Smooth sax player Dave Koz on a career that just … happened
When jazz saxophonist Dave Koz’s “dream” car was stolen in 1997 after he stopped for five minutes to pick up a sandwich at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, it was perhaps the lowest point of his life.
Yes, his second album, “Lucky Man,” had already gone gold and, still in his early 30s, Koz was very much a rising jazz star. But his father had recently died unexpectedly, at 68, and 11 days later, his father’s best friend had died as well. So when his 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL was stolen, along with several expensive saxophones and many of his father’s precious books, it was the “third punch in a span of two weeks,” Koz said during a recent interview at BLD restaurant in Hancock Park. When he pulled his car up to the curb at BLD, Koz brought his saxophone in with him. Nearly two decades after the theft, he’s still not taking chances with his instruments.
“I was cut down to being a nub of a person,” Koz said of the period in his life immediately after his father’s death. “Who am I? What am I doing? What am I creating here? And how do I want to live my life? It was a real fork in the road.”
He’s turned out pretty well by any visible measure. Now 52, the smooth jazz saxophonist has earned nine Grammy nominations, with seven albums that hit the top of Billboard’s Current Contemporary Jazz Albums Chart. His solo album of jazz renditions of Christmas music — “December Makes Me Feel This Way” — is considered a classic, and he has played with greats from Ray Charles to U2. On July 31, Concord Records released his “Collaborations 25th Anniversary Collection,” a collection of some of Koz’s top musical collaborations throughout his 25-year career, as well as three new songs. It reached the top of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album chart in early August, making it his ninth album to achieve that feat.
He also has his own lines of wine, and partnered with Cary Hardwick and Laurie Sisneros in opening Spaghettini & the Dave Koz Lounge, a California-style restaurant in Beverly Hills featuring live musical performances, sometimes by Koz himself when he’s in town and can swing by. On Aug. 23, Koz will headline the Hollywood Bowl’s
Gene Simmons: Rock god turned business tycoon
Gene Simmons has made a career out of doing a lot with a little.
His band, KISS, featured members with little or no formal musical training but went on to become one of the nation’s biggest rock acts. Growing up in Haifa, he sold cactus fruit to workers at a local bus stop to help his struggling mother. And, more recently, the mundane everyday activities of his family were at the center of a reality show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” which had a six-season run.
Now, Simmons has taken a simple concept — namely, work hard — and turned it into a book. “Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life, and Business” is a brash guide for the budding entrepreneur from a man whose band has sold more than “100 million CDs and DVDs worldwide and manages over 3,000 licensed merchandise items,” according to publicity materials, and who is worth, according to various websites, an estimated $300 million.
The book, which was published in October by Dey Street Books, targets the wannabe Generation Y entrepreneur who is looking for guidance from an accessible voice. It is also for the casual reader who may not be interested in business advice but wants insight into the mind of an entertainment icon. Either way, the book is an enjoyable, if slightly redundant read, and it shows how Simmons is the embodiment of the classic American immigrant success story.
“Though I was born in Israel, I can tell you that it’s America that has become the Promised Land,” Simmons, 65, writes in the book’s preface.
Simmons, born Chaim Witz, emigrated from Israel to the United States at the age of 8. He learned the language, worked a variety of jobs and eventually changed his name when he decided his ambition was to be in a rock band, noticing there were very few in that field with the last name Witz.
“I didn’t take it personally. I recognized the facts. I realized that Robert Zimmerman had turned himself into Bob Dylan. That Marc Bolan from T. Rex had been born Mark Feld. And that Leslie West from Mountain had originally been known as Leslie Weinstein,” he writes. “They all reinvented themselves, changing their names, and their images along the way.”
Equipped with just a bass guitar and a genius business instinct, Simmons, with the help of Paul Stanley, who is also Jewish, founded KISS in 1973. The band made the decision to manage itself and, although the members didn’t have the chops of, say, The Beatles, they had larger-than-life ambition and outside-the-box ideas: They wore elaborate face makeup on stage, oversaw a KISS movie (“Detroit Rock City”), and inspired action figures, comic books and more.
Simmons, who lives in Los Angeles, relays all this as he blends advice with memoir. He describes his 1980s courtship with Shannon Tweed, a model-actress who became his wife in 2011. He fell hard for her, he writes, after dating the likes of Cher at the age of 29, and later, Diana Ross. (Cher was Simmons’ first girlfriend because, as Simmons advises his reader, success should come before love.)
His relationship with Tweed has been a source of some of Simmons’ few failures — at least, as he tells it. Simmons admits he was not always faithful to Tweed, and berates himself in the book for his infidelities.
Nonetheless, the book is mostly filled with Simmons’ glories. In addition to his Hall of Fame music career, Simmons also has a restaurant chain, an Arena Football League team (the L.A. Kiss), a record company and more.
For a man worth so much money, Simmons proves surprisingly in sync with the everyman. In one chapter, he writes about the benefits of working at home and how cutting down on commute times is an important part of the journey toward realizing one’s dreams.
Other tips are more brutal and discomfiting. At one point, he advises his reader to have self-confidence so extreme that it verges on the delusional, such as to only be friends with more successful people, and to avoid vacation days and down times at all costs. He cites the likes of Steve Jobs, Donald Trump and Richard Branson as people who are among his role models in the business world.
“Have a killer instinct,” he writes. “I still do. And I don’t have to. I would, arguably, make a living without trying very hard at this point. My bills are paid. I don’t have to write this book, or be in a rock band, or be partners in all the companies I’ve mentioned. Why do it?
“Because I’m a champion. I pride myself not only on what I’ve achieved, but on what I dream of achieving. I refuse to sit on my thumb all day and talk about yesterday. That’s for wimps. I’m a today and tomorrow person … YOU first. Everyone else second.”
Simmons makes it clear early on that what he says is only his opinion and the reader can take it or leave it. But there is enough here, especially Simmons’ words for recent college graduates — or, perhaps, for Simmons’ own two children, Nick and Sophie, who are in their 20s — that rings poignant and true:
“In the real world, once you grow up and Mom or Dad isn’t there to bail you out of trouble, there is no one there to help. And there will be no one there to force YOU to lead a smart life. And an economical life. And have a lifelong business plan,” he writes. “YOU will have to do that for yourself. But here’s the good news: YOU will get all the rewards. And take heed, regardless of your age: it’s never too late to get started. It’s never too late to get started NOW.”
Music historian catalogues Leonard Cohen’s musical history
Like many of us, author Harvey Kubernik first heard Leonard Cohen through his interpreters. Judy Collins recorded Cohen’s cryptic “Suzanne” and the sardonic suicide ode “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on her 1966 “In My Life” album. The songs impressed Kubernik, but it wasn’t until Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (Columbia 1967), that Kubernik began to recognize the full impact of the novelist-turned-singer-songwriter.
Released to coincide with Cohen’s 80th birthday last month, Kubernik’s new book “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows” (Backbeat) is a thorough examination of the elusive Canadian and his enigmatic work. Having spent his formative years in Greece, he made his first American impressions in Greenwich Village and at the Newport Folk Festival, and has also led a substantial L.A. life, which Kubernik illuminates for the first time. He is also an observant Jew with a strong spiritual investment in Zen Buddhism.
Kubernik’s enthusiasm is longstanding: “I went to Fairfax High,” Kubernik said, “and there were 32 people at my school named Cohen. I knew that Bob Zimmerman changed his name to Dylan for show-business reasons, but I’d never heard a name like Leonard Cohen on FM underground radio; which was where I heard [Cohen’s] songs.”
In that format, dominated at the time by the Beatles’ “White Album” and Cream’s “Wheels of Fire,” Cohen’s evenly modulated tones seemed more narration than singing. “It was slow and seductive,” Kubernik said. “He was an older guy with a distinguished voice who dressed immaculately — like someone I’d see at High Holy Days.”
Cohen brought a reservoir of literary weight to his lyrics, informed by diverse sources including Albert Camus, Federico Garcia Lorca, the I Ching and Hermann Hesse. Sufficiently impressed with lyrics like “Tea and oranges that come all the way from China” and “You’ve used up all your coupons, except the one that seems to be written on your wrist,” Kubernik dutifully wrote a term paper on the unlikely éminence grise of the local FM rock stations.
At West Los Angeles Junior College, Kubernik worked in the library, conscientiously ordering Cohen’s “Beautiful Losers” and “The Energy of Slaves” books and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” along with underground newspaper the Los Angeles Free Press and Ramparts magazine. At San Diego State University, he said he helped create the curriculum of the first rock-music course. “I screened ‘Feast of Friends’ by The Doors,” Kubernik noted, “brought singer Carolyn Hester into class, and passed out mimeographed sheets of Leonard’s lyrics.”
As a music journalist for Melody Maker, Phonograph Record and other publications, Kubernik interviewed Cohen several times between 1974 and ’78. “My favorite Jews were Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen,” Kubernik said. “Dylan was remote and cynical, but Leonard was a mensch,” he recalled of the interviews. Producer Kim Fowley, a longtime friend of Kubernik, identifies the appeal as “father-figure rock — something started by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. It was ‘elder-cool.’ ” Of Cohen, Kubernik concedes, “I don’t know him well, but I’ve found him a very decent chap.”
Using religious imagery and terminology to explore emotional territory and matters of the heart, Cohen has forged a substantial body of recorded work over the years that wrestles with Judaism, love in all of its forms, economics, substance abuse, eroticism — all in a manner that’s personal yet universal. His work has been interpreted by other artists widely and obsessively dissected by fans of all ages. His “Hallelujah” has been performed by more than 300 artists.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Kubernik is also well known for an authoritative spate of music books rooted in the Southern California experience. He creates multi-voice mosaics to form composite portraits of his subjects, among them “Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon” (2009), “A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival” (2011), “It Was 50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood” (2014) and the recent “Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll In Los Angeles, 1956-1972” (2014).
