvah.”

Arthur drew Sandler’s attention in the early 1990s, after he earned a Grammy nomination for producing Jackie Mason’s “The World According to Me.”

“I absolutely loved Adam on ‘Saturday Night Live,'” said Arthur, who demonstrates by imitating Sandler’s florid “SNL” character Operaman. “I loved his brand of humor, and I’m so lucky that he liked me.”

Their first album, “They’re All Gonna Laugh At You,” went double platinum, and Arthur went on to produce all five of Sandler’s CDs (copies are lined up on the console of Happy Madison’s recording studio next door). Arthur became a regular member of Sandler’s creative posse of friends and collaborators, co-writing Sandler’s animated Chanukah film, “Eight Crazy Nights,” and even playing a part in the success of the legendary “Chanukah Song.”

“I saw Adam performing it in its embryonic form on ‘Saturday Night Live,'” Arthur said, “and while he was still on the air I called his apartment in Manhattan and left the message: ‘Sandman, this is a reason to make your next album.'” (Sandler awoke him at 2 a.m. to agree.)

Arthur initially assumed Sandler might do a humorous piece for the “Jewish Songbook,” but Sandler said he “wanted to do something that makes your heart hurt,” Arthur recalled. His choice was “Hine Ma Tov,” because hearing his cantor sing the melody reminded him of going to synagogue as a boy in Manchester, N.H.

Arthur says the other “songbook” musicians also turned nostalgic in the studio about their childhood.

“They were conscious of keeping alive these great Jewish songs of the past,” he said.

The ‘Chronicles’ of the musical rabbi


In his mid-50s, after nearly three decades teaching in his native Baltimore at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University — part of that time as head of the music composition department — composer-pianist Moshe Cotel decided to become a rabbi.

He thought he was giving up classical music — one of his first loves — but his curiosity and daring were such that he found a way to take life lessons from the Torah into the recital hall. By combining rabbinical monologues and great music by Gershwin, Scriabin, Schoenberg and The Beatles, among others, Cotel, who is now 65, has won over both Jewish and Christian congregations.

Cotel’s “Chronicles I: A Religious Life at the Classical Piano” comes to Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica on June 14, and “Chronicles II” arrives a day earlier at University Synagogue in Irvine (he performed the first one there last year).

Additional upcoming recitals in Atlanta and Seattle bring the number of times Cotel has performed both sets of “Chronicles” to 82. And the invitations from various religious organizations continue to grow. This, while maintaining his full-time job as rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dubbed the “Maestro-Rabbi” by the Los Angeles Times, Cotel is as surprised as anyone by how his dual career has taken off.

“It’s a blessing within a blessing,” Cotel said via phone from New York. “Being able to blend the two loves of my life — Judaism and music — is thrilling.”

According to Cotel, he “started late,” arriving at the Peabody Conservatory Prep School at age 9. Later, Cotel wrote a full-length 200-page symphony. He was 13. At 23, he won the prestigious American Academy in Rome Prize for music composition, studying in Italy for two years before being asked to join the faculty at Peabody.

Raised in an Orthodox family, Cotel says that early on “music became my religion. I lived my own private inner life,” he says. “Even as a boy, I went my own way and let the adults talk. I grew up in a deeply dysfunctional family and was deeply unhappy. Music was my secret world, and I disappeared into it. It saved my life.”

When he was old enough to leave home, Cotel recalls boarding a Greyhound bus for an audition in New York.

“I never looked back,” he says. “Fearlessness grows out of despair, and also out of faith.”

The decision to move from composer and esteemed teacher to rabbi came with some apparent sacrifice.

“I thought my music career was over,” he says. “It wasn’t in my game plan, but I knew I had to become a rabbi.” When he told his wife, Aliya, who has since become his agent, road manager and publicist, he recalls her listening in silence, then saying, “Moshe, if that’s what you need to do, then I’m with you 100 percent.”

He explains what prompted his sudden career change. Looking to brush up on his German before conducting performances of his opera, “Dreyfus” — based on the notorious case of institutionalized French anti-Semitism — Cotel took lessons from an elderly German widow who lived nearby. Some months later, he heard a voice on the street addressing him — in Hebrew. It was the elderly widow, who had decided to take lessons with a rabbi.

