L.A. Jewish Symphony takes on video game music at the Ford Theatres
Video game music has developed far beyond the cheesy synthesizers of 1980s Nintendo games.
These days, some of the most exciting work being done in classical music can be discovered when firing up a PlayStation or Xbox. Some of these standout compositions will be performed by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) at its “Let’s Play LA!” concert Aug. 21 at the Ford Theatres.
Before she curated this concert, music for video games was “a genre I knew nothing about,” said Noreen Green, LAJS artistic director and conductor. And when she first heard of classical music being composed for video games, she was incredulous.
“How could this music be of any value?” she remembers wondering.
Green played a video game composition by Israeli-born Inon Zur for her husband, Ian Drew, the board president of LAJS, which is dedicated to playing music of the Jewish experience.
“He remarked, ‘Wow, this is so much more sophisticated than I expected!’ ” she said. “It’s amazing. They’re like the opera composers of today. The complexity of the music and how it fits into the game is really extraordinary.”
The idea for the concert began when composer Garry Schyman sent Green a video of a stripped-down performance of his viola concerto. Schyman, who teaches screen scoring at USC, also wrote the music for the popular video game series “BioShock,” and using those two pieces, Green started to put together the rest of the evening’s selection.
The concert will begin with a focus on Jewish composers who have had an influence in Hollywood. It will include a tribute to Mickey Katz, the clarinetist and Catskills entertainer, performed by LAJS’s clarinetist, arranger and klezmer expert Zinovy Goro.
The orchestra also will play Walter Scharf’s “The Palestine Suite” and Elmer Bernstein’s guitar concerto. Both had long careers writing music for the silver screen. Scharf worked on more than 100 films, including Barbra Streisand’s “Funny Girl” (1968) and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971). Bernstein composed music for more than 200 TV shows and films, such as “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “The Magnificent Seven” (1960).
The second half of the show will focus on video game compositions, which can rival the complexity of movie and TV soundtracks. The pieces include Schyman’s “BioShock” theme as well as “Zingaro,” his viola concerto (which is not featured in a game).
Max Brenner, a 22-year-old senior at USC, will be the soloist for Bernstein’s guitar concerto. Matthew Cohen will solo in the world premiere of Schyman’s viola concerto.
Schyman’s entry into video game composition happened as a fluke. He was a TV composer when, in 2004, his agent sent his resume to a video game publisher. It turned out Schyman’s college girlfriend’s roommate was an executive at the company; a dozen years later, he continues to win awards for his game scores.
“It earns twice what film and TV earn in any one year, so it’s a huge industry,” he said. Moreover, video game music is being performed all over the world, and “it’s bringing a whole new audience into the concert hall, who would never ordinarily come for just classical music,” he said.
Schyman added that while music for video games may not be the future of classical music, “it’s part of the future.”
Zur, the Israeli composer, agreed, calling video game music “a great pipeline” for young composers.
While music for film or TV is locked to what’s happening on the screen, much of video game music is interactive, using sophisticated software that instantaneously changes the music depending on what happens in the game. The music can shift to match the mood of the story, and characters in the game are accompanied by their own musical motifs.
“The music can really score each individual player’s experience, so that it feels as if you’re watching a scene in a movie, and yet in fact what you’re doing is you’re taking your own unique experience and having it scored,” Schyman said.
“Movie and TV music has one beginning, one middle and one end. In video games, you have usually one beginning, you have at least three or four or five endings, and you have almost an endless middle,” Zur said.
In some cases, a player can be nudged to make decisions in the game based on the music that is being played. For example, in the game “Prince of Persia,” which Zur scored, the player must choose between saving his lover or saving the world. Until that point, the player’s decisions will trigger either a romantic theme or what Zur described as an “environmental theme,” and the repetition of the music will support the player’s actions.
Two of Zur’s pieces will be performed at the upcoming musical event: the concert suite from “Fantasia: Music Evolved,” which was written for a motion-controlled music rhythm game based on Disney’s animated films “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000”; and music from “Fallout 4,” a post-apocalyptic role-playing game.
Zur lived on a kibbutz in Israel until he was 18, but he said his broader heritage inspires his music. For example, his Russian heritage informed his score for the game “Syberia III.”
“I’m weaving it, without even thinking about it, of course, into my compositions. Although I do have a lot of other influences, I must say that this part of me, the Jewish part and the Israeli part, is playing a huge role in who I am musically,” Zur said.
Schyman’s viola concerto “Zingaro” is named for the Italian word for gypsy, but he said he has been told its second movement sounds Jewish.
“At first I was like, no, it’s just gypsy, but then I thought maybe it is the Jewish part of me coming out,” he said.