Of the Roshomon-like format, Kubernik considers his forthcoming Neil Young tome and observes: “I have two people who both claim they named the Buffalo Springfield. And that doesn’t bother me in the least.”
With his brother Kenneth, Kubernik’s “Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons, the Photography of Guy Webster” hits the market next month, and the Young book will be published in November 2015.
Kubernik claims the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin as part of his family tree. His grandfather served in Katherine the Great’s army, and Kubernik read Soviet Life magazine as a boy with him. His mother, though a Chicago native, was conceived in Kiev. “The Leonard Cohen book is being translated into several languages,” he notes with pride. “I love it that my mother’s still on the planet, and my publisher tells me we’ll have a Russian edition.”
Lazer Lloyd, Israel’s king of Blues, comes to L.A.
Lazer Lloyd has been dubbed Israel’s king of the blues, but, for the last few weeks, you could say his entire country has been singing the blues.
“The pain is so deep, we can’t even fathom it,” he said via Skype from his home in the ancient city of Beit Shemesh, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “We have rockets falling all over Israel. We had to go in the bomb shelter a lot. It’s very nerve-racking.”
Lloyd, who will perform in Encino on Aug. 21, said he feels sympathy for the Palestinian victims of the war, though he doesn’t necessarily blame Israel for their hardship.
“These people are suffering as well. The Arab countries use them as footballs; they keep them poor. They use these people as their tools,” Lloyd said.
Despite the daily fears of war, Lloyd is currently focused on recording a new album, which may become a double album, with one acoustic disc and one electric disc. The new album features old blues sounds with African elements thrown in — a nod to Israel as a crossroads of multiple continents and cultures.
“It sounds like someone playing an old Robert Johnson guitar together with an Egyptian oud — something really strange,” Lloyd said. “I’m trying to find out what my sound is. It’s always developing.”
The working title of the forthcoming album is “Burning Thunder,” and if that sounds downright biblical, it might be because Lloyd is a deeply spiritual person, sporting a long, salt-and-pepper beard and side locks that shake back and forth as he plays his guitar. He connects with the Chasidic movement, though he adds that he has Sufi teachers as well.
“I try to keep it real,” he said. “For me, to be Jewish is to be real. Religious is someone doing something because they did it yesterday. You want to be new each day.”
Lloyd grew up in a secular Jewish home in Connecticut as Lloyd Blumen — Lazer is his Hebrew name. He began playing guitar at 13 and started gigging at blues clubs at 16. He studied music at Skidmore College before moving to New York and recording demos for Atlantic Records. It was there that a chance encounter changed the course of his life.
“I met this homeless guy in Central Park. He ended up being a Jewish guy. I gave him a bagel and a few bucks,” Lloyd said. The man brought Lloyd to his synagogue and introduced him to the late Shlomo Carlebach, an Orthodox rabbi and prolific songwriter known as “The Singing Rabbi,” who specialized in reaching out to disaffected Jews.
“He was like the hippie guru of Judaism,” Lloyd said.
The two played a concert in Manhattan, and as Lloyd recounts, “I was just blown away. I never saw anyone sing like that or perform like that. He convinced me to come play with him in Israel.”
Carlebach died soon after, but Lloyd decided to stay in Israel. He made aliyah 20 years ago; for the past 16, he’s lived in Beit Shemesh. When he first arrived in Israel, there wasn’t much of a blues scene. He looked like an anomaly — an American observant Jew rocking out with an electric guitar. Now, he says, the blues are thriving in Israel:
“In the last 10 years it really opened up. Almost every night in Israel, you can find some kind of blues concert going on.”
Lloyd is married and has five children; his oldest, Yoseph, is 17 and plays keyboards, guitar and sings. So, would Lloyd recommend that his son follow in his father’s footsteps?
“I encourage him to follow in his footsteps,” Lloyd said with a laugh. “My parents told me to do what I think is my thing, and I want [my kids] to do what they think is their thing.”
Of course, a music career will have to come after Yoseph’s military service, which begins next year, and his father faces that fact with a heavy heart.
“I got a lot of kids that come to the concerts that were in the middle of the war. I got neighbors’ kids, I got family members. It’s very heavy. It’s really rough. The closest you get to living is when you feel you’re close to dying. On the one hand, it’s really bad. On the other hand, everything is just put into perspective on such a deep level. You have to find the light inside the darkness. That’s what the Jewish people are renowned for doing. But, as a father, it’s a scary thing.”
Lloyd credits his spiritual life with helping him see that light. Early blues musicians sang about God, and about their physical slavery and spiritual slavery. Lloyd sees his version of the blues as an extension of that era of music, and even reaching back to biblical times.
“King David, he [was] the first blues singer,” Lloyd said. “If you look in the Psalms, those words he sang there, he was speaking out about his personal struggle. He was also singing out about the struggle of the world. He sings about God’s struggle, about family problems, about women. This is the real blues context. It says he was playing instruments. We don’t know the real melody, but he was accompanying himself with the music and clearing his heart out.”
On this tour, Lloyd will be joined by the rhythm section of the Chicago Blues Kings, drummer Kenny Coleman and bassist Felton Crews, each an accomplished musician in his own right.
“It’s great working with him,” Coleman said of Lloyd. “He’s a gentlemen, and he loves his country. He’s living in a war zone. I often say that I’m in a war zone because I live in Chicago — we have a lot of killing here — but he’s really in it.”
Lloyd’s style ranges from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Coleman said, adding that he and Lloyd have played together in Chicago and Indiana. “He’s an excellent musician, and I can say that because I’ve worked with some of the best and some of the worst.”
This will be the first show in which Crews joins Lloyd on stage, and he said he’s looking forward to playing in a power trio. “We’ll provide him a nice horse to ride on into the groove,” Crews said. “We know how to fill it up. It’s our intent to give the music some feeling and some life and some energy.
“Music is like a recipe — every new ingredient you add is gonna change it,” Crews added. “So I’m looking forward to seeing how we mesh and what direction we’re gonna take.”
Lloyd often ends his live performances with a cover of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”). As he tours the world, Lloyd said, he sees himself as an ambassador for Israel, and a messenger of healing and peace.
“I want to bring the light of Israel to the world,” he said. “Music is the way you have to do it.”
Technique, sensitivity the keys to pianist Bronfman’s success
When Yefim Bronfman performs Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with conductor Lionel Bringuier and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on July 31, he will be tackling what is known as a real “finger buster,” a term used for a work that is awkwardly conceived for a pianist’s hands or physically demanding. The Brahms concerto is both.
For Bronfman, who is celebrated for his virtuoso technique and musical sensitivity, the epic difficulty of Brahms’ score is pretty much business as usual, although something unusual happened during a Berkeley recital last October: While performing the final two pages of Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata, Bronfman literally busted a finger.
“I felt a very sharp pain,” the pianist said by phone from his apartment in New York. “Luckily, it was the last piece on the program. I finished the recital and managed to play two encores.”
Bronfman traveled to Los Angeles the next day, then straight into a rehearsal of Bartok’s Third Concerto with the Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. “I realized there was a problem,” he said.
A doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center gave Bronfman the bad news. He had broken the fourth finger of his left hand, and it would take four to six weeks to heal. Concerts would have to be canceled. But Bronfman was determined not to miss an upcoming European tour on which he was scheduled to play all three Bartok concertos with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. So he did what any driven musician would do: He went to another doctor.
“I did not miss a single concert in Europe,” he said. And, since breaking his finger, he’s also performed Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata. Was there any trepidation when he came to those last two pages of the breathtakingly powerful finale?
“What is scary about this piece is the middle section of the last movement,” Bronfman said. “That’s when you feel the pain in your hands because it’s so grotesque and with such gigantic leaps there. You cannot take it easy at this point. It’s the most wonderful moment of the whole piece.”
Bronfman clearly likes challenges. Within the last five years, he’s performed premieres of demanding concertos by Salonen and Magnus Lindberg. Both composers have added to the pressure by delivering their scores late. “When trying to learn the Lindberg, I realized some of the passages are really unplayable,” Bronfman said. “Did he think I was like a piano machine that could play anything?”
But Bronfman has sympathy for composers who try to broaden the scope of piano technique. “When Prokofiev wrote his piano sonatas, people said they were impossible. But then came [Sviatoslav] Richter and [Emil] Gilels, and now everybody plays them.”
Few living pianists get the honor of being immortalized in a major novel by an esteemed author. In Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” (2000), the narrator attends a rehearsal at Tanglewood and says: “Then Bronfman appears … He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt. … He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing.”
For Bronfman, Roth’s dramatic tribute came as a surprise. “I was amazed at his description, but I had no idea who Philip Roth was,” he said. The pianist laughed, recalling Roth’s unflattering detail about his being a “sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew.” The two artists have since become good friends.
Surprisingly, Bronfman, who is 54, didn’t learn Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto until 1988. “I recommend that every pianist learn some difficult pieces while they are still in their teens,” he said. “For instance, I learned Brahms’ First Concerto when I was 15, and it’s always much easier than the Second, where it takes a certain stretch in your hands and technique to bring it off effortlessly.”
Bronfman said he doesn’t want audiences to see the difficulties: “I put the technical challenges behind me as soon as possible so I can focus on the concerto’s grandeur and passion, intimacy and beauty,” he said. “And there’s the humor of the last movement. It’s Brahms at his most mature and divine.”
Bronfman also avoids distracting mannerisms at the keyboard.