“I didn’t even know she was Jewish,” he recalls. She was raised as a Catholic after her parents were forced to flee Germany during the Holocaust. She was left in the care of “good Catholic sisters,” living her life as a Catholic. But now, in her old age, as she told Cotel, “she was coming back to Judaism, because of you.”

“Kabbalah says there’s no such thing as a coincidence,” Cotel says, recalling that he “changed her life without knowing it.” He quotes a biblical text: “I will send my angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”

“The angel’s not a winged creature as in Renaissance paintings,” he adds. “The literal translation is, send my ‘messenger’ before you. It could be a little old German lady.”

Cotel’s recitals are imbued with a sense of fun. He admits a serious approach doesn’t suit him. In one selection from “Chronicles II,” “The Beatles Meet Kabbalah,” Cotel offers a rabbinical commentary on, and then performs, his own transcription of a Beatles song. Hint: Love may not be all you need.

“The deepest spirituality doesn’t need heaviness,” he says. “Religion should buoy you up; it shouldn’t weigh you down. It’s a way of discovering who you are in the limited time we have on this earth.”

Cotel expresses surprise at how the demand for recitals has grown in the last few years.

“It grew by itself, almost as if I had nothing to do with it,” he says.

After he was ordained in 2003, invitations to perform “Chronicles” came in from as far away as Hawaii. He’s doing 25 recitals this year and says, with some regret, but no doubts, “I’m a pulpit rabbi. I can’t squeeze in any more.”

Perhaps even more unexpected for Cotel was the number of requests to perform “Chronicles” that came from the Christian clergy.

“It never occurred to me at the beginning I’d be playing for Christians,” Cotel says. He adds that this interfaith project has taken him across America, and it also “works well by involving congregants in the church down the street” in Brooklyn.

Even with such a crowded schedule, Cotel says sometimes a rabbinic idea just pops into his head. He asks, “What piece can I use to illustrate a point? What’s Jewish about this?” He’s thinking about a “Chronicles III: A Rabbi Looks at Chopin” but realizes he’s already booked for the next two years.

“My house shall be a house of prayer for all people,” Cotel quotes. “The Torah is the greatest vehicle of hope in human history, saying you are a human being first,” he adds. “J.S. Bach was a devout Protestant, but he reaches all people because he went into his roots deeply. I firmly believe that’s the way to go. I can only achieve self-overcoming by going straight into my Judaism with all my heart, soul, and might. If you do that, you’re bound to touch other people.”

Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

Composer’s hit musical spells success ‘B-E-E’


William Finn, composer, lyricist and creator of the hit musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” says his own surname is the result of a misspelling. “When my great-uncle came from Russia, he kept saying he was looking for someone named Fein, so the genius at Ellis Island gave him the name Finn,” he breezily explains from his Manhattan apartment.

“The original name was something like, ‘Oren,’ but I prefer Finn, so the error was fortuitous.”

Even more fortuitous, “Bee” has placed Finn back on Broadway’s A-list after a decade of relative obscurity. The new musical, which won two Tonys in 2005, tells of six misfit tweens, played by adult actors, who experience epiphanies while tackling words such as “boanthropy” (the delusion that one has become an ox) and “phylactery” (as in “Billy, put down that ‘phylactery’ — we’re Episcopalian,” the word pronouncer says).

The comedy opens May 27 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood, starring the original Broadway cast, along with audience members who sign up to participate in the fictional bee (and who are eliminated via elaborate improvisational schemes).

The endearingly geeky main players include the unhappy overachiever Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig), the Asian American who aces “phylactery”; and sweet-tempered Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who came in third in his school bee but is competing because “the person who came in first has to go to their bat mitzvah, and the person who came in second has to attend the bat mitzvah,” he says. Then there is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg), a chronic lisper who keeps getting words like “sluice” and “cystitis” — and who is the half-Jewish daughter of yuppie gay dads.

Finn — known for mining his Jewish and gay identities — enjoyed commercial and critical success in the 1980s and ’90s for “Falsettos,” the story of a gay man, his Jewish family and AIDS. (One sprightly number is titled, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”) But his more recent fare, such as “Elegies,” a song cycle honoring his late friends, closed after brief runs in New York. It was Finn’s friend, Wendy Wasserstein — the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died of leukemia last year — who prompted him to consider a spelling bee musical in 2002.

