Dennis Prager conducts the Santa Monica Symphony at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Aug. 16. Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Symphony.

As Prager takes Disney Hall stage, music drowns out controversy with Santa Monica Symphony

The news that conservative commentator Dennis Prager would conduct the Santa Monica Symphony was met with dissent from some of the symphony’s volunteer musicians. But at least for the duration of the Aug. 16 performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the sounds of classical music drowned out any controversy that preceded the show.

“Just curious, are there any fans of Dennis here tonight?” the symphony’s music director, Guido Lamell, asked the sellout crowd, to uproarious applause from a great majority of the audience.

Prager’s conservative views, aired on his daily radio show and in his regular contributions to the Jewish Journal, put him at odds with the political mainstream in overwhelmingly liberal Santa Monica. So when a group of volunteer musicians objected to his planned appearance at the fundraising concert, encouraging their fellow players to sit it out, “I cannot say that I was shocked,” he told the Journal by email.

But for the radio host, a longtime classical music buff, the thrill of conducting a 72-piece orchestra in a world-famous venue overwhelmed any controversy, he said.

“Disney Hall is such an extraordinary honor that it wasn’t even on my bucket list,” he wrote in the email, referring to the renowned concert hall in downtown Los Angeles.

The hall is a considerable step up from the symphony’s regular venue at Santa Monica High School, where it offers free concerts to the public. In spite of that, some musicians were put off when Lamell announced in March that Prager would take the baton at the symphony’s Summer Gala Concert, its first Disney Hall appearance.

“We believe that Dennis Prager’s publicly stated positions are fundamentally at odds with our community’s values and that the proposed concert would deeply damage our orchestra’s relationship with our community,” four symphony members wrote in an open letter posted online dated March 27.

The letter cited Prager’s opposition to gay marriage and multiculturalism, and his endorsement of President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions as stances that bring him in direct conflict with members of the orchestra and its community. Their statement drew a chorus of local figures and officials in solidarity, including a Santa Monica councilmember who called Prager a “bigoted hate-monger.”

UCLA political science professor and symphony violinist Michael Chwe, who co-authored the letter, worried that Prager’s appearance would permanently damage the symphony’s reputation, especially within the liberal community that makes up its regular audience.

“If people associate the Santa Monica Symphony with right-wing bigotry, it’s hard to fix that,” he told the Journal before the concert.

Lamell said in the March email announcing Prager’s appearance that it would help the symphony address a “serious shortfall” in its budget. But the reasoning left some musicians unconvinced.

“There are just a million celebrities, all sorts of musicians,” said Jeff Schwartz, a co-author of the letter. “I can’t believe there isn’t a less offensive person who wants to pose in front of the band with a stick for half an hour.”

Prager addressed his critics in the email to the Journal, describing the incident as an example of “how the intolerant were defeated.”

“Disney Hall was sold out in large measure because people are sick of the totalitarian silencing of conservatives,” he said.

Lamell told the Journal before the performance that he had no problem mustering a group of musicians from his roster of some 700 volunteers. Lamell, a 39-year member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said he wanted to expose his volunteers to the venue where he makes his living.

“I wanted them to have the privilege of playing in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and I have had far more people wishing to play than possibly can be accommodated,” he said.

He predicted that the symphonies would “overwhelm the political issues.”

“If I dare use this term, music trumps politics — absolutely,” he said.

A number of the musicians agreed.

Asked if he was endorsing Prager’s political views by playing the concert, violinist Steve Ravaglioli said, “No, absolutely not, because I don’t endorse his political views. I might endorse some of what he says, but I don’t I don’t feel like playing with him conducting is a political statement, period.”

Politics went unmentioned at the performance, where Lamell’s traditional choices of Mozart and Beethoven stood in contrast to Prager’s selection of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 51, a rarely performed piece with a notoriously difficult horn passage.

Prager promoted the performance beforehand on his radio show and his online video platform, PragerU, helping to sell out the venue’s more than 2,200 seats. A Haydn enthusiast, Prager intermittently mentions his love of classical music on the air and has been asked to conduct on a volunteer basis for several local orchestras. Previously, his most notable appearance was leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1994.

At the Aug. 16 performance, Prager led the orchestra through the four movements of the Haydn symphony before deconstructing the music, isolating each section one-by-one, first the cellos and basses, then the violins, then the horns and woodwinds, beaming with the enthusiasm of a kid with a shiny new toy. “This is awesome,” he told the audience.

Dennis Prager surprised the audience with a rendition on his accordion of “America the Beautiful.” Guido Lamell accompanied him on the musical saw. Photo by Eitan Arom

After Lamell closed the program with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Prager surprised the crowd with an encore performance of “America the Beautiful” on the accordion, with Lamell accompanying him on a musical saw.

“We figured we’d try to do something you haven’t seen too often,” Lamell said.

The audience was livelier than those who normally show up to classical concerts, unrestrained from applauding between movements and calling out to the conductor.