“My greatest idols are the ones who played with poker faces and made great music,” Bronfman said. “Heifetz was such a genius. He didn’t lift an eyebrow. The same with Horowitz and Rubinstein. I pay for a ticket to hear music. If I want to see a dance, I go to the ballet.”
Born and raised in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Bronfman said his arrival in Israel in 1973 marked a turning point in his young life.
“I was about 14 years old, and Israel was where I decided I wanted to be a musician,” Bronfman said. “Within months of arriving, I heard some of the greatest musicians. Everybody was coming through Tel Aviv—Casals, Stern, Bernstein. Everybody.”
Bronfman, who holds dual citizenship, returns to Israel quite often, both to visit his older sister, Elizabeth, a violinist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and to perform with the orchestra there.
Being an Israeli and Jewish has deeply informed his life and work: “My mother is a Holocaust survivor, and my father was in the military fighting Germans during the war,” Bronfman said. “I’m very aware of the past of the Jewish people, particularly my mother, who is a direct victim of those horrible times. She was 13 when the war started. Most of her family got killed. She hid in the forest from the Germans.”
Bronfman added: “It makes a difference. Also, living in the Soviet Union, where Jews definitely felt like second-class citizens.”
In addition to his Bowl performance, Bronfman is scheduled to perform a solo recital in January at Walt Disney Concert Hall. “I’m going to try to play Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata without breaking my finger,” he said.
Yefim Bronfman performs at the Hollywood Bowl on July 31 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit hollywoodbowl.com.
Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
Matisyahu: You disappointed me
Tonight you performed at the Windstar World Casino in Oklahoma, seventy miles from my Dallas home. The distance may seem far, but in Texas proportion it is right around the corner. I did not attend your concert. I could not. Frankly, I do not plan to see you again. You have disappointed me greatly. I will play your CD’s from time to time and hum your songs when the mood sets in. But you have let me down. All my life I’ve been waiting for and praying for a Charedi Jew to offer a message which resonates with America, a blessed country built on Judeo-Christian values but now listing towards secularism, and helps right it. How appropriate it would be for a member of one of the proudest, most observant Jewish groups to water the spiritual roots of American culture and give nourishment to its base. When your song One Day was chosen to be the theme melody of the NBC 2010 Winter Olympics my heart fluttered with pride.
Charedi, to me, means a Jew to whom Judaism – Torah values, Torah practice and Torah study – is numero uno and everything else is numero dos. It means someone to whom Judaism is not an identity but a life, not an ethnicity but a purpose. It would have to someone who could capture the God-centeredness of the Charedi lifestyle and express it in lyrics that America could sing. With your flowing beard, passionate vigor and refreshing creativity, I thought you were the one.
When your beard came off and your large black yarmulke remained I took pause, but your reassuring Tweets kept my hopes high. The pictures you recently Tweeted of you and Wiz Khalifa – you with dyed blond hair sans yarmulke and Wiz smoking a joint – made me realized that you are no longer singing z’miros in Reggae. You are singing a different song.
I drive by the Windstar World Casino often. It is just across the Texas state line, in Oklahoma, built on an Indian reservation where the Judeo-Christian values of the Heartland don’t have jurisdiction, but close enough to tempt the millions in the Dallas Metroplex to turn gelt into glitter, savings into flashing lights. The dreamy theme of the building is a concrete version of the joint Wiz was smoking. It is not the place to offer even the most watered down Jewish values.
Your transition followed a path that has been traveled before. A creative Orthodox message becomes a broader universal message, and a broader universal message becomes a self-centered message. What was “Look at God” becomes “Look at me.”
“Me” is the currency of our pagan-light pop-culture.
I grew up in New York where God is glorified in the religious community but chided and derided in the surrounding culture. 12 years ago my wife and I left the Northeast to move to Dallas where we joined the Dallas kollel and subsequently started a meat business. It is a land like I have never seen growing up; God is revered and Jews are respected.
Over the years, I came to the conclusion that we need not be as insular as we were in New York and can speak values to the world around us, as our Patriarch Avraham did. The culture is utterly receptive; if it is listening, should we not speak? You, Matisyahu, were an example of what could be done if only we would speak.
But now I am discouraged. You recently tweeted: “I felt it was time to walk a new path. What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope.” Saying those words at this point in your life says, to me, that you have been sucked into the culture you were trying to influence. You have become connected to the hedonism which abhors rules and undermines values. And it says that I will too, if I go it alone as you did.
Sometimes I lay under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world. Now I see that community is the protector of God-centeredness, and that discipline is the precursor of Kiddush Hashem.
I still believe that the American ship is listing precariously and the inspired Charedi community has a lead role to play in righting it. I still believe that if we speak the world will listen. But I now appreciate, more than before, that it needs to be within a framework of community. And I pray that God helps us create and sustain a community that rallies behind the banner of Kiddush Hashem, living passionate Charedi Judaism in a way that the world can observe, understand, and appreciate.
The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively, as the CEO of AD Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC and a rabbi at NCSY – Dallas
Wise moves jazz up Chabad telethon
When the 2008 Chabad “To Life” telethon kicks off at 4 p.m. Sunday on KCAL 9, it promises a new look courtesy of a show runner with an unusual background.
Daniel S. Wise, 44, is an Orthodox rabbi who for several years had his own yeshiva in Troy, N.Y. Lately he has been pursuing a career in musical theater and related arts ventures.
“I don’t like the idea of making a living from religion — it interferes with the religion,” he said during a telephone interview.
“I’m not a rabbi because I don’t work on Shavuot,” he joked.
Wise was invited to help polish the Chabad production, which first aired in 1980. The telethon will still feature plenty of the traditional celebrity guests, he said, including several hours live with Larry King. But it also will have more filmed segments, shot around the globe, which tell Chabad’s story.
There will be more prerecorded music, too.
“Underneath a lot of the speeches, we’re creating an underscore,” he said. “There will be original compositions, some based on Jewish melodies and some that are original but based on Jewish style.”
The telethon will also feature more klezmer bands and “two of the best Russian dancers in America,” Wise said.
In general, the behind-the-scenes production staff will be more specialized and experienced in specific duties than in the past.
But this won’t interfere with the joyful, spontaneous dancing that is so much of the telethon’s appeal and reason for success. Last year’s telethon netted nearly $7.2 million.
Educated from a young age in Chasidic and Lithuanian yeshivas in Brooklyn, Wise didn’t even have a television at home. Still, he freelanced comedy bits to “Saturday Night Live.”
“I had the chutzpah to find out who was the producer and call up,” he recalled. “So they put me through to Lorne Michaels’ secretary, and I said I have something and don’t worry, he knows me. I showed up at his office and the secretary said to leave it. I got a call back, and then a letter to sign and a check later. I used the name Jeffrey Daniels because at the time it was a little taboo for a yeshiva boy to write for television.”
While taking violin lessons at The Juilliard School, Wise became interested in musical theater. He has since followed two paths in that field — as a creative producer, responsible for some projects from conception to staging, and as an international presenter of successful Broadway shows.
He was involved in bringing a successful English-language production of “42nd Street” to a 2,500-seat Moscow theater in fall 2002, and he helped organize a Chinese production of “Rent.” Wise also put together an international concert tour for rock pioneer Chuck Berry, which was staged like a theatrical production. As a result of their friendship, he’s now producing Berry’s first album of new material in decades.
But Wise is especially proud of “Shlomo,” a musical based on the life of “Singing Rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach, which he co-conceived, wrote the book for and produced. It debuted in early 2007 as a National Yiddish Theatre presentation at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. A Broadway engagement and national tour are in the works, he says.
“We discovered his life had a theatrical arc,” Wise said. “He had a life story that was also the story of the Jewish journey from the ashes of the Holocaust to the 1980s and 1990s. And the music is electrifying and transformative.”
The Chabad “To Life” Telethon airs Sunday, Sept. 14, 4-10 p.m. on KCAL 9.
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.
Spectator – Musical Gathering Comes Naturally
When Shlomo Bar started making music professionally in the mid-1970s, there was no such thing as “world music.” So he helped create it.
Bar, a Moroccan-born Israeli, founded Habrera Hativit in the late ’70s as a band whose music would be a creative fusion of the many different sounds of Sephardic and Mizrahic music. Thirty years and 11 albums later, Habrera Hativit is still one of the most dynamic ensembles in world music, energetic purveyors of a unique kind of Sephardic funk whose origins span the entire Mediterranean and points much farther east, as their Los Angeles appearance on June 25 at the Scottish Rite Auditorium will undoubtedly prove.
That fusion of influences, Bar has said, is nothing more than a reflection of the reality of the Israeli experience.
“Basically, as we are a culture that is combined of Jews from different countries, every musician is opening a window to the culture that he represents,” Bar says. “Habrera is absorbing the different influences. Different styles of music from the different continents can be noticed between one CD and another. A new layer is added every time a new member joins the group.”
In its current configuration, the number of influences on the band’s seven members is as global as the Diaspora’s history. Bar is originally from Rabat and brings both Moroccan and contemporary Israeli sounds to the group. Other members come from France, Iran, India and Turkey, from flamenco and modern jazz. In short, wherever there have been Sephardic Jews, their music is part of the mix.
“I believe that music is the language of its own place — location, surroundings,” Bar wrote. “The Jewish nation is very old [but] with [a] new present. The meeting between me and the Indian [and Iranian and Turkish] is not just an interesting musical meeting, rather the language and the joint memory is the main connection between us.”
Hence, one assumes, the group’s name, which means “natural gathering” or “natural choice.”
Habrera Hativit will play Saturday, June 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Auditorium, 4357 Wilshire Blvd. For information visit www.ICCScottishRite.com or www.shlomobar.com, or call (323) 930-9806.
George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.
Classical Musicians’ Volume Decreases
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.