Although already in poor health, Wasserstein had trekked to a Lower East Side theater, in a rat-infested former chop shop, to see her weekend nanny, Saltzberg, perform in a sketch show about a fictional bee. The production, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” was the brainchild of actor-director Rebecca Feldman, who had never lived down misspelling “bruise” as “bruze” in a childhood competition.

The other actors also personalized their characters. Saltzberg, for one, culled material from myriad girlhood diaries to create Logainne, a somber 10-year-old who wears face-contorting braids and always takes precisely the same number of steps to the microphone. (Logainne gave — and still gives — an improvised, politically correct lecture that draws on Saltzberg’s own, oh-so-serious bat mitzvah speech about children in the Holocaust.)

Wasserstein saw something in “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” for Finn, now 55, who did not bother to attend the production but watched a tape of it on his bed, falling asleep in the middle of the show.

His snoozing did not affect his enthusiasm for the premise. Finn says he was drawn to the concept of a spelling bee as a metaphor for human experience.”Sometimes you get the easy word, and sometimes you don’t,” says the composer, who promptly wrote the “Bee” ditty with the refrain, “Life is random and unfair.”

But the show’s theme soon switched to the zeitgeist’s obsession with winners, as evidenced by the success of other bee-themed work (notably the documentary, “Spellbound”) and his own love of reality television.

“They’re my favorite shows,” Finn gushes of the genre. “My very favorite is ‘Project Runway,’ which is all about fashion and design — omigod, it’s the greatest show ever invented. And I love ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ I just find winners fascinating. I enjoy the joy of winning.”

His lust for victory can perhaps be traced to his middle school years in Natick, Mass., when Finn says his reputation as a “smarty pants” rendered him an outcast who spent much of his time “in my room, in the dark, playing the guitar I had received for my bar mitzvah.”

He would have loved to participate in a spelling bee, but he didn’t know of any around town. Rather, the prominent competitions seemed to cater to the jocks, who could butt heads in sports, and to the pretty girls, who could vie for prom queen.

“Even today,” Finn complains, “the ‘smarty pants’ don’t usually get the good competitions. It’s still all models and looks and everything but the ‘smarts.'”To write “Bee’s” book, Finn selected his precocious former musical theater student, Rachel Sheinkin, who eventually won the Tony for her efforts.

“Bill once called my writing ‘sub-English,'” she told The Journal, laughing quietly and sounding as soft-spoken as Finn is bombastic.

But Finn had noticed her flair for writing wickedly witty dialogue.

“Bill calls it ‘perverse,’ meaning he thinks I have an incredibly morbid sense of humor,” she says.

While creating the show, Sheinkin wrote in Finn’s detritus-filled office as he scribbled crossword puzzles, ate, napped — and finally banged out a song in a burst of inspiration. “We agreed that the [device] of adults playing children announces to everyone that, ‘Hey, we’re in this to laugh about our childhoods,'” she says.

“These kids who felt like freaks when they arrive to the bee find others who are just like them, and they realize they’re not going to be alone for the rest of their lives,” Finn says.

Whenever he speaks to teenagers, Finn says, he tells them they will be appreciated as adults for the very qualities that render them nerds in high school.

“Inevitably the cutest girl or the handsomest guy raises their hand and says, ‘But I’m happy here,'” he adds with a hearty laugh. “And I say, ‘Well, I’m not really talking to you. I’m addressing everyone else.'”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs May 27 through June 17. For tickets and information, call (310) 479-3636.

Steve Reich’s non-requiem for Daniel Pearl


When Judea Pearl asked composer Steve Reich to create a piece of music that would commemorate the life of his son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, he knew what he did not want the music to be.

“We did not want it to be a eulogy or a requiem,” said Pearl, whose son was murdered while on assignment in Pakistan in 2002. “Daniel was a highly principled person. He became an icon, and this work by Reich is a tribute to a life that personified our culture, our principles and our dreams.”

The result was the “Daniel Variations,” which will have its West Coast premier on Jan. 28 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece will be performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) and conducted by Grant Gershon as part of a 70th birthday tribute to Reich.

