The conductor raises his baton. On cue, 73 young musicians launch into a heartfelt rendition of “Sabbath Fantasies,” a piece that weaves together snatches of Jewish liturgy and folk tunes.
This is the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (LAYO), a 6-year-old ensemble sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple to encourage the next generation of music lovers. The players, all between the ages of 8 and 18, represent a wide range of cultures and ethnicities.
But because the orchestra rehearses on Sundays on the temple’s grounds, it especially attracts young musicians from Jewish homes. The LAYO is one route through which Jewish community leaders are trying to keep alive the noble tradition that links Jews with classical music.
Russell Steinberg, who conducts the LAYO and composed “Sabbath Fantasies,” is at the forefront of this effort. As founder and director of the Stephen Wise Music Academy, he also works to provide music education for all students at Stephen Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.
Another pioneer is Bryna Vener, who for 28 years has led Sinai Akiba Academy’s popular after-school orchestral program. But many other Jewish day schools that offer elective music programs are struggling to keep them afloat.
Perhaps it’s a matter of scheduling. Students today face mounting academic obligations that leave many feeling hard-pressed to take on an instrument.
Still, Steinberg suspects also that many Jewish parents view classical music as an outmoded form of entertainment. Because they themselves prefer the likes of Pink Floyd to Prokofiev, they are less inclined to push traditional music lessons on reluctant offspring.
There was a time when Jews dominated the ranks of American orchestras, and superstars like Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern were musical ambassadors to the world. The fact that today’s master Jewish musicians tend to have proteges with names like Yo Yo Ma, Kyung-Wha Chung and Lang Lang is one hint that for many Jews, classical music is no longer a top priority. This gives Steinberg an important goal: “I’m trying to build a parent culture that values music.”
Why in recent years have so many American Jews sidestepped classical music?
One answer is that most 21st century American Jews are far removed from the immigrant experience of their forebearers. The Jews who came from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as those who arrived as refugees after World War II, brought with them a passion for music.
Nostalgic for the culture they left behind, they flocked to concerts and regarded soloists as heroes. Their love of good music dovetailed with eagerness for success in their new homeland, making them hugely ambitious for their American-born children.
Sylvia Kunin Eben, 91, was raised in a Jewish enclave in South Central Los Angeles, where “everybody we knew had a piano. Even if you couldn’t afford lessons, you had a piano.”
Eben’s Russian-immigrant father somehow scraped together 90 cents for her weekly piano lesson. In return, she was expected to be a prodigy. Although stage fright derailed her performing career, she went on to create award-winning music programs for television.
A generation later, immigrant Jewish parents were still avidly steering their children toward classical music. Music educator Neal Brostoff is the American-born son of a couple who left England for Los Angeles in 1936. He began concertizing at a early age, often rubbing shoulders with such soon-to-be-famous young Angelenos as violinists Glenn and Maurice Dicterow, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, pianists Mona and Renee Golabek and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. All had parents who were staunch supporters of their youngsters’ careers, and all had strong European roots.
Today, times have changed. Aaron Mendelsohn, whose Maestro Foundation lends musical instruments to talented but impoverished young players, notes that many of the Asian-born musicians he helps are “clawing their way out of poverty, just the way the Jews did.”
Young Jews, for the most part, now tend to be firmly ensconced in the American middle class. All professions are open to them, and they’ve long-ago cast off the immigrant tradition of letting their parents determine their future path.
Jewish mothers and fathers, who in earlier eras might have overseen their children’s lessons, monitored their practice sessions and carted them to musical auditions, are now much more likely to emphasize academics, sports and, in Los Angeles, acting auditions.
UCLA music professor David Lefkowitz provides a telling example. His 9-year-old son has been playing the violin since age 3. A promising musician, he practices an hour a day but also plays soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring.
A colleague’s daughter, exactly the same age, started the violin at the same time. She practices two hours daily, and Lefkowitz doesn’t doubt that by 12 she’ll have moved far beyond his son, for whom music is one of several boyhood interests. It’s probably no coincidence that the girl’s mother is a fairly recent immigrant.
If Jewish parents are less driven now to turn their children into stars of the concert stage, they’re also well aware that music as a profession has become less promising. With the number of quality orchestras diminishing, 200 applicants vie for each open seat.
Some record labels have done away with their classical divisions. Hollywood studios that once employed a full complement of musicians often make do now with synthesized music and the licensing of pop tunes. Alan Chapman, composer, music educator and KUSC radio host, stressed, “The value of being a classical musician to society at large is not what it used to be.”
In a materialistic age, it’s no surprise that young Jews have learned to be pragmatic about their career choices. When Steinberg introduced his students to a professional conductor, their first question was, “How much money do you make?”
But sometimes pragmatism can be idealism by another name. Adam Mendelsohn, a recent UCLA graduate, for years played violin in the American Youth Symphony. Unlike most members of that highly motivated group, he gave up any thought of a formal music career to enter a doctoral program in biomedical engineering.
His father’s Maestro Foundation has shown him firsthand the hardships faced by music professionals. As a scientist, he can treat music as a serious hobby and “play the music I want to play when I want to play it.”
The dearth of rising young Jewish musicians does not extend to Israel, where ongoing political tensions may be part of what makes the arts an appealing outlet. In addition, Israel’s subsidies for artists, as well as its numerous institutes for promising students and its European-based tradition of respect for classical music, also play a significant role.
When Israeli composer Ariel Blumenthal attended a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, he was amazed to find an auditorium full of graying heads. At home, the Israeli Philharmonic had always attracted a younger crowd, including uniformed soldiers who get in for free.
One source of Israel’s eagerness to produce the next Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman lies in its thousands of music-loving emigres from the former Soviet Union. The Russian musical legacy also shows itself in the U.S. Sixteen-year-old Simona Shapiro, whose Russian grandmother was a concert pianist, admits that her own budding piano career is fulfilling the dreams of several generations: “My entire family is basically living this through me.”
But most American Jews have to force themselves to be philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their youngsters can make a living in the classical field.
But many American Jews feel, at best, philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their talented youngsters can make a living in the music field. One organization trying to help is the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity (jewishcreativity.org).
This small but ambitious nonprofit based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem has, for the past 16 years, worked to promote Jewish identity through support for the arts. Proceeds from the center’s ongoing $3 million fundraising campaign go toward such projects as international arts festivals, subsidized residencies at an Israeli arts colony, and multidisciplinary events at major universities.
More than 400 Jewish artists from many nations and in many fields have been named center affiliates. On behalf of Jewish classical musicians, the center underwrites the L.A.-based Synergy Chamber Ensemble as well as an Israeli group, Metar. It also sponsors recordings, awards prizes, and has commissioned works from such rising Jewish composers as Ofer Ben Amots, Sharon Farber, David Lefkowitz and Yale Strom. The center’s founders, led by board president John Rauch, recognize that from the time of King David forward, music has played an integral role in Jewish life.
They hope their support will smooth the way for the talented Jews of tomorrow.