Driven Sax Man Puts His Mark on Music
When Steve Berlin gained early admission to a university premed program as an 11th-grader, his mother and father had visions of their little boy becoming a physician. Much to their chagrin, the young Berlin had other ideas. He told them he dreamed of becoming a rocker — not a doctor. They worried about his future.
Good thing Berlin listened to his inner voice.
An accomplished saxophonist, keyboardist and producer, Berlin, who is Jewish, has left his fingerprints all over some of the most influential popular music made in the past 30 years. As the sole non-Latino member of Los Lobos, he has helped the three-time Grammy award-winning band explore new musical terrain and become one of America’s most critically acclaimed groups. Over the years, he’s lent his sax to such landmark albums as Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and R.E.M.’s “Document” and produced nearly 70 albums.
“I’ve been so unbelievably blessed to be able to do this for a living, to play for a living,” said Berlin in an interview at a cafe near his Silverlake apartment. “I’ve also been unbelievably blessed to be in a band I’d be a huge fan of if I wasn’t in it.”
Over breakfast, Berlin exuded a palpable calm and contentment. With an unwieldy beard sprouting from his chin and sunglasses dangling around his neck, he looked more like a beatnik poet than a rocker.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. Berlin, even at 50, is driven. At every juncture, he has pushed himself and the artists with whom he’s working.
“Sometimes we get stuck and don’t know where to go,” Los Lobos drummer Louie Perez said, “but Steve has a really good sense of what we’re trying to say and how to move things along.”
Just as he once insisted on taking a new route home from high school every day, Berlin and his bandmates in Los Lobos have gone out of their way to avoid repeating themselves, going so far as to never play the same set list twice in concert.
The band has recently holed itself up in vocalist-guitarist Cesar Rosas’s home studio to work on its follow-up to “The Ride,” the group’s acclaimed 2004 effort, which featured collaborations with Elvis Costello, among others. In true Los Lobos fashion, the group’s new disc will move in a new musical direction, likely showcasing acoustic instruments. Los Lobos, which gained national fame with its hit remake of the Ritchie Valens classic “La Bamba,” has also scheduled a pair of Southland concerts featuring perennial favorite album, “Kiko,” at the House of Blues Sunset Strip on Dec. 27 and the House of Blues Anaheim on Dec. 29.
Berlin began playing flute at 9 by copying Ian Anderson’s solos on the first Jethro Tull album.
“After I heard that first Jethro Tull album, I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do,'” Berlin said. “Music let me fit in and be who I am.”
His father took him to famed music store Manny’s in New York and bought him a soprano sax for his bar mitzvah present. A bit of a social misfit, Berlin rarely let the instrument out of his sight and quickly mastered it.
At 15, he joined a jazz/rock band named Skyline, a group so talented that ex-members went on to play professionally with the likes of Frank Zappa and Todd Rundgren. Whereas his teenage classmates spent their summers working in pizza parlors or working on their tans, Berlin passed his vacation playing five sets a night from 1-7 a.m. in a seedy bar in Somers Point, N.J. He called the experience “fantasyland.”
After graduating from high school, Berlin enrolled in Indiana University’s jazz program, then a year later dropped out to play music rather than just study it.
Berlin finally got the break he had longed for in 1975, at 19. Former members of Skyline and other Philadelphia musicians he knew had migrated to Los Angeles to play in Gregg Allman’s backup band, and they invited Berlin to join them.
After Berlin’s first rehearsal, though, Allman entered rehab for six months, effectively disbanding the group. Berlin decided to stay in the Southland, even though he had no job and limited savings.
Eventually, he found his way to the Blasters, a roots rock outfit with a major following. In the heady L.A. music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Blasters ruled like royalty. Critics predicted stardom.
Despite that, Berlin felt frustrated by the band’s in-fighting and blues-centric style. Seeking an outlet, Berlin would jam with the Go-Go’s, the Plimsouls and others whenever possible.
“Steve was everywhere,” said Gary Stewart, producer of the Los Lobos 2000 retrospective boxed set. “You couldn’t go to a show and not see him jump on stage. He actually helped redeem the sax as a legitimate rock and roll instrument during the punk era.”
In 1982, the Blasters tapped Los Lobos, then largely unknown, to open for them at the famed Whisky a Go-Go. Having moved beyond Mexican folk, Los Lobos dazzled the crowd, melding blues, country, folk, Latin music and R &B into an alchemy all its own. Blown away, Berlin joined Los Lobos on stage. It clicked.
Eventually, the band drafted him to co-produce its first major-label EP, 1983’s “…And a Time to Dance,” which won the inaugural Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance. The group later asked Berlin to join.
On the surface, a Jewish saxophonist from Philly and four Mexican Americans from East L.A. with a penchant for traditional Latin music would appear to have little in common. They discovered they were kindred spirits.
Berlin and the four original Los Lobos members shared the same eclectic musical tastes, including a love of obscure British invasion bands. Mexicans and Jews, Berlin quickly concluded, also had an affinity for tacos, pastrami and Chinese.
“They do the Jewish thing all the time,” Berlin said. “You’re eating a meal, and you’re talking about either a meal you just had or the next meal you’re gonna have.”
As second-generation immigrants, Berlin and his bandmates appreciated the value of hard work by watching their parents toil to improve their station in life. As ethnic minorities, Berlin said, the members of Los Lobos instinctively understand the need to try just a bit harder to make their way in the dominant Anglo culture.
Finally, Berlin learned that his new band took philanthropy as seriously as he does. Consistent with Berlin’s belief in the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world), Los Lobos has played scores of fundraisers for schools and other causes.
In more than two decades, the band has also inspired such groups as Los Lonely Boys and Cafe Tacuba, among others, Stewart said. From the musical gumbo of 1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?” to the worldwide smash song, “La Bamba,” to the sonic experimentations of 1992’s classic “Kiko,” the group has shown the ability to take any musical style and make it its own. In 2001, Los Lobos received a lifetime achievement award at the Billboard Latin Music Awards.
Through it all, Berlin and his bandmates have forged a bond that transcends race, ethnicity and religion.
“He’s part of the family,” Perez said. “I don’t think I could give him a certificate as an honorary Chicano, because, to me, he’s Chicano.”
Madonna and the Elusive Isaac
Madonna and scandal have been virtually synonymous from the start of the pop star’s career more than 20 years ago. There were songs about being like virgins touched for the very first time and girls getting pregnant and telling their fathers that they wanted to keep the babies. There were music videos of Madonna employing Jesus’ stigmata on her own hands, and everything was augmented by conical bras and crotch-rubbing dances.
But since Madonna’s famous conversion to kabbalah, she has been using Jewish religious iconography to shock — or at least to make her point. In her “Die Another Day” video she wore phylacteries and had Hebrew letters tattooed on body.
Now, on her latest album “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” the track that is receiving the most attention and critical acclaim is one called “Isaac.” About a month before the CD’s release on Nov. 15, rabbis in Israel claimed the song was about Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist better known as the Arizal, and they blasted Madonna for using his holy name for profit.
“One can feel only pity at the punishment that she [Madonna] will receive from Heaven,” Rabbi Rafael Cohen told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
But Madonna swung back, claiming the song was not about the Arizal at all, but rather was named after Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre, who sings the Hebrew incantation on the song and provides the mumbled spoken word explanatory interlude at the end.
So what is “Isaac” about? It is hard to say, although it is clear that on this album it is the song most inclined toward Madonna’s spiritual leanings. The beat throbs to the Hebrew lyrics, sung by Sinwani in a wailing rhythmic chant. The lyrics -“Im In Alo, Daltei Nadivim, Daltei Marom, El Hai, Marumam Al Keruvim Kulam Be-Ruho Ya’alu.”
Translate as “If it is locked, the gates of the giving, the gates of heaven, God is alive, He will elevate the angels, and everyone will rise in His spirit.”
In the verses, Madonna sings earnestly “Wrestle with your darkness…. All of your life has all been a test/ You will find the gate that’s open…,” and at the end, Sinwani intones, in what seems like an unrehearsed and unedited addition “The gates of heaven are always open, and there’s this God in the sky and the angels, how they sit, you know, in front of the light, And that’s what its about.”
Hmm … what exactly does all this mean? An attempt to reach Sinwani in London reached only his secretary, who said he is not talking to the press. The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles was equally unresponsive and did not return calls for comment.
In the meantime, critics and listeners are praising the song (London’s “The Sun” called it “Stunning”) and Madonna herself has said the song moved her to tears.
“I had tears in my eyes and did not even know what he was singing about,” she told Anthony Kiedis in an interview on AOL. “Then he told me and I cried even more.”
Enter Three Little Maidelehs
For strictly observant women, being Orthodox can often mean putting a kibosh on artistic aspirations. Halachic prohibitions against singing and dancing in front of men means that many women who enjoy those art forms find they have little opportunity to perform.
Enter Margy Horowitz, a Los Angeles-based piano teacher from Chicago who’d heard about all-women’s productions in her hometown from a friend. Intrigued, she started envisioning an all-women’s production for Los Angeles with women not only just in the cast, but also in the audience.
“There are a lot of opportunities for religious high school girls to perform [in school-sponsored, women’s-only musicals], but for older women who have graduated from high school and want to perform, they have no outlets,” Horowitz said. “And plenty of them have so much talent.”
With support from Rabbi Steven Weil at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Horowitz teamed up with Linda Freedman, a Beth Jacob congregant who sings in the choir at nearby Congregation Magen David. The two decided to put on a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical “The Mikado,” with proceeds going to charity.
“The Mikado” is a raucous tale of the prodigal son of a Japanese emperor who runs away from his father’s court to escape marriage, pretends he is a poor musician and falls in love with a young geisha.