To inspire the composer, Pearl gave him a book of Daniel’s writings, as well as a transcript of the murder. But Reich also thought about the original Daniel, the biblical prophet who interpreted the terror-filled dreams of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar. Reich found an extraordinary resonance between Nebuchadnezzar’s description of one dream (“Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me”) and terrorist attacks around the world.

Reich built the “Daniel Variations” composition in four alternating movements — the first and the third are about the biblical Daniel, the second and the fourth are about Daniel Pearl. The piece alternates between horror and hope, with the gentle Daniel Pearl movements contrasting with the heavier, fearsome prophet Daniel movements.

“The opening is some of the most dissonant music I have ever written, and the third movement is some of the tensest music I have ever written,” Reich said. “It’s a music of great contrasts.”

The Daniel Variations marks the second Daniel Pearl tribute piece that Gershon will be conducting. The first was “Mother’s Lament” by Sharon Farber, which the LAMC performed on Sept. 29, 2002.

“I find a lot of resonance in the idea of being able to take a life like Daniel Pearl’s, that was so full of optimism and commitment to bringing people together, and to be able to translate that and to transcend the horrible circumstances of his death. I think that is what music and the arts should do — and that is enormously inspiring to me,” Gershom said.

As for Judea Pearl, he sees these tributes as a way to assist his mission.

“I am not dealing with pain here,” he said. “I am a soldier, and we have to fight the hatred that took Daniel’s life. These tributes do give me the assurance that the community resonates with the ideas Daniel stood for.”


The “Daniel Variations” will be performed on Jan. 28, 7 p.m. at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. For more information, call (800) 787-5262 or visit Gershwin is resurrected but Miller’s ‘Salesman’ dies again; Theater gets ‘Bent;’ Eshman and Barak Q

Music lovers get presents for composer Reich’s birthday


Sometime in the 1970s, composer Steve Reich found himself looking for spiritual sustenance.
 
“Like many people in the ’60s,” he says, “I got involved in Hatha Yoga and Northern Buddhist meditation and Southern Buddhist meditation. It did a lot of good for a high-metabolism New Yorker like me. But after about 10 years, I felt ‘something is missing.'”
 
Reich, who turned 70 this week with elaborate celebrations in New York and London, grew up in Reform Judaism, at a time “when Big Bad Reform was really Big Bad Reform,” he jokes. “Religiously speaking,” he says, he was “a blank slate.”
At a certain point, however, he felt that the spirituality he sought might, in fact, be “in my own backyard.”
 
An ardent admirer of oral transmission of cultural traditions, Reich suddenly realized he was “a member of the oldest tradition on earth,” and didn’t know anything about it.
 
So he set out to fill that gap.
 
Today Reich is an observant Jew. He keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and studies Torah weekly. And his growth as a Jew has filtered into his music in works like “Tehillim,” “Different Trains,” “You Are (Variations)” and his collaborations with Beryl Korot, a video artist who is also his wife. But he is adamant that he is not a Jewish composer.
 
“I am Jewish, and I am a composer,” he says. “I don’t write Jewish music. The only true Jewish music is hazanut [cantorial music].”
 
“Setting a Hebrew text is very important to me,” Reich says. “But that’s concert music using a religious text. Stravinsky wrote a mass, and that’s religious music because it’s used in the Catholic Church, but to me Jewish music is one man chanting Torah. The rest is folklore.”
 
Still, Reich won’t downplay the significance of his Jewishness in his life.
“This has made a tremendous improvement in my life,” he says emphatically.
Is there a New York component to his music to match the Jewish component? Reich acknowledges, “Everyone is shaped by when they’re born and where they live,” yet he doesn’t have an easy answer to the question. “Fish swim in the water but they don’t know much about the water. But if you take it away, they’re dead. I think the energy, the rhythmic energy in the music is me — Hashem’s plan for me included that — but New York certainly fueled it. It’s a city of enormous energy.”
 
And true to its form, in October, Reich’s hometown will be resplendent with birthday tributes, including programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and a retrospective of his video work with Korot at the Whitney.
 