“Thank you for neutralizing the turbulence, Dennis,” one audience member, Kenneth Rogers, called out audibly after the Haydn piece concluded. “How could anybody remain angry?”

Rogers told the Journal afterward he was referring to the controversy that preceded Prager’s appearance, as well as the controversy Prager faces on an almost daily basis. But, Rogers, a retired Los Angeles Unified high school teacher, said, “This is a wonderful forum to break from, as I put it, all the turbulence that’s out there.

“All the conservatives are out there in the audience, but there are quite a few liberals up there among the musicians,” he said. “I was kind of wondering what would happen tonight. Can’t we set aside our differences?”


Songs in the key of Nero

It may be hard to believe there was a time when George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” now a durable fixture of the American and international concert repertory, was thought of as suspect — an unclassifiable mix of concert music and jazz whose popularity seemed offensive to highbrow audiences. 

Pianist and conductor Peter Nero can relate. Classically trained in pop and jazz, Nero is something of a hybrid, and record companies had a hard time marketing his irrepressibly inventive, technically fluent and unpredictable playing.

“Today I’d be called a ‘crossover artist,’ ” Nero, 81, said recently from his home in Philadelphia. “But in 1961, RCA Victor [now RCA Records] didn’t know what to do with me, so they started by changing my name from Bernard Nierow to Peter Nero.”

Gershwin’s immortal “Rhapsody” caps off Nero’s upcoming concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in Northridge on Nov. 14. Called “Peter Nero: Gershwin in Hollywood,” the program is actually in two parts, with “Gershwin on Broadway” kicking off the program’s first half. The show also features Michael Barnett, Nero’s principal bass player for nearly 30 years, and vocalist Katherine Strohmaier. 

The Hollywood half of the program includes Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” composed, with lyrics by his brother Ira, for the 1937 film “Shall We Dance.” That score represents Gershwin’s sole Academy Award for best original song. Most of the Hollywood-era songs, including “A Foggy Day” from 1937’s “A Damsel in Distress,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” another classic from “Shall We Dance,” appeared posthumously — George Gershwin died in July 1937 at age 38.

Nero’s immersion in Gershwin’s work deepened with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Nero was 17 when he appeared on national television performing “Rhapsody” with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned the piece in 1924. 

“Gershwin was ahead of his time,” Nero said. “He synthesized classical and jazz and took it a step further. No matter how many times I play that piece, I marvel at the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure he conceived.”

Nero, who won a Grammy for best new artist in 1961, went on to record some 70 albums, including the hit “Summer of ’42.” His many television appearances included guest spots on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

Early on, Nero was one of the most respected of Gershwin interpreters. In 1972, he won an Emmy for the NBC special “S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Gershwin.” Classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to attend his concerts and the two quickly became good friends. 

Thor Steingraber, VPAC executive director, said Nero — who was founding music director and conductor of the Philly Pops orchestra for many years — is one of the most decorated figures in the history of the popular American  songbook. “He’s walking history, with an encyclopedic mind,” Steingraber said.

Indeed, Nero has worked with luminaries including Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Mathis, Elton John and Rod Stewart. 

Born Bernard Nierow in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Ukrainian-Jewish father who was a social worker and a Sephardic-Jewish mother who taught Spanish and French in New York City high schools, Nero said his interest in jazz was looked down upon at home.

“My mother wanted me to become a classical pianist,” said Nero, who, as a 13-year-old, won a scholarship to the Juilliard School preparatory division. “But I was a rebel. When I thought she wasn’t listening, I started messing around with a tune on the radio called ‘Bumble Boogie.’ It was ‘Flight of
the Bumblebee’ played in boogie-woogie fashion. It was a hit record. In those days, you could have a No. 1 hit on piano.” 

After four years at Juilliard prep and the High School of Music and Art, Nero began to get gigs while  attending Brooklyn College. “I grew up in the clubs,” he said. “In 1957, I played an eight-week gig in the lounge of the Tropicana in Las Vegas. Then they extended it, so I took an apartment and did my college work there.” 

Nero wound up playing the Tropicana for two years while earning his bachelor’s degree in music. He was 23 years old.

“We were part of the casino, and nobody listened,” he said. “People sat with their backs to us, watching the celebrities walk by … It was a great place to experiment.”

Nero’s teachers and mentors include Abram Chasins, the late concert pianist, lecturer and music director of WQXR (the radio station owned for many years by The New York Times), and Chasins’ wife, pianist Constance Keene, who took Nero on as a student for five years. Chasins, who actually knew Gershwin, wrote of the composer’s “incredible ease, joyous spontaneity and originality at the piano.” 

The same can be said of Nero’s striking improvisational technique. “I started improvising when I was 12,” he said, “and decided I’m going to do my own thing. I’ve always kept my chops in shape, so I can execute the ideas that appear in my head.”

“Baruch,” Nero’s Hebrew name, means “blessed.” And Nero’s hands are still blessedly nimble, while his mind remains sharp. “I do the crosswords,” Nero said, by way of explanation. “Eighty is the new 60.” 