“We chose the play because it is in the public domain,” Horowitz said. “It has also got great music and comedy.”
She said she wanted a musical that was not as obscure as many of the productions done in girls’ high schools: “I didn’t think it needed to have a Jewish theme, even though it was for the Jewish community.”
After posting audition flyers throughout Los Angeles and the Valley, the two found their cast of 21. All the women in the play are observant to some degree, and they represent most of the Jewish neighborhoods in greater Los Angeles, including Fairfax, Pico, North Hollywood, Marina del Rey and even Yorba Linda.
“We were so happy to give these women the opportunity to perform,” Horowitz said. “Even if we are not successful, I would still feel that we did something great.”
The all-women’s production of “The Mikado” will be performed at Beverly Hills High School’s Salter Theater, 241 Moreno Drive, on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, call (310) 726-9333.
Diva Sings Out About Her Tour, Fans
In America, celebrity divas are instantly recognizable by their first names: Madonna. Britney.
Israel has its own diva: Rita.
Known only by her first name, Rita is as dramatic and flamboyant as a diva should be, but also soulful, with an intensity in her voice and performances that packs an emotional punch.
Her style embodies an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern sounds, with distinctive Persian tones combined with Western influences. Her muses include husband Rami Kleinstein, who was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a small boy, eventually becoming a famous Israeli musician in his own right.
For the first time in two years, Rita will bring her sultry performance style and amazing vocal range to the United States in a minitour, with an L.A. date at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on April 7.
While Rita’s invariably sold-out shows are usually highly stylized, over-the-top productions, that’s not true of this tour.
“It’s very touchable, very intimate,” she said in a telephone interview with The Journal from her Tel Aviv home. “I want to be very attached to my audience. To be able to talk to them and to hear them.”
And she has millions of fans here.
“It’s very flattering,” said the 43-year-old singer. “I feel that I have a long but healthy relationship with my audiences, because I see my work as a celebration, because I get so much love.”
The Iranian-born songstress, who moved with her family to Israel at 6, burst onto the Israeli music scene in November, 1985. Her first two singles went to No. 1.
Over the years, Rita’s albums have reached gold and platinum status, has been named Israel’s “Singer of the Year” on several occasions and represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest. She’s also acted in films and performed on the Israeli stage — a few years ago in “My Fair Lady” and most recently in “Chicago” — and said she hopes to do more theater work.
Almost 20 years after her debut, she’s still considered Israel’s leading female vocalist, and has shown no signs of slowing down.
A self-confessed workaholic, Rita said that she always tries to improve on her work and that she approaches every show as if it’s the first and last of her life.
“The audiences are smart,” she said. “They know if you’re giving them all of you or not, and I always give all of me.”
Rita describes her career highlight as “always the most recent thing.” She sang at the March opening of Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust museum, in front of 41 dignitaries from around the world.
“It was such a moving, emotional experience to be there, singing ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ in Jerusalem, surrounded by all those photos of all those terrible things that happened to our people,” she said. “But there we were on top of this high mountain in Jerusalem, with everyone sitting there. It was an incredibly emotional experience.”
So much so that Rita’s rendition of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” is being incorporated into her tour.
Her North American performances are rare, but Rita does many concerts in Israel and Europe. She said she’s very excited about this upcoming tour, saying how important it is for her to meet “my family” — how she refers to her U.S. fans. Besides Los Angeles, the minitour will stop in San Francisco, New York and Montreal. Now that her two daughters are older (13 and 4), she added, she hopes to tour the United States at least once a year.
Rita said she feeds off the dedication of her fans.
“I received a letter and flowers from a fan recently, who wrote that he loved my concert because, ‘It’s not what you give the audience, or what you say to them, but what you cause them to feel.'”
Rita said her mission is “to touch the souls of people. I think that’s an amazing opportunity that we have as artists, to cause people to feel. “
Rita will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 7, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. For tickets and information, call (310) 273-2824
White Rapper Gives Lyrics Kosher Spin
Onto the stage walks a Caucasian man in a button-down shirt and thick, plastic glasses. He looks like he would fix your computer. Instead, off come the glasses and out comes the Jewish “bling,” a rhinestone-studded Star of David on a bulky metal chain.
Meet Eric Schwartz, the 29-year-old actor, rapper and musician known to his fans as Smooth E. Think a combination of the satire of Weird Al Yankovich with hip rap persona, sort of Eminem with a Woody Allen smirk. He does both straight-ahead rap and parodies of well-known rap tunes, often with a Jewish twist, though he’s also willing to get R-rated as the mood strikes him.
Schwartz has a gig at The Laugh Factory this week and also just posted his latest parody, a musical take on Michael Jackson called, “Bubbles and Friends.”
When he sat down to be interviewed at a Beverly Hills-adjacent coffee shop, his responses to questions quickly became a one-way rap session.
“I’m white,” said Schwartz, who was raised as a Reform Jew and attends temple. “People are going to notice that right away.”
For a rapper, though, he dresses almost nerdy: “Eminem has his own thing — this is how I dress. I don’t try to look like something that I’m not.”
“People don’t expect the fire that I am about to spit,” he added. “I think that’s why when I’m on stage, people are caught off guard.”
As for his Jewish shtick, it’s a “big part of who I am, but it’s not everything. I do other kinds of music, too,” such as his parody of Jackson. During the interview, one coffee shop employee recognized Schwartz from his televised parody of rapper Eminem as a gay “Feminem.”
But it is his Jewish-themed lyrics that set him apart. “So Kosher” is a parody of the No. 1 hit single “Slow Motion” by Juvenile. Schwartz’s version, goes, in part:
Mmmm, I like it like that.
Can’t eat this and that.
I want a Big Mac.
I don’t know how to snack.
So kosher for me,
So kosher for me.
It’s like I live by rules of the psalm.
Cuz I’m a Jew and I’m strong,
Without tattoos on my arm.
His parody song, “Hannukah Hey Ya,” became a widely distributed animated e-card in 2004. (The e-card was made without his permission. Schwartz finally tracked down Jason Kwon, the animation artist, and both now share credit for the piece.)
Other songs from his CD, “Kosher Cuts,” include “Crazy Jew,” a parody of Outkast’s “I Like the Way You Move,” and “Lose the Gelt,” a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”
His love of hip-hop goes back to when he went to swap meets with his father, a clothing vendor, or “shmata salesman,” as Schwartz put it. After he discovered rap music, he would comb through bins for used discs that he listened to with near religious fervor.
He spent all of his bar mitzvah money on turntables instead of saving for college. But he earned money back by using those same turntables as a DJ at other people’s bar mitzvahs and other gigs. Schwartz earned a degree in journalism from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which has inspired some of his comedy.
“News is everybody’s experience and has a great impact on people,” Schwartz said. “It works the same way with comedy. My comedy is about what’s going on, whether it be pop-culture or politics.”
He was recently quoted saying that President Bush and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein should have used “rap lyrics to duke out international conflicts on the microphone.”
“They should battle it out like in ‘Eight Mile,’ he told The Journal, referring to the movie starring Eminem.
Schwartz’s recent projects include a commercial promoting John Travolta’s latest film, “Be Cool,” in which he accosts Travolta and starts rapping at him. He also narrates the television show, “Animal Atlas,” on the Discovery Channel, and he’s the new host of a Tuesday comedy lineup at the Laugh Factory. In addition, he performs at The Comedy Store, where audiences can judge for themselves whether he really can, as he claims, “shake it like a kosherized pickle.”
He’s Wandered the Earth an Exiled Man
“Chronicles: Volume One” by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster), $24.
Toward the end of last year’s rambling, barely coherent film “Masked and Anonymous,” Bob Dylan, its masked and anonymous star, spoke in voice-over one of his most direct and self-revelatory addresses. Fittingly, it was about the limits of what we are allowed to know:
I was always a singer — maybe no more than that. Sometimes it’s not enough to know the meaning of things. Sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean as well. Like, what does it mean to know what the person you love is capable of?
Things fall apart, especially all the neat order of rules and laws. The way we look at the world is how we really are: See it from a fair garden, everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you’ll see plunder and murder. Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. I stopped trying to figure everything out long ago.
Remember, this is Bob Dylan talking: the prophet of a generation, the bard of the age. Truth is in the eye of the beholder? From the man who wrote “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”? No more than a singer — the person who sang “Masters of War” and wrote “Desolation Row”? I was reminded, as I sat in the theater, of Dylan’s recent Oscar-winning song, “Things Have Changed,” from the soundtrack to the 2000 film “Wonder Boys.”
He had sung, “I used to care, but things have changed.”
The fact is, Dylan never was a prophet, and, in an oft-quoted passage from his new autobiographical book, “Chronicles: Volume One,” he says. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation I was supposed to be the voice of…. My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilization.”
“Chronicles” is an elliptical book — nonlinear, but also not opaque. It’s like a front-porch chat with a 63-year-old man who’s young enough to still be making vital music, but old enough to reflect on the long view. Its structure — episodic, rambling, digressive — parallels Dylan’s consciousness. He might seem adrift, or even lost, but he is always aware.
There’s a fascinating juxtaposition in “Chronicles” of roots and rootlessness. Dylan is steeped in the folk songs and traditions of America — he goes on for pages about wobbly martyr Joe Hill, and about the songs of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. His latest album, “Love and Theft,” is an old-time record, either overtly — as in the song “High Water (for Charley Patton)” — or subtly paying homage to American popular music of 60 and 70 years ago. And yet, as the time-jumping structure of “Chronicles” evokes, Dylan is a wandering Jew. He leaves Minnesota for New York. He leaves the folk world for rock ‘n’ roll. He leaves the city for the country. And, for the last 15 years, he’s been on tour almost all the time. (It used to be called The Neverending Tour, but, as Dylan wrote in the liner notes to 1993’s “World Gone Wrong,” the never-ending tour ended in 1991. Since then, he has just been touring.) There’s a sense of connection that Dylan has to America — absent among most of us reared in the anti-culture of Wal-Mart and Blockbuster. And yet, he’s always winking, because we all know that it’s a bit of a con.