The same could be said for Mahler’s music, he said, even though the Jewish-born composer converted to Catholicism and would disagree that his music sounded Jewish. “It’s like someone who is born in Hungary and comes to America when they’re 20 and learns perfect English. But there’s always an accent,” he said.
This is the 12th year that LAJS is performing at the Ford Theatres, though it took a break last year while the Ford was under renovation. The facility reopened last month.
Since being founded in 1994, LAJS has performed at universities, synagogues, community centers, shopping malls and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It has performed for Jewish day schools, as well as public schools with mostly Latino students.
Jews are often segmented among religious, ethnic, cultural and political groups, but “music unites them all,” said artistic director and conductor Green.
“Somehow music gets into your kishkas. You feel more Jewish when you listen to Jewish music than any other time. Or,” she said with a laugh, “maybe when you’re eating a bagel.”
Bringing music to AJU
“Once upon a time there was a legacy of producing original pieces in all the different arts, and for whatever reason, we’d strayed from that,” said Rabbi Gary Oren, dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University (AJU), on a recent afternoon.
The hilltop university’s Gindi Auditorium has been filled in recent years with famous speakers and thoughtful debate, but less frequently with high art. Officials hope the creation of a choir and collaboration with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) will offer a breath of renewed artistic life.
For Noreen Green, LAJS director and conductor, the decision to approach AJU last year with the idea of linking up and starting a choir was an easy one. She had just finished a 20-year run working at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where the symphony had performed frequently over the years, and wanted a new place for LAJS to stage a yearly concert.
“We experimented last year with the ‘Classics to Klezmer’ concert, and it was really successful,” Green said. “The musicians love [it], and I love conducting on the stage — acoustically, it’s the best.”
The appeal of the Gindi was partly based on its sound, but history had a role, too.
“There were so many people doing music out here — of course, [composer] Max Helfman. Part of my mission has been to kind of re-establish that excitement that was here as far as performing classical Jewish music,” Green said.
Josh Feldman, AJU’s new director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity, is excited about the possibility of realizing the Gindi’s full artistic potential.
“We’re in a process of rebuilding, and the choir and the symphony are both great examples of that. It’s a gradual process,” he said. “We’re looking to bring high-quality examples of both explicitly Jewish arts and culture, and culture [in general] to that space. More broadly, we’re hoping over the next 15 years to become one of the leading destinations for Jewish arts and culture in the country, and the Gindi is central to that vision.
“Arts and culture is for everyone, and I can’t think of better institutions than choirs or symphonies under great leadership that meet that sort of utility, where everyone can be a part of this, either by singing or playing, or to be listeners,” he continued.
For Green, her work at AJU requires her to wear two hats: one as the director of the independent LAJS, and another as the director of the university’s choir, an official program of the Whizin Institute.
“Being the choir director is like being a mom. You’ve got to nurture them, and you’ve got to get them to do what you want them to do,” Green said, laughing. “It’s a different relationship with the choir and with the orchestra. I love both.”
The choir performed as recently as March 29, and the LAJS’ big spring concert will take place April 12 at 7 p.m. The concert will consist of three pieces, feature local composers Russell Steinberg and Sharon Farber, and run approximately 90 minutes. The evening will be rounded out with a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Halil.”
Steinberg’s work, “Canopy of Peace,” was commissioned by the Schulweis Institute and weaves in text written by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died this past December. It’s a particularly personal piece for Green.
“Rabbi Schulweis was one of my dear, dear mentors … There’s a real big hole in my heart since he passed away,” she said. “The performance is a couple of days before what would have been his 90th birthday.”
Farber’s piece is based on a poem called “Only a Book.” According to Green, “It basically describes the journey of the Jewish people and how they survived throughout the ages with only ‘The Book,’ the Bible.”
As for Bernstein’s “Halil,” she called it the most modern-sounding of the bunch. She’s particularly excited to have Israeli flutist Itay Lantner with the symphony to play in the flute-heavy piece.
For Green, the works are linked by some essential questions about art: What is the inspiration to write music? Is it text? Is it something that happens? Where does it come from?
In her mind, all three pieces feature unique viewpoints on the subject. “It’s not just entertainment, you also learn something,” she said. “And you feel like you’ve come away with some knowledge about music, about Judaism.”
Or, as Feldman suggested, about life and the human experience.
“For many of us, in our hardest or most joyous moments, it is a piece of music or a piece of art that explains for us … what that experience is in its vastness in a way that words can’t even begin to do,” he said. “Every time we put on the radio, we are a listener, and that makes us more than just a participant — we’re an active part of a community and dialogue.”
If Feldman has his way, this will be the start of a long and fruitful relationship between LAJS and AJU.