But he’s been noticing that his posture at the piano isn’t what it used to be. “My teachers [Chasins and Keene] watched Horowitz at the piano, and they taught me his perfect weight transfer for hands and keys by using the body. But as I get older, I’m starting to hunch over the instrument,” he said. “It’s what nature does to the body.”

As conductor of the Philly Pops orchestra, Nero would talk to the audience, a tradition he’ll continue for his upcoming VPAC gig. Nero said he also will be available after the concert for a meet-and-greet. 

“I learned from Victor Borge how to engage an audience,” he  said. “I can talk and conduct at the same time.”

As Nero jumped back and forth during the conversation from one era to another, he could be hard to keep up with. One moment, he recalled his teacher, famed Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling; in another, he turned to affectionate memories of his friend and mentor Henry Mancini. 

Given Nero’s long history in the world of classical, pop and jazz music, one might wonder why there is no memoir from the ebullient pianist, conductor and raconteur.

“You wanna write it?” Nero asked, in a brash Brooklyn accent. “Every time I get started telling one story, I think of another. Besides, I would have to tell the truth, and that could get me into trouble.”

András Schiff talks family, war and humanity

The acclaimed Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, a part-time London resident who was knighted last year, returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 18 for a recital of late works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Later in the week, on Oct. 22, 23 and 24, he’s scheduled to play and conduct three concerts in the hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503) and Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.” 

Earlier this month, a day after his packed recital at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Schiff sat down in his hotel suite to discuss his artistry, his continued public stand against anti-Semitism and the degradation of public life he sees in Hungary. 

In 2011, Schiff, 61, became a controversial figure when he announced a self-imposed exile from his homeland. According to Schiff, things have not improved since that time. 

“It’s much worse,” Schiff said, “because during communism, this anti-Semitism was somehow repressed. Now it’s really broken out. It’s not official, but it’s unbelievable. What kind of language is being tolerated? Unimaginable hate speech — in parliament, in the press.

“They say this is freedom of speech,” he continued, “but it’s hate speech, and it’s disgusting. It should not be legally forbidden, but in a decent culture, there should be a consensus that there are certain things you don’t do or say, because it’s not decent.”

Schiff said there are about 100,000 Jews remaining in Budapest but currently no effective counterforce to the irrational hatred — a hatred he recalled experiencing firsthand as a 4-year-old growing up in Budapest.

“I was the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of Catholics and Protestants,” Schiff said. “They didn’t mind us, because my father was a very good doctor who was respected and quite liked. I was playing soccer with the other kids — I loved soccer — and one day the neighbor kid said, ‘You can no longer play with us because you are a Jew.’ This kid was maybe 3. It was the first time I heard the word ‘Jew.’ So I asked, ‘Why is that a problem?’ And he said, ‘You people, you killed our Jesus Christ.’ Since I was not schlagfertig [quick-tongued], I could not say I was at the dentist that day.”

Schiff laughed, but clearly the memory still hurt.

“I’m just telling you this because how does a 3-year-old kid, probably a good-hearted kid, where does he hear it from? From his parents? The church? They haven’t learned that Jesus was a Jew. That’s news for them. All these figures of Christianity were Jews. These religions go hand in hand.”

Maybe that’s why Schiff feels comfortable with religious works by famous Christian composers such as Bach and Haydn. “You ask me about the Jewishness, and yet I’m most attracted to these sacred pieces, like Haydn’s ‘Creation’ and Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ and ‘Mass in B minor,’ ” he said. “It couldn’t be less Jewish. And yet it’s the spiritual element. It’s this divine connection. When these composers wrote for the church, they really outdid themselves.

“But it’s also like when I did Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ last year,” he said. “When I went back to Beethoven’s late sonatas, they gained a new dimension. He was working on the last sonatas simultaneously with the ‘Missa,’ so then I can say [when interpreting a sonata], ‘Aha, here is the Credo, and here is the Gloria and here is the Agnus Dei.’ ”

Schiff left Budapest in 1979 for London. He is the only child of Holocaust survivors. Both parents lost their first spouses in the Holocaust; his father, an amateur violinist, also lost a 4-year-old son from his first marriage. His mother, trained as a pianist, had hoped to become a piano teacher. 

“She came back from the war with no strength to continue with music,” Schiff said. “But a piano was in the house, and I showed interest.” Schiff was 5 when he started to pick out tunes he heard on the wireless. Though Schiff took up conducting many years ago, he said he would never be “unfaithful” to the piano.

“I know exactly my abilities and limitations,” he said. “I will not conduct the ‘Rite of Spring’ or Mahler symphonies. Nor would I like to. The music I do — Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms and Schumann — this I can do from my experience on the piano and from chamber music and ensembles. I can play these scores on piano, but it’s not like the real thing.”

In his role as conductor, Schiff said Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” is especially relevant. In 1973, during the height of Vietnam War protests, Leonard Bernstein performed it at the National Cathedral in Washington. Hearing this, Schiff said, “Good for him: a big statement.” 