After all, as many readers of this newspaper know, he’s really Robert Zimmerman, right? A nice Jewish boy from Minnesota. He can deny it, he can sing songs for Jesus, but he is one of us, right? It’s such an interesting phenomenon — the tenacity of Jewishness, the paradox, embodied by Dylan himself, of diasporism and identity. We wander, we wear masks, we change our names as did Dylan — but there’s always that thrill when we see a landsman.
As to the name itself, Dylan resorts to cryptic parable: “As far as Bobby Zimmerman goes, I’m going to give this to you right straight and you can check it out.” (In other words, we know we’re about to be conned.) “One of the early presidents of the San Bernardino Angels was Bobby Zimmerman, and he was killed in 1964 on the Bass Lake run. The muffler fell off his bike, he made a U-turn to retrieve it in front of the pack and he was instantly killed. That person is gone. That was the end of him.”
A reference to Dylan’s fabled motorcycle crash of 1966? An allegory for his having left behind his own identity? Dylan doesn’t explain. But, as in the Zohar, or Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, the answer may lie in another passage: “What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just call myself Robert Allen. As far as I was concerned, that was who I was — that’s what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king and I liked it. There was little of my identity that wasn’t in it.”
So, Jewish identity is left behind — and yet, it isn’t. You won’t find much about Dylan’s religiosity in “Chronicles: Volume One” — unless, of course, you’re one of those Dylanologists who notices that the title itself may be a biblical reference. If you’re one of them — OK, one of us — you’ve been noticing these coincidences for a long time. The biblical allusions in “All Along the Watchtower,” on an album named after John Wesley Harding. (JWH? Who knows?) The prophetic voice in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and, of course, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan’s “religious phase” might have taken some people by surprise, just as U2’s recent hymn, “Yahweh,” has, but anyone who’s followed either artist knows that images of God — whether as “Father of Night” or “Solid Rock” — always have been at the center of Dylan’s work.
Mostly, though, “Chronicles” is indeed about roots and rootlessness, about breaking down and starting over. Its first two chapters, if you can call them that, are about Dylan’s beginnings. The next is about the period in 1969-70, after Dylan had deliberately self-imploded the mythic image being built up for him — to “demolish my identity,” in his words, and start over. The fourth chapter is about the making of the 1987 comeback album “Oh Mercy,” after years of lousy records. And then we’re back to the early 1960s, when Dylan realized that the folk scene, too, had become too constricting for him.
One is struck by the dissonance between Dylan’s public persona and his private desires.
“I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about,” he writes of his life in the late ’60s, “but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard.” And yet he moves around constantly: “Like the Merle Haggard song, ‘I’m on the run, the highway is my home.'”
Dylan’s efforts at dismantling his image worked. In 1968, he undermined his image as a political radical by, of all things, visiting Israel.
“I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap,” he said. “That image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little.” (Fifteen years later, Dylan would record the Zionist song “Neighborhood Bully.”)
And then he dismantled his music.
“I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record [“Nashville Skyline”] and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and house-broken…. I released one album (a double one) [“Self-Portrait”] where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too. I missed out on Woodstock — just wasn’t there. Altamont — sympathy for the devil — missed that, too.”
And of course, years later, when yet another comeback had put Dylan back in the spotlight, he alienated just about everybody by embracing born-again Christianity, and writing such songs as “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Property of Jesus.”
Of course, Dylan is not the first Jewish prophet to deny that he is a prophet. Jeremiah questioned God; Jonah defied him. In fact, one might say, the surest sign that someone is a charlatan is that he pretends to be a prophet. One wonders, then, about Dylan’s insistence that he is a “singer, maybe no more than that.”
Indeed, if there is any anchor throughout Dylan’s wanderings, it is music. “Chronicles” is replete with studio stories, acknowledgement of influences and musical commentary. Dylan complains that his words eclipse his music. And he seems most joyful when he’s riffing on, listening to and writing great American music. Perhaps it’s the music that is the real “message” of Dylan’s work — and the moment of inspiration itself that is most redemptive. In his words: “I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. You don’t just wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs…. Opportunities may come along for you to convert something — something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it.”
Reprinted courtesy The Forward.
Jay Michaelson is a writer living in upstate New York.
‘Aida’ Not So Tragic for Israeli Maestro
Dan Ettinger looks nothing like the popular image of a classical conductor.
The Israeli is making his American debut with the Los Angeles Opera in Verdi’s “Aida.” Appearing considerably younger than his 33 years and standing a sturdy 6-foot-1, Ettinger wears his hair short-cropped, his approach is casual, and he speaks of his work with the care of a skilled craftsman.
Dealing with an unfamiliar orchestra of more than 80 instrumentalists in “Aida,” advertised as “the grandest of grand operas,” is a major challenge, especially for a self-described “control freak” and “young pisher” (genteelly translated as a “young squirt”).
We talked to Ettinger in the Maestro Room of the downtown Music Center the morning after opening night. He seemed fairly satisfied, although he said that it takes three or four performances before a new opera production hits its peak.
Ettinger is descended from Romanian immigrants to Israel — his father and grandmother are Holocaust survivors — and he grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.
Early on, he was exposed to his parents’ large classical and jazz collection and the boy showed an early interest in music.
“I wasn’t a child prodigy and I had a normal childhood, but I always knew that I wanted to be a musician,” he said.
Ettinger attended a special high school for the musically talented, training as pianist and singer, and then enrolled in the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University. He quit after one year, because “the school system didn’t work for me, I wanted to do things my own way,” he recalled.
From then on, he developed his diverse musical talents by doing, rather than studying, although he credits the help of private mentors.
Ettinger started his professional career as a baritone at age 19 and cites as his favorite role Papageno in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
Nowadays, Ettinger no longer sings on stage, although when rehearsing “Aida,” he sings along all the parts.
“I find my singing background a real advantage as an opera conductor, because I can identify with the singers, I can phrase with them and breathe with them.”
In a third career, Ettinger continues as a concert pianist, accompanist and coach, and he describes his “ultimate musical experience” as doubling as pianist and conductor in a Mozart piano concerto,
Since 2003, Ettinger has been the resident director of the prestigious Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, handpicked for the job by fellow Israeli Daniel Barenboim.
Many of the current leading musical figures in Berlin are Israelis, Ettinger said, perhaps an ironic footnote to recent world history.
In the coming fall, Ettinger will also become the music director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Rishon L’Zion, ranked second in his native country only to the more established Israel Philharmonic.
Yet, he is not entirely happy with the state of opera around the world. For one, budget problems everywhere have forced cuts in rehearsal time, including in his present “Aida” stint.
Of more concern is a shift in the staging of operas.
“It used to be that an opera was the conductor’s world, but now the emphasis is more and more on spectacular visual productions,” he said, though he hopes for a gradual return to more traditional presentations.
After he finishes his current assignment, Ettinger is off to Tokyo to conduct Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” but he will return to Los Angeles next year, leading the orchestra in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”
Performances of “Aida” will continue on select dates through Feb. 19 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. For tickets and information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit www.LosAngelesOpera.com.
Q & A With Mike Einziger of Incubus
Here’s what I used to know about Mike Einziger: that when he was 9, he played on the same soccer team as my good friend Mike; that he was the only kid in my second-grade class who could breakdance; that his mom makes great pizza bagels; and that he went to Calabasas High School. Well, that and the fact that he’s now the Jewfro-sporting guitarist for the multiplatinum-selling rock band Incubus.
I learned more about him during a one-week window between the end of Incubus’ lengthy European tour and the start of their U.S. tour in Atlantic City. A few days before his 28th birthday, the musician, who some have declared a “guitar god,” talked with me about breakdancing, Judaism, music and politics like he was still just the guy next door.
The Jewish Journal: I have to say, I still remember you as the only kid in Kadima Hebrew Academy’s second-grade class who could breakdance.
Mike Einziger: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JJ: You only went to Kadima for a couple of years. Was it just for first and second grade?
ME: Yeah, till second grade.
JJ: Did you have any other Jewish education?
ME: Yeah, I had a bar mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom, and I went to Hebrew school three days a week after elementary school.
JJ: Do you feel connected to Judaism these days?
ME: I do in certain respects. I think I’ve become more in touch with it the older that I’ve gotten. But still, to this day, I consider myself to be generally more of a spiritual person than a religious person.
JJ: What do you mean by that, exactly?
ME: I don’t follow the traditional ways of Judaism the way that I’ve seen other people follow them. But I do agree on many of the basic principles. I believe that you shouldn’t kill people and you shouldn’t steal and those kinds of basic moral values.
JJ: But you don’t practice?
ME: No, I wouldn’t say that I’m a practicing Jew.
JJ: No High Holiday services on the road or anything like that?
ME: I have before, actually. I’ve gone to services a couple of times while I’ve been on tour, but I’ve always felt like the most constructive type of prayer for me has been when it’s by myself. I’ve never really felt like I’ve taken very much away from being with other people. To me, being spiritual and praying is a very personal thing for me and I prefer to do it alone.
JJ: What prompted you to go to services on those occasions when you did?
ME: My mom. She’d [say], “I think you should go to services.” Not that I was opposed to it and somebody had to drag me. It’s something I feel I’ve done at times out of respect for my parents because sometimes it’s important to them.
JJ: So you’re the good Jewish son slash rock star.
ME: Yeah, I guess, to the best of my abilities.