In addition, Reich’s new opus, “Daniel Variations,” written in memory of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists, will have its world premiere Oct. 8 at the Barbican Centre in London.
 
Reich admits that he is dazzled, amused and delighted by the fuss.
 
“If you’re going to turn 70, that’s the way to do it! I’ve been very fortunate,” he admits. “So many wonderful things have happened.”
 
But Reich is hardly resting on his birthday laurels. Where is he headed next musically?
 
The answer to that question is, he says, a bit complicated.
 
“‘You Are (Variations)’ was written after ‘Cello Counterpoint,’ which is a highly tooled, precision piece,” he says. “When I started ‘You Are,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to do what I know how to do and follow it wherever it leads. I’m going to see what happens.’ I had never consciously had that attitude composing. In the past I always felt I had to set a problem for solving. Lo and behold, the harmonies begin to get very dissonant, and you end up doing something you didn’t know you knew how to do. That is only possible after years and years of work. And it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.”
 
As an example of the way that his working methods continue to evolve, he offers both, “Daniel Variations,” the vocal piece he wrote for the Daniel Pearl Commissioning Project of Meet the Composers, and “Sinfonietta,” a recent instrumental piece.
 
“Daniel Variations” uses four texts, two from the Book of Daniel, one from Daniel Pearl himself and a fourth that is Pearl’s paraphrase of a jazz song title from the ’20s.
 
Reich explains, “Whenever you choose a text, the text forces you to do things you might not otherwise do. The whole idea of a four-movement piece came out of choosing those texts, and the fact that it’s about a person who was murdered affects the way I wrote. With a text, you find yourself asking, ‘Bach did this, Stravinsky did this, what have you got in mind?’ And you are forced by the text to make [musical] decisions that if you were writing instrumental music, you might not do.”
 
By contrast, he continues, “The Sinfonietta piece is completely instrumental, a bit closer to my earlier pieces. It’s more repetitive, does things I haven’t done in years. But it fills out the harmonies in ways I wouldn’t have done when I was younger.”
 
In December, Reich will begin working on a piece for Eighth Blackbird, a contemporary music sextet based at University of Richmond in Virginia and the University of Chicago.
 
“They are a flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and percussion,” he says. “That is an instrumentation I would never write for, ordinarily. I’m going to have them do a recording of themselves, then play against it. I’ve been working in these interlocking pairs for [decades], and I’m still married to it, but I’ll be working with strict contrapuntal ideas that I haven’t thought about for a long time.”
 
Reich’s formula for keeping the music and him fresh after all these years is simple.

Holiday tunes for when you haven’t got a prayer


I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
— Jerome K. Jerome


 
Perhaps it is the intensity of the emotions raised by the liturgy itself. Or the power of worshipping in a sanctuary filled with people. Or the sense that everything is at stake.

 
I like to think it’s the music.

 
But whatever the reason, the High Holidays provide some of the greatest frissons one can experience in a synagogue. And the music is, indeed, a big part of those rising chills. One need look no farther than four new CDs that include generous helpings of music for the Days of Awe to hear evidence of the power of these holidays to inspire composers and performers.

 
Sometimes the simplest music has the greatest impact. Consider “Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” a CD by Cantor Lois Welber of Temple B’nai Israel, Revere, Mass. Almost all the music on this recording is from Israel Alter, one of the great Conservative cantors of the 20th century.

 
Alter didn’t write classical hazanut; his compositions are devoid of the coloratura pyrotechnics of the Golden Age cantors. Rather, his settings of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, published 35 years ago, are straightforward, emotionally direct and comparatively simple. And that is the source of their power.

 
Welber opts for an equally simple and powerful approach. Accompanied only by organist Ernest Rakhlin or pianist David Sparr, she tackles Alter’s music head-on, not with flash but great feeling. Welber has a resonant mezzo voice, not glitzy but profoundly effective. The result is a tribute to the power of simplicity.
 
The mandolin i
s an instrument whose sound resonates with poignancy. In the hands of masters like Dave Grisman and Andy Statman, the gentle ringing of its strings carries a powerful emotional charge.

 
Put those two musicians together with “a collection of timeless Jewish melodies,” as their new CD “New Shabbos Waltz” bills itself, and the result is a sterling blend of deeply emotive music.

