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

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.

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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=””>

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.

 

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."

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

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.

Elias and Company


You may know Jonathan Elias as the guy who composed the music to Chaplin and 9 1/2 Weeks. Or most of the songs on the Yes album, Union. Or the ditty to the original MTV promo, the one where the astronaut plants the MTV flag on the moon.

So it may come as a surprise that Elias’ latest project is an album that has soared to the top of Billboard’s classical crossover chart. The Prayer Cycle (Sony Classical) is holding fast at number six, not far below the new Star Wars CD.

It’s a multilingual, New Age-y, nine-movement choral symphony featuring Alanis Morissette (yes, Alanis Morissette) singing in French and Hungarian. Linda Ronstadt croons in Spanish; James Taylor performs a medieval prayer; and Israeli artist Ofra Haza sings a duet, Forgiveness, with the late Pakistani-Muslim, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There’s a personal chant by Perry Farrell, the punk rock singer from Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros, who apparently has been exploring his Jewish roots.&’009;

Elias, who composes free music for Amnesty International ads, says he began writing The Prayer Cycle while brooding about the future of the mankind during his wife’s pregnancy three years ago. I was nervous about bringing Lilli into this world, he said, and my symphony became a prayer that the future is not like the present.

Morissette telephoned Elias just a few days after he sent an early version of the piece to her manager. She was so taken with the music that she agreed to sing on half the album. Morissette even composed her own lyrics and melodies for the project. We both come from Hungarian lineage, mine Jewish, hers Christian, so we clicked immediately about her singing in Hungarian, Elias says.

Yet the composer was jittery when Morissette, the big rock star, arrived for her first recording session in L.A. But after the first 10 seconds I was at ease, Elias says. Alanis was totally cool. And I was just awestruck by her ability. She’s only 24, but she can hold her own with people like [African artist] Salif Keita.

Sadly, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn unexpectedly died before he could finish recording his duet with Ofra Haza. The Jewish artist had to improvise to fill in the blanks. Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn was so open and excited about working with an Israeli singer, Elias says. He knew that we were breaking cultural and political boundaries. — Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor.


The Movies’ Music Man


Composer Elmer Bernstein . Photo by Peter Halmagyi

 

The list of films for which Elmer Bernstein haswritten orchestral scores reads like a roll call of cinema’s all-timeclassics: “The Ten Commandments,” “The Age of Innocence,” “TheMagnificent Seven,” “Ghostbusters,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “CapeFear,” “True Grit,” “Animal House,” “The Great Escape,” “My LeftFoot”…just to name a few.

Bernstein was born in New York, in 1922, theson of immigrants from Ukraine and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hisfather, a teacher, and his mother, a dancer who once performed withIsadora Duncan, immersed the boy in the arts. After brief forays intopainting, acting and dancing, he began studying to become a concertpianist. At the age of 12, Bernstein started composition studies withAaron Copeland, Roger Sessions and, ultimately, StefanWolpe.

During World War II, he joined the Army AirCorps and arranged music for patriotic radio broadcasts and wrotescores for the dramatic shows. In the early 1950s, he scored”Saturday’s Hero” and “Boots Malone.” The score for “Sudden Fear,” afilm with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance, achieved widespreadattention for its use of solo instruments; Bernstein’s career seemedready to take off.

But Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt preventedthe composer from working until 1955, when Bernstein wrote thespectacular score for”The Ten Commandments.”

His film-scoring career now spans five decades,and the youthful, passionate Bernstein — who celebrates his 76thbirthday on April 4 — shows no sign of slowing down. The JewishJournal caught up with him at his Santa Monica office on a rainyThursday afternoon.

Jewish Journal: Thiscentury has seen the rise of great Jewish composers in America,something that had never really happened before. How do you fit intothat?

Elmer Bernstein: Inthe 19th century, if you were Jewish and wanted to be a mainstreamcomposer, you had to convert. That’s what Mendelssohn did andcertainly Mahler did in order to become director of the Vienna Opera.He couldn’t have done it unless he converted.

But I think 20th-century thought is basicallydominated by Jewish thought. I mean, when you stop to think of it,Jesus Christ was a Jew, and a lot of his philosophy was extrapolatedfrom the Old Testament. Karl Marx was a Jew, and that has had a greateffect on political thinking in the 20th century. Albert Einstein wasa Jew, and that has a great effect on scientific thinking. Not tomention Freud. So, in a sense, a lot of Jewish thought has come tothe forefront in the 20th century, and as that’s all loosened up, ofcourse, we find Jewish people in all walks of life and a tremendousoutburst of musical activity from Jewish composers.