JJ: In retrospect, the whole breakdancing thing would indicate that you were moved by music at an early age. What’s your earliest memory of music and its effect on you?
ME: Back in the breakdancing days I was really into playing piano and playing keyboards. I got into that when I was probably about 6 years old. But my mom is a piano player and has always been really, really into music. So I think from the time that I was born, I literally was born sitting on the piano bench next to my mom watching her play and sing songs. I was doing that for as long as I can remember.
JJ: When did you start playing the guitar?
ME: I picked up the guitar when I was about 8 years old, actually, in third grade. I was taking lessons for about a month, maybe two months, and I was really bored with it because I wanted to learn how to play rock songs. The teacher that I had just wanted to teach me children’s songs and how to read notes on the guitar…I was completely uninterested in it and I put it down after that, and then I picked it up again when I was about 12. I’d already spent enough time fiddling with the guitar on my own to be able to figure out songs myself. Once I’d learned a few songs that I’d wanted to learn I was completely hooked on it, and from there on out I just spent every second I had sitting in my room trying to figure out songs.
JJ: Do you remember what the first song was that you tried to figure out?
ME: Before I ever had any lessons, I just figured out how to play the theme song to “James Bond.” I’m not sure what the name of the song is, but yeah, I think that that was pretty cool.
JJ: Your music has been described as alt metal or funk metal. Do you think that’s accurate?
ME: No, I think those are very dated, very lazy terms…. On our last three records there hasn’t really been any metal and there hasn’t really been very much funk either. I think that those musical elements are definitely mixed in with our music at certain points, but I definitely would not describe our band as a funk metal band.
JJ: How would you describe it?
ME: It’s actually impossible for me to describe it because I’m playing it, but I definitely can tell you what I think it’s not. When people usually ask me, I usually just describe it as rock music, but to many varying degrees…. None of us has very much patience, so I think if we were to do one thing over and over again it would get boring very, very quickly.
JJ: People have said your new album “A Crow Left of the Murder” is more politically charged. Brandon Boyd, your lead singer, writes the lyrics to all of Incubus’ songs. Do you ever have a problem with what he writes?
ME: No, not at all, actually, and it’s funny the perception of Brandon’s lyrics being politically charged. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. We made a video that had a lot of politically charged imagery in the video, but the lyrics to the song were actually in no way connected to any kind of political view whatsoever. I think the song “Megalomaniac” is much more about social observations than political observations, but we hooked up with this … very talented director and she came with … this really political idea for a video and we thought it was cool. So we kind of let her run with that. It’s got a lot of striking imagery, a lot of anti-fascist, anti-war imagery … but then, all of a sudden, the song lyrics became this political statement to a lot of people. But we never set out with any kind of political agenda — except maybe to get Bush out of the presidency.
JJ: But barring that —
ME: As an afterthought, I think that guy sucks.
JJ: You and Brandon have been described as sort of the anti-rock stars. Is the lifestyle exciting for you or is it about the music?
ME: Honestly, it’s just about making music. I don’t have any interest in any of the sort of celebrity aspects of being in a band…. When I got to [premieres] or big parties and stuff like that, there’s always a red carpet where people are having their pictures taken…. Some people come off as, you know they’re just there having fun … and then there are a lot of people that come across, at least to me, as very egocentric and self-absorbed. I just prefer to stay as far away from that type of energy as humanly possible. Actually we have a song about that. It’s called “Megalomaniac.” People think it’s about George Bush, but it’s actually about the stars walking down the red carpet. No, I’m just kidding.
JJ: When you first went from being a band to being a well-known band, was that a difficult transition?
ME: It happened really slowly. It was kind of like watching your own hair grow. You don’t really notice that it’s happening, but at certain times you can look at a before picture and an after picture and take a step back and say ‘Wow, look how far we’ve come.’ It all happened so slowly that there was never that shock that I think maybe happens for most other bands that become successful.
JJ: Speaking of watching your hair grow, are you still sporting the Jewfro?
ME: Yeah, it’s going strong.
JJ: Can you explain the hairstyle choice?
ME: It’s not really a choice I have, actually. It’s kind of like — it’s nature. It’s what God gave me. It’s why I’ve been put on this earth.
Sing Us a Song, Israel’s Piano Man
One hot summer night in 1997, under the starry desert sky at Masada mountaintop in Israel, I fell in love with Rami Kleinstein.
“Get yourself some apples and dates/sweeten up your days/He’s not worth the pain/that rattles your heart.”
I felt as if Rami was singing directly to me, as he played piano while the sun rose on one of Israel’s most famous sites. The song was “Apples and Dates” from his 1995 triple-platinum eponymous album. It was an album that solidified his place in the canon of Israeli pop stars, culminating in his most recent album, “Say It,” which hit platinum in Israel.
Now the American-born singer and composer is coming to Los Angeles as part of a six-city tour, “Rami and the Piano.” While the charming chanteur has played here before, his new solo tour, produced by Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, is aimed at English-speaking audiences. The proceeds will benefit the community programs produced by Keshet Chaim, a nonprofit organization whose goal is also to bring Israeli artists to the general American community.
With his dancing fingers and heartfelt lyrics, Rami has often been called Israel’s answer to Billy Joel and Elton John. Besides his music, his other claim to fame has been his wife: the sexy singer, Rita. Rami has composed for his wife and they produced a joint album, “Rita and Rami,” which they performed in Los Angeles earlier this year.
Like other Israeli singers, Rami has sung about the political unrest, as in his first solo album in 1986, “The Day of the Bomb,” which went gold. He has also released his own versions of American music, namely Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”; but his most poignant work is when he sings about — you guessed it — love.
“Everything you want/everything you ask for/I will do everything in my power to do it for you/I am captivated by your magic/just whisper it/everything you want, I will do it for you.”
Every time I hear Rami sing this, I know it is meant for his wife, Rita. But still, I remember our time on Masada together, so many years ago, and I pretend he’s singing it just to me.
Play it again, Sam.
Rami Kleinstein will perform “Rami and the Piano” on
Saturday, Dec. 6, 8 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For
more information, call (818) 986-7332 or visit www.kcdancers.org .
Orthodox Mother Opens New Opera
File under Incongruities, Major: One of the latest luminaries in the world of grand opera is an Orthodox mother of four from Brooklyn.
In the male-dominated world of opera composition, Deborah Drattell is a rarity, but from childhood she never doubted she would excel in the world of music.
“It was clear from the time I picked up a violin that I would be a musician,” said Drattell, 46, who began playing at 7 as a participant in a program designed to introduce New York schoolchildren to music. She went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago and taught composition and theory at Tulane University in New Orleans through the 1980s.
A composer since age 19, Drattell began with instrumental works for orchestras and chamber groups but eventually included the voice as an important medium, setting texts ranging from poems by Edgar Allan Poe to writings by Sylvia Plath.
“It’s been a slow process,” she told The Journal. “I realized when I started to write for the voice that in my instrumental works I was telling a story…. I wanted to tell a story, and using words seemed the way into the piece for me.”
Her most recent work, “Nicholas and Alexandra,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, will have its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sept. 14, with Mstislav Rostropovich making his Los Angeles Opera debut as conductor and Plácido Domingo in the role of Rasputin.
Opera has occupied most of Drattell’s work time for the past several years.
“I love the collaborative process. It’s the most exciting medium,” said Drattell, who served as composer-in-residence for both the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., from 1998 to 2001.
William Vendice, the Los Angeles Opera’s chorus master, praised Drattell’s music for the voice.
“She obviously has a wonderful ear for how to set the language,” he said. “She has the flow of a singer’s line in mind when she writes music.”
Sascha Goetzel, the assistant conductor for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” is just as impressed with Drattell’s writing.
“It’s very deep and powerful music,” he said. “She wonderfully uses the colors of the orchestra.”
Drattell originally wrote the role of Rasputin for a baritone and wanted Domingo to sing Nicholas, but the tenor asked Drattell to rewrite the opera so he could sing the “mad monk” who holds sway over the royal couple. Drattell accommodated his request as a permanent change in the work.
The saga of Nicholas and Alexandra, Russia’s last czar and czarina before the 1917 revolution, is “a story I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Drattell said, adding that she originally had been intrigued by the story of Anastasia, the self-proclaimed long-lost daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.
Even when she shifted away from a story with a clear female protagonist, she kept Alexandra central, as did the librettist, Nicholas von Hoffman.
“It’s Alexandra’s story: her experiences with Rasputin’s power, her son’s hemophilia,” Drattell said. “As a woman, I find it intriguing to write from the point of view of a woman.”
Drattell’s parents grew up Orthodox, and while they were not strictly observant as adults, she grew up attending the Orthodox Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn and cites the music she heard there as one of her earliest artistic influences. She returned to traditional observance through her husband, a gastroenterologist.
Juggling a demanding musical career with the care of four children is challenging but not impossible, as most of her work is done within a reasonable commute from her Brooklyn home.
“I don’t do that much traveling,” she said.
During the rehearsal period for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” Drattell’s first extended period away from her family, her husband has taken the kids to visit relatives in Israel.
Drattell said the Los Angeles Opera has made “a really amazing leap” in accommodating her rigorous observance, scheduling the premiere of “Nicholas and Alexandra” on a Sunday and slating next week’s dress rehearsal early enough so it will end before Shabbat. “I’ve found Plácido Domingo and the administration here amazingly respectful,” she said.
It’s another milestone in one of serious music’s most idiosyncratic careers.
“I forged my own path,” Drattell said.
The Los Angeles Opera will hold its premiere of
“Nicholas and Alexandra” on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 p.m. Other performances will
be Sept. 17, 23 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available
through the Los Angeles Opera at www.losangelesopera.com , by phone at (213) 365-3500 or in person at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion box office.