“When I programmed the Mass, I didn’t see what is happening in Europe,” Schiff said. “It is a disaster. War has become a huge business. In [George] Orwell, ‘War is peace.’ Politicians preach peace but tell us when they are not selling arms, the economy is not doing well. It seems to me the economy is only doing well when they make war. But preferably, not in your own place. So when you say ‘Mass in Time of War,’ there is always war.”

Like war, anti-Semitism has long blighted humanity, and all his life, Schiff has been trying to understand it.

“I wish I knew the answer,” he said. “Unfortunately, the issue is more general. The problem is with human beings. It’s jealousy, hatred, envy — those categories. To find an outlet for those emotions, people look for scapegoats, and the Jews are at hand. In Hungary, the Gypsies are also at hand. But if you go back to Cain and Abel, if the human race were one race, one nation and one family, they would still kill each other. If you have minorities or people who are different from the majority, then it’s a good excuse.”

For tickets and more information about András Schiff’s upcoming appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall,

After 20 years, L.A. Jewish Symphony still reflects the Jewish experience

When Noreen Green founded the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) in 1994, she had to wrestle with a couple of questions.

First, what defines a Jewish orchestra and differentiates it from other orchestras? And will a woman conductor, that rarest of species, succeed in molding a group of disparate musicians — a combination of community members, high-level university students, L.A. Philharmonic members and studio players — into a disciplined, highly professional ensemble?

Listeners and critics will be able to judge for themselves on Sept. 7, when the LAJS will celebrate its 20th anniversary at the Jon Anson Ford Amphitheatre at 7:30 p.m.

For the event, Green will be reunited with an early collaborator of her venture, the multitalented composer, pianist, actor and showman Hershey Felder. Green credits Felder with helping to shape some of the early decisions and development of the LAJS, although Felder disavows such a key role.

The anniversary concert will feature “Aliyah,” Felder’s concerto for piano and orchestra that celebrates the founding of the State of Israel. It also will draw on music from his one-man shows as Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and — coming up — Irving Berlin.

The orchestra’s mission statement emphasizes its “dedication to the performance and preservation of music reflective of the Jewish experience,” presentation of the works of famous and not-so-famous Jewish composers and introduction of new compositions by Jewish artists.

However, not all compositions by Jewish composers are necessarily “Jewish,” while works by gentile composers may convey a Jewish flavor. On the latter point, Green observes, “We also play works by [Dmitri] Shostakovich and [Sergei] Prokofiev.”

Green is a multitasker and mother of two teenagers, whose work schedule includes collaborations with the Latino community — using Sephardic music as a bridge for the symphony’s education program — as well as with black gospel choirs and Holocaust survivors. Although she has staff to help, Green spends much of her time overseeing the fundraising and administration aspects of the symphony.

She doesn’t make a big deal about being one of the few women conductors on the scene. She has conducted the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra a number of times. Some deeply religious music lovers in Israel’s capital would never attend a performance if it included a woman singer but have no problem with a woman conductor.

On the podium, Green generally wields the baton wearing a jacket and black pants, but when she appeared in Johannesburg in 2003, for the religious community, she was asked to wear a long skirt.

“I didn’t dig in my heels and refuse,” she said. “I’m a collaborative person by nature.”

A self-described “Valley girl, born and bred,” Green, 55 grew up in Sherman Oaks, attended Grant High school and moved on to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, receiving a bachelor’s degree in music education. Next was California State University, Northridge, where she taught in the music department for 10 years, during which time she also earned her master’s degree in music. She then earned a doctorate in choral music at USC (she is generally referred to as Dr. Green).

She served for 20 years as music director at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, where she continues as music scholar in residence. “It was through Rabbi Harold Schulweis at VBS that I learned to reach out to other communities and countries,” Green said.

“I love to teach,” especially in the multicultural environment of Los Angeles, she said. 

Her most recent project, which debuted in May, is the 55-voices-strong American Jewish University Choir, which she founded through the Whizin Center for Continuing Education. She also founded, with Phil Blazer at JLTV, the American Jewish Symphony, a touring ensemble. The premiere performance is scheduled for April 26, 2015, at New York’s Queensborough Performing Arts Center, with actor-comedian-singer Mike Burstyn as soloist.


The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s 20th anniversary concert is at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 7. Tickets range from $30 to $50 (student and children discounts available). For ticket information and reservations, visit, or call (323) 461-3673. The Ford Amphitheatre is located at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. 

Israel confers Presidential Medal on Conductor Zubin Mehta

Israeli conductor Zubin Mehta was awarded a Presidential Medal of Distinction by Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Mehta is the music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a visiting conductor for orchestras around the world.

The award, presented at a special event the  morning of Oct. 15 at the president’s residence, was conferred “for his outstanding contribution to culture in the State of Israel.”

Peres in conferring the award said he could not think of anyone else who has offered such a unique contribution to Israel, its people and its mood.

“You have shown leadership,” Peres said. “A leader was born to elate the spirit and the hopes of the people. That’s what you did.”