 
The set kicks off with a melancholy “Avinu Malkeinu,” with Statman’s plangent clarinet stating the traditional tune while Grisman comps behind him. The duo deftly trade leads on this and the other cuts on the record, aided immeasurably by some silky slide guitar from Bob Brozman and rock-solid timekeeping by Hal Blaine on drums and Jim Kerwin on bass.

 
Statman is in a more playful mood than on his recent excursions into Chasidic mysticism, and his interplay with Grisman is delightful throughout.

 
Two of the latest entries in Naxos Records’ series of Milken Archive recordings feature contemporary orchestral pieces inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. In fact, both Herman Berlinski (“From the World of My Father”) and David Stock (“A Little Miracle”) have tried their hand at re-imaginings of the shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. (Given that this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and there is no shofar service, I find this an amusing coincidence.)

 
Berlinski (1910-2001) was a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, albeit an unhappy one, and I think I detect some of her influence in the rich, dense sound tapestry of Berlinski’s “From the World of My Father,” a lovely 1941 piece that pays homage to the synagogue and folk music of Eastern Europe. His 1964 “Shofar Service” is a fairly straightforward setting of the old Union Prayerbook liturgy, here ably performed by the BBC Singers conducted by Avner Itai.

 
Not surprisingly, Berlinski blends two trumpets with the shofar itself, to considerable dramatic effect. Although he was a friend of Olivier Messiaen and his circle, on the pieces included here, Berlinski is not interested in the less-is-more aesthetic of Messiaen; his is a resolutely post-Romantic palette, whether he is writing for organ (“The Burning Bush”) or full orchestra (“Symphonic Visions for Orchestra”).

 
Stock, who was born in 1939, is of a more obviously modernist bent than Berlinski. His operatic monodrama, “A Little Miracle,” which retells an extraordinary story of Holocaust survivors, owes a bit of its rhythmic drive to Schoenberg (perhaps with a nod to Gershwin).

 
But his “Yizkor” is surprisingly conservative, powerfully melodic and quietly restrained. By contrast, his shofar piece, “Tekiah,” written for trumpet and crisply performed by Stephen Burns and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble with the composer conducting, has moments that are distinctly reminiscent of the heyday of minimalism. One hears echoes of Glass in the repetitive ensemble figures behind the staccato trumpet line, and the contrast between foreground and background is a fruitful one. The result is an intriguing recording, but I don’t imagine your local shul is going to try it any time soon.

 

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses,” will be published by Shocken Books in October.


 

“Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” can be purchased at www.loiswelber.com.

 

“New Shabbos Waltz” can be purchased at www.acousticdisc.com

“From the World of My Father” and “A Little Miracle” can be purchased at www.milkenarchive.org.

A friend remembers culture booster John Rauch


“When you looked in those deep blue eyes you saw a man with a burning vision,” reminisced Israeli composer Ofer Ben-Amots. He was referring to John Rauch, the founder of The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, whose recent death at the age of 75 is a blow to the Los Angeles Jewish cultural scene.

 
John’s name is not familiar to the general public. He shunned the spotlight, insisting it stay focused on the hundreds of artists he loved, nurtured and supported for more than 16 years.

 
“He was my rabbi, my biggest fan,” said actor Stephen Macht. “I know he felt the same way about all his artists and friends. He sat or stood in the aisles clapping and laughing and crying during all of our performances.”

 
When Chaim Potok learned about the work of the Center he wrote a letter to Rauch: “Dear Mr. Rauch, the program of the Center seems to me to be wide and deep and eminently worthwhile with the potential for making a significant contribution to the culture of our world. How may I be of help to you?”

 
Rauch, a Viennese born banker and attorney founded the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity along with his wife Ruth because he believed that creating opportunities for promising, talented Jewish artists (composers, playwrights, filmmakers, painters, etc.) to work together with Jewish scholars would spark an explosion of Jewish cultural expression. Rauch was legendary for thousands of hand-written notes of encouragement to artists written between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. from his booth in Jan’s Coffee Shop on Beverly Boulevard.

 
The Center began in 1991 with a pilot program called, The Creative Artists Institute. Jewish artists from Canada, Russia and the United States were given fellowships to fly to Jerusalem to participate in workshops covering everything from “Talmudic playwriting” to lectures on the erotic poetry of the 12th Century Sephardic Rabbis.