I had a dear friend — who, unfortunately, hasdied — named Christopher Palmer, who was one of the greatestorchestrators who ever lived. Chris had gotten to the point where hewas absolutely certain that in order to be a great composer, you hadto be Jewish.

JJ: In 1981, youwrote music for “The Chosen” and “Genocide.” Please tell us aboutthose experiences.

EB: I spoke Yiddishbefore I spoke English. I was largely brought up, for the first fouryears of my life, by my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmotherspoke only Yiddish. My grandfather could get along in English andRussian but was basically a Yiddish speaker. They were “Fiddler onthe Roof” kind of people, like people from Anatevka. Their friendsused to come over and sit around the kitchen with the glasele te, and I stayed for thestories. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us — I was veryfond of her — was conventionally religious. She observed: Shebensch licht[lit candles] every Friday night, but she wasn’t a religiousphilosopher. My father’s mother was a religious lunatic. She neverate a meal at our house, because she couldn’t be sure that it waskosher. So I was very steeped in our tradition, and having the chanceto do a film like “The Chosen” was fun for me because there were alot of familiar things in there. “The Chosen” was a very goodmovie.

“Genocide,” of course, is not specifically Jewish,but that was a very moving experience.

I was brought up listening to my Grandmother singJewish songs all the time. The first songs I learned were in Yiddish.It influenced me in the sense that it’s powerful.

JJ: What are yourfavorite scores?

EB: That’s tough.Certainly, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “The Man with the Golden Arm” wasa seminal film for me. “The Magnificent Seven.” In more recent times,”The Age Of Innocence” and “The Grifters.”

JJ: After so manysequels to “The Magnificent Seven,” did you ever get tired of writingin that style?

EB: One of the waysthat I have kept myself interested down through the years is bytrying to avoid being pigeonholed. Sometimes, I’ve had to do veryconscious things to avoid it. There was a time after “The Man withthe Golden Arm” that people had this perception of me as a jazzcomposer. I was called upon to do a lot of scores about crime, like”Sweet Smell of Success,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and”Carpetbaggers.” Then I started doing westerns, starting with “TheMagnificent Seven,” and all the sequels and John Wayne’s last sevenfilms. Then I had to just stop it. I had to say, “I won’t do awestern anymore,” in order to keep myself fresh. Then I had 10 yearsof comedy. Success is a big snare. If you’re successful in a certainstyle, then everybody wants you to repeat it, and I was just notinterested in that.

Try out everything is more of my style. I have 10years of westerns and 10 years of comedy. In recent years, I havefooled around more with electronics. In a score like “The Grifters,”for instance, it was an electronic design. In recent years, I haveincluded an instrument, which I’m very fond of, called theondes martenot,which is a lovely instrument. It’s most prominently noticeable in “MyLeft Foot” and films like “Ghostbusters,” and very prominent in thefilm I just finished, “Twilight.”

JJ: You ran afoul ofSen. McCarthy. What happened?

EB: That was fun.From the ’30s on, in this country, most thinking people, especiallyin the arts, tended to be a bit left of center…. I can rememberstanding on street corners in New York right after World War II,handing out leaflets on behalf of the idea that black people shouldbe allowed to play baseball in the major leagues. That’s the kind ofstuff we were doing. But for some reason that I don’t understand, allthat liberal, left-wing thought scared the hell out of everybody. Alot of people made political careers out of selling the clear andpresent danger of the communists in the United States.

“The Ten Commandments,” is one of the films for whichElmer Bernstein has written orchestral scores. Photo courtesy ofABC TV and Paramount Pictures.

 

I wasn’t even a member of the Communist Party, butI was “tainted” and I was in trouble. I was basically rescued byCecil B. DeMille. When I was working on “The Ten Commandments
,” therestarted to come out all this press stuff about my left-wing leaning.DeMille called me into the office one day. He said: “Are you a memberof the Communist Party? I know I have no constitutional right to askyou that question, but I’m asking anyway.” I just said, “No.”DeMille’s belief in my answer made a very big difference because hewas very powerful.

JJ: Do you consideryourself a pioneer?