Peres said Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic “carried a flag of friendship across the world and represented our country in an unbelievable manner. Music conducted by you became a message for peace, a message of hope.”

In accepting the award, Mehta said, “What Israel has given me in the last 50 years I can only give back by having my musicians night after night play their hearts out all over the world.”

The Presidential Medal of Distinction is awarded to individuals and organizations that have made unique and outstanding contributions to Israeli society and Israel’s image around the world, and which constitute examples of initiative, innovation, creativity and vision.

Leonard Slatkin’s last stand at the Hollywood Bowl?

Maybe it was his heart attack during a concert in Rotterdam in 2009, or perhaps it’s just a matter of aging, but conductor ” title=”” target=”_blank”>

Tamara Brooks, noted choral conductor and wife of Theodore Bikel, dies

Tamara Brooks, a noted choral conductor, and the wife and musical partner of singer-actor Theodore Bikel, has died.

Brooks, a Juilliard-trained pianist and conductor, suffered a heart attack on May 19. She was 70.

She had a distinguished career as a conductor and educator who performed around the world.

The director of choral activities at the New England Conservatory from 1982 to 2000, she also had served as president and head of the orchestral program of Philadelphia’s New School of Music. Brooks founded and was music director of Sequenza, a professional instrumental ensemble devoted to contemporary music.

Brooks and Bikel met when they worked on two shows about Jewish music for PBS in 1999 and 2000, according to the conservatory website. Brooks became Bikel’s professional as well as life partner, accompanying him on piano in frequent concert tours in the U.S. and overseas.

The couple married in 2008, and a year later they celebrated Bikel’s 85th birthday with a gala concert at Carnegie Hall featuring other top artists from the folk and Jewish music worlds.

Conductor Barenboim awarded German peace prize

Conductor Daniel Barenboim was awarded a German peace prize for his efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

The Westphalia Peace Prize, worth about $70,000, was presented by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in ceremonies Saturday in Muenster City Hall.

Barenboim, 67, a pianist and general music director at Berlin’s State Opera, was honored particularly for his creation, with the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians. The award will be shared with the orchestra, according to news reports.

Several musicians from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed at the ceremony.

In delivering the prize, Westerwelle praised the project as “an orchestra without borders” that brings younger generations together. He said that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians must continue, with European support, but that Israel’s security is top priority and “not up for debate.”

Barenboim called the award “a great and deep honor” and added that a two-state solution to the conflict was urgently needed.

“It is not five before midnight, but 30 seconds before midnight,” said Barenboim, who has passports for Israel, Argentina, Spain and a pass for the Palestinian territories, which he was given after a concert in Ramallah in January 2008.

The prize is given every two years by the Economic Association of Westphalia and Lippe to individuals or institutions considered role models in building peace. Past recipients include former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and conductor Kurt Masur.

The (almost) hardest-working man in classical music

With such legendary workaholic conductors as James Levine and Valery Gergiev going strong, Jeffrey Kahane can’t quite be termed the hardest-working man in classical music. But as he begins his 11th season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and his third as music director of the Colorado Symphony, Kahane is giving his colleagues a run for their money. So much so that this past spring he had to cancel several weeks of concerts for health reasons.

“I was severely overworked,” a rested and recovered Kahane, 51, says now. “I had some high blood pressure, and I kind of ignored it, which I shouldn’t have done. And in the middle of last season, it got worse, and my doctor told me to cut back my workload immediately. I canceled six weeks of concerts, which was very difficult for me. I had never done anything like that before. I’d always taken pride in not canceling dates.”

Kahane, who is also an accomplished concert pianist, attributes his exhaustion less to myriad commitments than to the taxing programs he had scheduled last season, especially several LACO dates dedicated to Mozart — the tail end of a project in which he was to play and conduct over two seasons nearly all of the composer’s piano concertos.

“Just doing the Mozart would have been plenty,” said the pianist-conductor, “so doing it all was overly ambitious.” The series was to have concluded this past spring, when Kahane was convalescing. It will now end in February, with a special performance of four concertos added to this season’s LACO schedule.

Not that LACO’s new season, which begins Sept. 29 and runs through May 18, is exactly relaxed for Kahane. In late February, the orchestra is scheduled to embark on its first European tour in more than 20 years, performing in such music capitals as Paris, Berlin and Vienna during two weeks of concerts that also take it to Italy and Spain.

The tour also unites the orchestra with two compelling, and very different, soloists: noted Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, who will sing Mozart and Rossini arias, and composer Uri Caine, who will perform “Mosaics,” a piano concerto he wrote for LACO that had its debut at the Jazz Bakery this past May.

Caine’s music incorporates both jazz and classical elements, and he will serve as LACO’s composer-in-residence through the end of this season. The season before last, he wrote a double-piano concerto inspired by Mozart for LACO, Kahane and himself.