 
Another ambitious Center program is the Jewish Arts Festival (Philadelphia, Santa Fe and the San Diego Festival, now in its 13th year.) These Festivals provide precious performance opportunities for established and emerging Jewish artists whose work is often outside the mainstream of popular culture. For the 1992 Philadelphia Festival, the Rauches sought out and invited a fairly unknown composer to perform his work. Today, the music of Grammy-nominated Osvaldo Golijov is performed to sold-out houses at Disney Concert Hall and Lincoln Center. Golijov writes, “John’s tireless and loving work is what gives Jewish artists of our time the possibility to reach their full potential. We are all blessed by him.”

 
“His vision was to create tikkun olam” says Yale Strom, award-winning filmmaker (“The Last Klezmer”) whom the Center helped secure funding for his projects through grants and commissions. “John had the vision and tenacity to take me from a street musician to where I am today. I can honestly say that John had a major hand in my success, because he encouraged me and never wavered in his belief of what I could achieve.”

 
John Rauch is survived by his wife, Ruth; sons, Danny and Mark; and six grandchildren.

 
Donations may be made to the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, 6399 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 305, Los Angeles, CA. 90048

 

Barbara “Bobbi” Asimow died Aug. 22 of cancer at 63.

 
Bobbi was born in Brooklyn in 1943 and came to Los Angeles as a teenager, attending Fairfax High School. She received an master’s in psychology from San Francisco State and an MBA from the University of Judaism. For the past 22 years, she worked for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as a professional fundraiser. She directed the Metropolitan Region and, for the last 12 years, the Women’s Campaign. She was a legend in the Women’s Campaign, raising more than $12 million a year for Jewish causes; supervising a devoted staff; and mobilizing an army of dedicated volunteers. She was one of the most respected professionals at the Federation.

 
In her honor, an endowment will be established, within the Jewish Community Foundation, that will fund the Bobbi Asimow Award for the best Jewish communal worker of the year. This award will recognize the person who best exemplifies Bobbi’s spirit; leadership, teamwork, dedication, love of Judaism, and a deep concern for those in need.

 
She is survived by her husband, Michael; sons, Ian Lennard, Daniel (LeAnn Bischoff), and Paul (Colette Caggiano); daughters, Hillary (Peter Blum) and Courtney (Craig Broscow) Lennard; sister-in-law, Myra Bennett; brother-in-law, Steven; former husband Colin Lennard; and seven grandchildren.

 
In her memory, donations can be sent to the Women’s Campaign of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 750, Los Angeles, CA 90048

 
I fell in love with Bobbi Asimow the first time we met. I had just come to Los Angeles from the East Coast, was brand new to our professional field and a stranger here. Bobbi flashed her famous contagious smile and welcomed me with open arms.

 
It didn’t matter to Bobbi that she was a senior pro and I was young and inexperienced, or that she was a top fundraiser and I was working with college students. That day, for the first time, I knew that I had made the right career choice, because Bobbi became my mentor. In our short exchange, she modeled the Jewish values that I spent years leaning with astounding beauty, grace and passion.

 
Over the years that followed I watched Bobbi develop hundreds of community leaders. In her quiet way, she helped shape much of the professional landscape of Jewish Los Angeles.

 
How many of us went to Bobbi when we needed advice, a shoulder to cry on, or to admit mistakes? How many times did she look deep into our eyes with both love and wisdom and guide us? How often did we then get back on our feet and aspire to be even half as talented a professional as Bobbi?

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, July 1
In time for summertime, the Skirball has rekindled its weekly Café Z live music series. Take advantage today, and head down to groove to Elliott Caine Quintet’s Afro-Cuban jazz beats. According to Caine’s Web site, KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz described him as a “terrific trumpet player, bandleader and composer … deserving of wider recognition.”

Noon-2 p.m. Free. Zeidler’s Café, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

 

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


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=””>

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.

 

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.

 

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 gsiegle@pitt.edu.

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

 

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.

 

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.

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."

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.”

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.

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."

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 .

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.

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?

Family Business


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.

Composing Life


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.