EB: In retrospect,yes. At the time I did all these things, no. I have only done thethings in film that I thought were appropriate at the time. To quoteMark Twain: “It just seemed to be a good idea at the time.” I canunderstand that the way I used instruments in “Sudden Fear” wasunusual. I tell my class at USC that I am inveighing against thepiano. Today, you can’t hear a score without a piano solo. In the olddays, you couldn’t hear a score without a violin solo. In 1952, thepiano was very unusual, but I had no idea it was so unusual. It wasjust appropriate to me. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which starts outwith only the piano playing one note at a time, was a thing I didbecause it seemed appropriate, because it’s a film about a kid.Retrospectively, I can see why that was seminal. I can see why thejazz score for “The Man with the Golden Arm” was seminal, but, at thetime that I did that, I didn’t think, “Wow, this is going to be somereal pioneering, boy.”

JJ: What inspiresyou now?

EB: Love of theprocess. I really enjoy looking at a film for the first time andbeginning to wonder what I’m going to do. That, to me, is all ittakes. It’s the challenge. Every film is a new challenge. They’renever exactly the same.

JJ: What’snext?

EB: I’m doing musicfor a film called “The Deep End of the Ocean.” It’s from a novel. Ithas Michelle Pfeiffer and Whoopie Goldberg and Treat Williams and isdirected by Ulu Grossbard. Look for it around the end of June.

 

Vienna Opens


The new Arnold Schoenberg Center occupies onefloor of the Palais Fanto in downtown Vienna. A recital auditorium isamong its features.

With a week-long celebration to mark theopening of the Arnold Schoenberg Center, Vienna heaped honors on theseminal composer of 20th-century music, while visibly agonizing overthe sins of its Nazi past.

The tone was set on opening night, when 1,800 ofVienna’s political, cultural and social elite gathered in the gilded19th-century Musikverein for three of Schoenberg’s major works –“Transfigured Night,” “Peace on Earth” and “Expectation.”

(Zubin Mehta, the scheduled conductor, had tocancel due to illness and was replaced by Giuseppe Sinopoli, who wasrewarded with six curtain calls by the enthusiastic audience.)

Before the Vienna Philharmonic sounded the first note,Viktor Klima, the federal chancellor of Austria, struck the mixedmotif of pride and shame that marked the festival.

Turning to Nuria, Ronald and Lawrence Schoenberg,the three children of the composer (1874-1951), who decided totransfer their father’s legacy to his native city, Klima said: “Whilewe are proud and thankful on this occasion, we cannot forget theshameful years of the 1930s, which saw the dispersion and extinctionof our fellow Jewish citizens.”

This apologia, which was re-emphasized by ViennaMayor Michael Haupl at the following evening’s concert, was not asautomatic and self-evident as it would be at a similar event inGermany.

For decades, Austrians preferred to think ofthemselves as “the first victims” of Nazism, glossing over thehysterical reception they gave Hitler in 1938 and their ardentsupport during the war.

The fact that the opening of the Schoenberg Centercoincided with the 60th anniversary of the Anschluss was taken as acue by the Austrian media to grapple with the country’s World War IIrole, including the brutal persecution of its Jews.

The Schoenberg Center, located near the city’smajor museums and concert halls, displays the astonishing variety oftalents possessed by the creator of the 12-tone scale, not only ascomposer but as painter, inventor, model builder, author and eventennis player.

A section is devoted to Schoenberg’s last 15years, spent in Los Angeles, and another to his Jewish identity.After converting to Lutheranism as a young man, the composer returnedto his ancestral faith in 1933.

Even while still nominally a Christian, he wrote aneo-Zionist play on which his opera, “Moses and Aron,” is based, and,early on, he foresaw the fate awaiting European Jewry withastonishing clarity.

For the last 25 years, the composer’s legacy hasbeen housed in the Schoenberg Institute on the USC campus. Afterprolonged and bitter clashes between USC administrators and theSchoenberg heirs, the decision was taken to move the institute’slarge collection of compositions, manuscripts, books, paintings,photos and memorabilia to Vienna.

Berlin and The Hague also vied to become thecenter’s new home, but, in the end, the heirs decided in favor oftheir father’s birthplace.

 

Honor Thy Father


Top, a scene from “Countess Maritza;” Above, YvonneSylva Maritza Josephine Kálmán as a child, with herfather Emmerich Kálmán.


Yvonne Sylva Maritza Josephine Kálmán, sixtyish,blond and glamorous, is named for all her father’s favorite operettaheroines. So perhaps not surprisingly, she has dedicated much of herlife to seeing that her father’s operettas have been performed allover the world.