And the premieres keep coming at LACO. There will be another before this season concludes, a piano concerto written by the rising young composer Kevin Puts. What makes the work novel, according to Kahane, is that it marks the first time he’ll be directing a new work from the keyboard — an approach he takes regularly when performing piano concertos by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

“Originally, Kevin was writing the concerto for himself,” Kahane recalled. “But he came to one of LACO’s Mozart concerts and said, ‘Jeff, I’ve changed my mind. I want to write a concerto for you.'”

Kahane first met Puts while teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., as the budding composer was earning a doctorate there. He has previously conducted Puts’ Marimba Concerto as well as his Third Symphony, a piece inspired by the pop singer Bjork’s album “Verpertine.” Beyond the piano concerto, Kahane has commissioned a clarinet concerto from Puts, this time for the Colorado Symphony.

LACO’s season also includes a bit of cross-cultural music making, with the West Coast premiere of a Reza Vali’s “Toward That Endless Plain” on Nov. 3 and 4. The piece is a concerto for nay, a Middle Eastern flute, and conventional Western orchestra. Khosrow Soltani, a native of Tehran who trained as a bassoonist in Vienna, will perform the solo part.

Though this season features more familiar names — pianist André Watts, guitarist Christopher Parkening — LACO concerts often bring future stars to the attention of audiences. Thus the orchestra’s subscribers heard violinist Hilary Hahn, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianists Jonathan Biss and Lang Lang before their fame.

“I have the great good fortune to have an ear to the ground and a great many wonderful colleagues,” Kahane said of his network of music-world sources, mostly fellow musicians with whom the conductor has formed strong bonds. “Even my management sends me CDs of young artists. And though it doesn’t happen often, it does happen that I hear something extraordinary from a young artist. I have a track record I’m proud of in that regard, in finding artists who are just about to make it big. But there’s also a certain amount of good luck.”

Luck alone, though, seems to have had little to do with Kahane’s success. His conducting career followed his making a name for himself as a soloist and chamber musician, activities he continues to this day. He is enormously well liked by the musicians he works with, unusual in a field where respect is far more common than affection.

His personal life also seems firmly grounded. He and his wife, Martha, a clinical psychologist, keep houses in Denver and Santa Rosa and have raised two children, Gabriel, 26, and Annie, 19.

Annie attends Northwestern University, where she’s a sophomore majoring in performance studies, a multidisciplinary subject that combines elements of dance and theater into something Kahane calls “truly cutting edge.”

Gabe inherited the music gene and is a gifted pianist and composer living in Brooklyn, where his most recent project is a musical about the life of Mohammad. “When I first heard about it,” Kahane said, “I thought, you’ve got to be kidding! But it’s actually an incredibly beautiful and powerful piece.”

Naturally, Kahane kvells over his promising kids, but that doesn’t preclude him from leavening paternal pride with humor.

Balancing music and yoga

With his arms outstretched above his head, his left fist clenched and his right hand delicately pinching the baton, Brad Keimach conducts Brahms Symphony No. 1 with the fervent grandeur expected of a symphonic masterpiece.

Watching Keimach, 53, one might wonder whether it is the genius of the composer or the magic of the conductor that transforms a concert into an apotheosis.

So what is a Julliard-educated conductor doing teaching yoga in Venice Beach?
Brad Keimach“I thought I was going to be a rabbi,” Keimach said. “The rabbi at our synagogue let me lead Saturday morning services because I could sight sing the haftarah.”

But studying Holocaust atrocities diminished his faith, and fate had different plans for this chorale conductor yogi.

Keimach’s plans for a conducting career staggered with his move from New York to Los Angeles a decade ago, but in this digression, he found a vinyasa flow that allowed him to combine his passion for music with his penchant for healing. In a coloratura of musical and emotional possibility, he will conduct the Glendale Youth Orchestra on June 5 at the Alex Theatre.

After graduating Julliard, Keimach completed graduate school and an elite seminar series at Tanglewood, summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

There, he met his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, whose teaching methods inspired the burgeoning educator.

“He was the window through which [I was] able to see the interconnectedness of life,” Keimach said.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, providence intervened.

“Yoga happened most unexpectedly, and it organically grew into something that I do seven days a week,” Keimach said.

When a conducting student invited him to a yoga class, Keimach accepted. “I thought I was in good shape, but this was the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life.”

The physical challenges of yoga were an easy embrace, but what captivated Keimach was an aspect he describes as “a way of thinking, of choosing peace, calm and balance.”

He is reluctant to suggest his professions influence one another, but he does point out that the different but complimentary mediums cohere with the yoga philosophy of balance.

“In an orchestra, everyone has to be unified in their effort, but in yoga, each practice is interpreted through the prism of an individual’s life,” Keimach explains. “Conducting requires 100 million megavolts of energy and is about outward expression, whereas the breath-based yoga I teach is internal.”

Both music and yoga emphasize a “heart connection between participants.” Indeed, Keimach’s history reflects his proclivity for connecting with people. “No matter the age of my students, I think, ‘These are my children, and I have to take care of them.'”