“AJU has a long legacy of arts and culture from its very beginning. There’s a strong belief that culture is a continued investment,” he said. “I heard a great rabbi say — Rabbi Sharon Brous — that if you can’t pray, you should sing. I think that there is a holiness to arts and culture.”
Calendar September 6-12
SAT | SEP 6
“FOR EXPORT ONLY”
The Shulamit Gallery is bringing you a group exhibition featuring four contemporary Iranian artists — Shahab Fotouhi, Sanaz Mazinani, Mamali Shafahi and Kamran Sharif —together (though independently) exploring their cultural identity and Diasporic-based experiences. While all artists recognize the political responsibility art can have, much of that art — be it photography, sculpture, bronze, fabric, wallpaper or video installation — is also fun, colorful and personal. Sat. Opening reception at 7 p.m. Exhibit runs through Nov. 1. Free. Shulamit Gallery, 17 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 281-0961. SUN | SEP 7
LIFE TRANSITIONS: WORKSHOPS FOR WOMEN
Not that we don’t think you’ve got a handle on your life, but sometimes it’s important to check in, take a breath, and restock on some of the tools that help keep you going. National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles is offering a day of guided enrichment sessions, which will help channel that strength needed for navigating through all areas of life. The hardest part will be choosing only two of the programs, some of which are Single Life at Any Age, Coping With Unemployment, Challenges of Remarriage and Blended Families, Dealing With Health Issues and The Journey of Aging. Come ready to grow — and for the vegetarian lunch. Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. $15. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8536. ” target=”_blank”>lajewishsymphony.com.
WED | SEP 10
“FAITH & REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE”
If you’re tired of talking about reproductive rights only at dinner parties, there’s another option. The National Council of Jewish Women/ Los Angeles, Planned Parenthood and the California Women’s Law Center present a panel discussion on the relationship between religion and this specific, contemporary, often controversial social issue. In addition to the panel, there will be plenty of opportunity to network and mingle with like-minded individuals from all over town. Wed. 7 p.m. Free. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8536. ” target=”_blank”>landmarktheatres.com.
BARBARA ISENBERG — “TRADITION!”
The Broadway debut of “Fiddler on the Roof” is officially middle-aged. Barbara Isenberg’s new book is out just in time to celebrate these 50 years of Tevye, his five daughters and the horah. Focusing on the creative reimagining of Sholem Aleichem’s 19th-century Yiddish stories, this prize-winning author explores how the tale of a poor Jewish milkman has endured the test of time. A book signing and Q-and-A follow the program. Wed. 8 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. THU | SEP 11
“LIBERTY, COURAGE AND HOPE”
To honor those who didn’t survive the tragedy of Sept.11, the Los Angeles community is invited to the West Coast premiere of Kevin Dornan’s documentary. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the film was initially intended as a celebratory documentary of American firefighters but has become a powerful and poignant remembrance of firefighter Mike Weinberg. Still photographs from the film also will be on display, and there will be a Q-and-A with Dornan following the screening. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Registration required. The Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 555-8403. FRI | SEP 12
This Galilee Mountain-raised Israeli is making a name for herself in the music world. Having just released her album, “Uncovered,” Maya Beiser will perform recontextualized versions of classic rock songs. A trained cellist who’s performed at the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, the World Expo in Japan and more, Beiser tactfully combines spirituality, tradition and pop culture into a concert spectacle. Fri. 8 p.m. $30. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350.
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 FordTheatres.org, or call (323) 461-3673. The Ford Amphitheatre is located at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd.
Los Angeles Jewish Symphony celebrating Chai anniversary
The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) will hold its 18th, or Chai, anniversary program, “CHAIlights: Celebrating 18 Years of Jewish Music,” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, at the Ford Amphitheatre.
Founded in 1994, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony focuses on preserving Jewish music, supporting the creation of new music about the Jewish experience and using music to build cultural ties.
“They say that music and art, all kinds of art, is a soul of a community or culture. … Music and art are nondenominational,” said Noreen Green, the symphony’s founder, artistic director and conductor. “That is why it is important to keep all Jewish music alive.”
For Green, who also has a background in education, teaching about the music has been an integral part of performing it.
“It is not just going to an orchestra concert; it is like going to an event where there are old friends and you learn something, and you come out feeling better than when you walked in. The music is always uplifting,” she said.
The Aug. 26 concert will mark the U.S. premier of “Klezmopolitan Suite” by Niki Reiser, a former member of the klezmer group Kol Simcha, and will feature selections favored by Green with spotlights on concertmaster Mark Kashper, cellist Barry Gold and clarinetist Zinovy Goro. Special performers include Sam Glaser accompanied by the newly formed Jewish Community Children’s Choir and Cantors Nathan Lam, Ilysia Pierce and Ilan Davidson.