She has many memories of him, but, mostly, she remembers thestories of how the Nazi came calling at the family villa on theAvenue Foch in Paris. It was 1939, not long after EmmerichKálmán had fled Vienna for France, and he wasashen-faced as he received the general. But the general’s message wascordial: “The Führer loves your music, and he misses yourpresence in Austria. He would very much like you to return,” he toldthe composer. Hitler would make Kálmán an “honoraryAryan,” and no one would know he was Jewish.

The musician shakily declined. By March 1940, he was forced toescape with his family to Los Angeles. His music was bannedthroughout the Reich, and most of his extended family perished in theconcentration camps. Kálmán never recovered from theshock and died, brokenhearted, in 1953.

Yvonne, his youngest child, was only 16 when he died. Over theyears, she has tenaciously telephoned and written to opera directorsall over the world, prompting revivals of her father’s works.

Beginning on Saturday, Nov. 22, and running through Dec. 7, theLos Angeles Opera will present Kálmán’s “CountessMaritza,” in perhaps the most lavish production of an operetta seenanywhere. Last week, Yvonne Kálmán could hardly containher excitement as she spoke of the production, jumping upintermittently to play excerpts from the operetta on the stereo.

Emmerich Kálmán was born in 1882 to a musical familyin the Hungarian resort town of Siofok. He attended Budapest’s RoyalAcademy of Music with Béla Bartók, and, by the 1920s,he had become renowned all over Europe. His fiery works, such as “TheGipsy Princess” and “Sari,” combined Hungarian folk themes withstrains of the Viennese waltz.

In Vienna, Kálmán first eyed Yvonne’s mother, VeraMakinska, at the famed Cafe Sacher; she was a lovely Russian dancer,30 years his junior, who asked if she could have a part in his nextshow. George Gershwin later visited the couple at their elegant villaand serenaded them with his “Rhapsody in Blue.”

But when the Nazis forced Kálmán to flee to LosAngeles, the once-prominent composer suddenly found himself obscure,a stranger in a strange land. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer had bought themovie rights to his operettas, but they never made it to the screen.Austrian and Hungarian plots were taboo, impossible with the outbreakof war, Yvonne explains.

It was only when the family relocated to Park Avenue in New Yorkthat Kálmán found a real home amid the expatriatecommunity. He reunited with his old Viennese librettist, AlfredGruenwald, and Yvonne remembers how they shouted together in hiscluttered study while smoking myriad cigars and strewing sheet musiceverywhere. The daughter loved to sit under the Steinway as herfather played or scribbled musical notes on his shirt cuffs. At theage of 3, she first heard Kálmán conduct his work withthe NBC Radio Orchestra, and “thought it was the most beautiful musicI had ever heard.”

Vera Makinska, meanwhile, held court at her legendary Manhattansoirees, where the passing celebrity parade included Greta Garbo andpianist Artur Rubinstein. Salvador Dali, who could always be countedupon to behave outrageously, fascinated young Yvonne with his long,twisted mustache. Shy, sensitive Kálmán usually sat outthe parties in the kitchen with pals Marlene Dietrich and authorErich Maria Remarque.

The composer’s newfound happiness was short-lived, however. Uponlearning of the death of his family in the Holocaust, he suffered amassive heart attack. Three years later, he was virtually immobilizedby a stroke. To cheer him up, 12-year-old Yvonne once brought home asurprise guest she had met at a party. When her father groggilyemerged in his bathrobe, he discovered his film idol, Buster Keaton.

Yvonne remembers the long train ride with her father’s coffin toVienna, where he was buried on a gray, stormy day in an honorarygrave near the composer Johann Strauss. She was devastated by theloss of her father, but heartened by the revivals of his operettasall over Europe. Once, after a production in Leningrad, theperformers called Yvonne onstage and presented her with dozens ofwhite roses, to thunderous applause.

By the 1980s, promoting her father’s work had become a full-timejob for Yvonne, who persuaded the Vienna Volksoper to perform “TheGipsy Princess” at Lincoln Center in 1984. After the sold-out run,she prompted shows in Santa Fe, N.M., and Orange County.

But the upcoming Los Angeles production, she says, is perhaps themost meaningful of all. “My father lived in anonymity in this city,”says Yvonne, who maintains residences in the Southland high desert,Munich and Mexico. “If he could have seen the people lining up hereto buy tickets, it would have been one of the happiest moments of hislife.”

For information about “Countess Maritza,” call (213) 972-8001. Tobuy tickets, call (213) 365-3500.

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