Keimach believes yoga can illuminate “the essence of who one is — egoless, simple, peaceful,” and based on his experiences, feels it is “helpful in dealing with the challenges of life.”

In a gentle voice, Keimach concludes his classes with a resonant statement, “May our practice help us become kinder, more peaceful and more loving, in our thoughts, our words and our actions.”

Brad Keimach conducts the Glendale Youth Orchestra on June 5, 7:30 p.m. at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. For more information, visit or

L.A. Music Man Is Homeward Bound

Zubin Mehta, one of Southern California’s favorite musicmakers, will return to his old stomping grounds Dec. 10 to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s (IPO) first Los Angeles concert in three years.

The performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall will open an eight-date tour that continues Dec. 11 at Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, then moves on to the East Coast.

The sold-out Dec. 10 program will feature Stravinsky’s "Petrushka" and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist, followed by a black-tie gala event benefiting American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and honoring philanthropists Edye and Eli Broad.

Mehta, 67, was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978; he and his wife, Nancy, maintain a home in Brentwood. He became music director of the IPO in 1977 and received a life appointment to that post in 1981.

Avi Shoshani, the IPO’s executive director, said the orchestra is eager to visit Disney Concert Hall.

"We have heard so much about the new hall," Shoshani told The Journal. "The acoustics are supposed to be wonderful, so we are really looking forward to playing there."

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said the Mehtas were occasional visitors to Disney Concert Hall during its construction.

"We gave Nancy and Zubin tours of the hall every time they were here," Borda told The Journal, adding that Mehta was one of the first people to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearse in the hall during the summer. "We ran around and sat in about 50 different seats" to check the acoustics."

Founded in 1936 as the Palestine Orchestra, the IPO has performed in concert halls and at music festivals for decades as Israel’s most prominent cultural ambassador. The orchestra’s upcoming American tour is part of the State of Israel’s 55th anniversary celebration.

Suzanne Ponsot, executive director of American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO), told The Journal that the economic pressures on the Israeli government brought about by the three-year-old intifada have hurt cultural institutions across Israel, which have historically enjoyed government support. The IPO’s musicians have taken cuts in wages and benefits in response to cuts in government allotments.

That’s made the mission of AFIPO, one of several organizations worldwide devoted to supporting the orchestra, its tours and its educational programs, all the more important.

"We’ve all been working hard to make sure that any reduction in support could be taken care of," Ponsot said.

She added that the "situation" has made the IPO an even beloved Israeli institution. "The orchestra’s role in Israel has become increasingly important to the Israelis, who have come to lean on great music for solace," Ponsot said.

The IPO was scheduled to play Hollywood Bowl last summer as part of a tour with singer Michael Feinstein, but the tour was canceled amid stories of problems the producers of that tour incurred involving insurance and security costs.

Whatever concerns there were have been ironed out for the December tour, Borda said.

"Apparently they were able to get the right kind of bonds to make the appearance possible," she said.

Shoshani, who said the IPO travels with a security team, said the orchestra will have "not more than the usual, not less than the usual" amount of security.

Only 26 when he took the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Bombay-born Mehta cut a glamorous figure in local social circles during the 1960s and ’70s, both before and after his 1969 marriage to the former Nancy Kovack, an actress with numerous TV and film credits.

That glamour will be recaptured during the Dec. 10 gala, which will host "the who’s who of the local Jewish community," said Sue Bender, AFIPO’s West Coast director.

Los Angeles fans of symphonic music can’t wait for Mehta’s return, Borda said, noting that he will be back in January

to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"Zubin was music director for so many years," Borda said. "He remains a family member."

Leon Hirsh Guide

Leon Hirsh Guide, conductor, music educator and musician, died in early October. He was 81.

Guide was born Feb. 3, 1921, in Turkey to Clara and Joseph Guide, who had left Russia during the civil war. The family moved to Chicago when Guide was 2.

He studied cello while attending Marshall High School and won first prize at a contest by conducting Beethoven’s "Egmont Overture." Deciding to make music his life’s work, he went on to attend Berkeley, where he studied with Boris Binder, first cellist of the San Francisco Symphony, and at UCLA, where he so impressed composer Arnold Schoenberg that he was invited to take Schoenberg’s class. Guide went on to obtain both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music from Northwestern, where he studied with Dudley Powers, first cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Guide took a post teaching music with the Chicago public schools. Eventually, he returned to California and taught in Bakersfield, then for 40 years with the Los Angeles Unified School District. During this time, he started his own dance band where he played string bass.

Returning to his first love, he established and conducted many orchestras, including ones for Wilshire Boulevard Temple, La Mirada, the Westside Jewish Community Center and University Synagogue. He also was a guest conductor in Europe and Asia.

He had the ability to attract some of the best amateur and professional musicians in the L.A. area. He never stopped learning, teaching and influencing hundreds of young musicians.

He is survived by his wife, Lillian; two stepdaughters; sister, Shirl Lee (Sheldon) Pitesky; nine nieces and nephews; and eight great-nieces and nephews.

A free memorial concert is being held in Guide’s honor by the University Synagogue Orchestra on Dec. 22 at 3 p.m. at University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255.

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.

World Briefs

Violinist Isaac Stern Dies at 81

Isaac Stern, considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, died Saturday in New York at 81.

He played with conductor Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic in Jerusalem soon after the 1967 Six-Day War, for Israeli soldiers during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and with a gas mask on after an Iraqi Scud missile attack interrupted a performance in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

Bin Laden Blasts Jews

A statement believed sent by suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden to a TV station based in Qatar lashed out at a “Jewish campaign” against him while expressing sympathy for Muslims killed in Pakistan in anti-U.S. demonstrations.

“We hope that they are the first martyrs in Islam’s battle in this era against the new crusade and Jewish campaign led by the big crusader Bush under the flag of the cross,” the statement said.

In another development, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban, said capturing bin Laden will not help prevent future terrorist attacks against the United States.

If U.S. officials really care about staving off future acts of terrorism, they should pull their forces out of the Persian Gulf and support the Palestinians in their uprising against Israel, Omar said Monday.

AMIA Trial Begins in Argentina

A trial began Monday in Buenos Aires for 20 people accused of playing a role in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in the Argentine capital. None of the defendants have been charged with involvement in the actual attack, only with supplying the stolen van used in the bombing, which killed 86 people and wounded hundreds. Argentine officials hope the trial may shed light on those who masterminded the attack.

Sbarro Attack Reenacted

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat bowed to pressure Tuesday to order the closure of an exhibition reenacting the Aug. 9 suicide bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem.

The exhibit opened Sunday in the West Bank city of Nablus to mark the first anniversary of the ongoing Palestinian uprising.

The exhibit was altered but was not shut down completely. On a visit to Jerusalem, Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Los-Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned Arafat’s action as “outra-geously too little, too late.”

Babi Yar Remembered

Some 2,000 people gathered Sunday at the Babi Yar memorial in Ukraine to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nazi massacre of nearly 34,000 Jews during three days in September 1941. Later that day, a requiem commemorating the massacre was performed at the Kiev Opera Theater, where Ukrainian government officials were in the audience.

Israel Flights to Continue

Continental and Delta airlines denied a report that they would permanently end flights to Israel in light of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Globes, Israel’s daily financial newspaper, had reported on its Web site that Continental would end its daily flights to Israel, while Delta would make its current suspension of flights permanent.

Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Symphonic Globe Trotter

It says something about Gisele Ben-Dor’s dedication to her profession that when she made her conducting debut with the Israel Philharmonic in 1983, she was nine months pregnant.

Her concluding piece was Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which, in view of her particular condition, was renamed by the orchestra as “The Rite of the Offspring.”

“All during the performance he didn’t move, but as soon as it was over, he did a mambo,” recalls Ben-Dor. The musically attuned fetus was born two weeks later as the first of her three children, and named Roy.

These days, Ben-Dor leads a bi-coastal existence as musical director and conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony, musical director of the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and wife and mother of the Ben-Dor clan in Englewood Cliffs in New Jersey.

The conductor, an effervescent blue-eyed blonde, was born 43 years ago in Uruguay, the daughter of Leon and Selva Buka, who had emigrated from Poland in the early 1930s.

The Buka family made a permanent move to Israel in 1973, a few months before the Yom Kippur War, and settled in a small apartment in Ramat Gan.

Gisele studied at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and in 1980 enrolled at Yale’s School of Conducting.

Shortly after her Yale graduation in 1982, her budding talent was recognized by Leonard Bernstein, who adopted her as one of his last protégés and sharpened her skills with the Tanglewood Young Artists Orchestra.

In 1994, in the best Hollywood a-star-is-born tradition, she stepped in at the last minute for the ailing Kurt Masur to conduct the New York Philharmonic without a rehearsal, score or baton. Of course, she was a smash.

Twice a year, she returns to Israel, where her parents still live, to conduct the Israel Philharmonic.

Ben-Dor is only one of three women conductors leading prominent orchestras, and her gender inevitably comes in for comment by audiences and critics.

“If I worried about (the audience’s perception), I would become self-conscious,” she says. “I have conducted since I was 12 years old. Being a woman conductor may not be normal to the outside world, but it’s normal to me. I must say that since I came to the United States, I have been given every opportunity, and I hope I deserve it.”

Some 60 percent of orchestra members live in Los Angeles and during the season make the 200-mile round trip to Santa Barbara four times a week.

Harking back to her birthplace, Ben-Dor is rapidly gaining a reputation as the premier interpreter of the works of Latin American composers.

Leading her orchestra, she recently recorded, for the first time, the ballet score from, “La Cornela” by Mexico’s Silvestre Revueltas. Due out in the next few months is the world premiere recording of the “Amerindia” symphony by Heitor Villa Lobos.

“Maestra Ben-Dor,” noted the Los Angeles Times music critic, “is just the conductor we have been looking for to make a really persuasive case for Latin composers.”

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.