Yonah and the Wail
Johnny Childs, blues musician, has come a long way from his
old life as an ultra-Orthodox hoodlum. He started off in Brooklyn as Yonah
Krohn, the unruly third child in a family of 10, who would sometimes briefly
steal the fancy cars outside synagogues and take them for joy rides. He left
home when he was 12 because his parents didn’t want him corrupting his younger
siblings, and at 14, while in a group home, his life gained focus after he
discovered the dulcet strains of blues music.
“Blues gave me an outlet for my creativity, and the ability
to start expressing myself through an art form, which is something I never
experienced growing up,” said Childs, 31, now one of Los Angeles’ most
promising blues acts. “It’s an honest, unpretentious, minimalist way of
expressing your emotions, that also relies heavily on improvisation, that
enables you to express what is going on in your mind and your heart at any
Childs is self-taught. In the group home, he sat with his
roommate’s guitar, replaying any riffs he had heard until they satisfied him,
and then he would take them one step further by adding something of his own.
“I have always tried to squeeze a new note out of the
instrument every time I pick it up,” he said. “When I hear somebody play a riff
on guitar, or any instrument, that I want to steal — because that is how
anybody builds an arsenal of riffs — I would learn it note for note, but I
never performed it the way I stole it. I would keep the intensity but deliver
something really different.”
Childs keeps his music from sounding like a traditional
Delta blues band by writing songs that cross over into the rock genre, and by
making sure that his music is not derivative sounding. He plays in clubs all
over Los Angeles, and has already recorded one album, titled “The Truth,” and
is waiting for a major blues label to pick him up so he can record his second.
And what does his rabbinic family think of his career
choice? Said Childs, “They are just glad I am not stealing cars anymore.”
Johnny Childs will be performing March 8 at 8:30 p.m. at
Harvelle’s, 1432 Fourth St., Santa Monica; and March 15 at 8 p.m. at BB King’s
Blues Club, 1000 Universal City Walk, Universal City.
For more information call Midnight Music Management, (310)
Stalin’s Jewish State
When Yale Strom was growing up in a traditional,socialist-Zionist home in Detroit, he was riveted by his father’s tales of aJewish state founded 20 years before Israel in a Siberian swamp.
Three decades later, he remembered the obscure Jewishgeography lesson to make the intriguing documentary, “L’Chayim, ComradeStalin!” about the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) founded by Stalin in 1928.
Papa Joe’s motivations weren’t altruistic; he hoped topopulate the Chinese front and to funnel Zionist dollars into the U.S.S.R. Butat least 40,000 Jews made the gruelling, 5,200-mile journey to build a Yiddishmecca in waist-deep mud and snow. They were successful, in part, untilStalin’s purges closed most Yiddish institutions and sent residents off toGulags from 1948 to 1953.
Musician-filmmaker Strom — whose documentaries aboutvanishing Jewish culture have carved a niche in the Yiddish revival movement –retraced the journey when he boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad and made theweek-long trek to Birobidzhan in 2000. He alighted in the world’s only railroadstation with Yiddish-language signs, although finding Yiddishkayt provedelusive in a region where less than 6,000 Jews remain. Eventually, he visitedthe local synagogue, the Yiddish newspaper and the capitol’s main thoroughfare,still called Sholom Aleichem Boulevard.
He interviewed local Jews and recorded conversations withhis suavely anti-Semitic interpreter, Slava, who turned out to be the grandsonof the high-ranking official who originated the idea of a JAR.
So was the JAR a Yiddish utopia or a Jewish reservation, thedocumentary asks. Strom and his wife, “L’Chaim” writer-producer ElizabethSchwartz, think it’s both: “It’s historically significant as a Jewish statefounded on Yiddish secularism,” Schwartz said. “But it’s also a bit like thefake TV suburb in the film, ‘Pleasantville,’ where everything seems perfect,but realities start to bleed through.”
Strom, nevertheless, maintains his youthful fascination withwhat he calls “the first Jewish state established since 70 B.C.E.” “These werepioneers who made aliyah to the end of the world,” he said.
The film opens March 5 in Los Angeles. Strom will alsoperform with his jazz-infused klezmer band, Klazzj, at the Workmen’s CircleMarch 9. For information, call (310) 552-2007. Strom’s “The Book of Klezmer:The History, the Music, the Folklore” (A Cappella Books, $28) is now in stores.
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.
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.
Attorney GerrySchubert may be a relatively familiar face in Orange County; alongtime resident of Yorba Linda and a member at Mission Viejo’sCongregation Eilat, Schubert is actively involved in JewishFederation projects. But, soon, he may become better known for therelease of his second musical CD, “Life in the Moment” (GalleryRecords).
An accomplished pianist, Schubert financed theproduction of an earlier CD recording with profits from his legalpractice. Now, with the commercial release of his second, he’s hopingto make a gradual crossover from full-time attorney to full-timemusician, a lifelong dream he had put aside during law school.
On the new recording, his piano compositions areaccompanied by full orchestrations for what loosely could be calledNew Age music: melodic, lushly arranged compositions with a romantic,almost sentimental sensibility. The regional music chain TowerRecords has given Schubert’s “Life” CD a coveted place at itscustomer listening stations at more than 70 locations.
For now, Schubert earns his daily bread byrepresenting employers in workmen’s compensation-related cases. Buthis creative ambitions have always been bound up with music.
“I studied classical music from about 9 years oldto 17,” he said, “and jazz and theory when I got older…. I wasalways composing little melodies in my head.”
As a teen-ager and a young man, Schubert did themusical circuit in his native Maryland, playing with his band at barmitzvahs and weddings, and even scoring a local one-time gig with TheDrifters.
“It was a real thrill,” he said. “During my senioryear in high school, I was in this band called The Atlantics. TheDrifters came to perform in Maryland and needed a rhythm section. Ourmanager got us three dates with them.”
After college, Schubert played on the road, thenworked as a pianist at a Hyatt Regency Hotel, where his musicalaspirations stalled. “I felt I wasn’t going to have the career Iwanted,” he said. “I didn’t want to play hotels or parties the restof my life, so I decided to go to law school. So now I have apractice, and I am satisfied when I get a good result, but I don’tlike being adversarial all the time…. With the music, it’s sosatisfying. To begin with a little melody and then later to hear afull orchestral arrangement play your song, it’s like giving birth toa child, an indescribable feeling.”
Schubert said that his exploration of his ownheritage has enhanced his musical career. “My involvement withJudaism has helped to center me spiritually and helped me with mymusic composition. I look forward to people listening to it. I hopethey find comfort and joy in it.”
“Life in the Moment” is available at area TowerRecords stores.
‘Till Death Do Us Part’ — Enough Already
Many of us who said, “Till death do us part,”never went the distance. Gary and Barbara did. They were a great lovestory. The fact that her parents didn’t approve of their marriage,because he was a saxophone player, made it all the morepowerful.
From the moment Barbara was diagnosed with adebilitating illness, Gary never left her side. In the early days,that literally meant that she leaned on him whenever she walked. Butfew of us knew that she took his arm because she was ill. I alwaysthought that he was just being a gentleman.
Now an acclaimed composer, he has writtensymphonies and an award-winning Broadway show. When I visited lastyear, he was playing the piano for Barbara. She was still able toenjoy music and laugh at his jokes. By then, her condition was madeeven more painful with breast cancer and the onset of dementia. Shedied this past December, on his birthday, 15 years after she hadbecome ill.
When I talked to him recently, he said that he wassurprised by how many people, especially women, reacted to his caringfor his wife. “Oh, no,” I said, “this is the behavior of a man-mensch– a rare breed of human. It wasn’t what you did; it was the elegancewith which you did it.” Two weeks after Barbara’s funeral, one ofGary’s songwriter collaborators told him that she would lose 50pounds and kill her dog if he would consider her “relationshipmaterial.”
Thirty years ago, marrying against your parents’wishes was a big deal. While we were blinded by hormones, our parentswere the screeners of unacceptable mates. Musicians were definitelyon the list. Anyone who drank liquor before dusk or had a closerelative whose picture was cut out of the family album wassuspect.
In my family, we never mentioned my grandmother’scousin, known as red-haired Annie, who put her husband’s head in theoven. It was officially ruled a suicide. My grandmother’s brother,Hymie, who was a no-goodnik gambler, also was persona nongrata.
Acceptable mates were the ones who were able tomake a living or had the potential to make a living. When answeringthe phone, my grandmother would hang up if it wasn’t Barry theColumbia Medical School student. Barry, the future pediatrician, wasthe unanimous choice of my family.
I married Sandy, the one who didn’t even own asport jacket and who lived at home with the mother who still cut uphis steak. Fortunately, he returned to law school after taking aleave of absence to try his luck at acting. Returning to law schooland the fact that he was a card player got him past the familyradar.
Barry, on the other hand, played bridge, went tothe symphony, studied opera, and was a ballet aficionado who lovedGershwin. But I wasn’t attracted to Barry the provider, with thesophisticated tastes. I was drawn to Sandy the big spender, whoarranged our first vacation so that we would hit every racetrack onthe Eastern seaboard. Barry eventually married his nurse and is stillwith her.
My second marriage was to someone 20 years olderthan me. He was mature. Stable. Or “integrated,” he likes to say. Heentered my life when I literally had nothing, when I was at my mostvulnerable. He was attracted to a 119-pound woman with three dogs,two college-aged children, no job, and a house in foreclosure. I wasattracted to someone who looked like my father and acted like afriend. Freud lives.
But I was, after all, my mother’s daughter, andmore so — a survivor with advanced graduate degrees. We come from along line of warrior women who not only won’t be vanquished but willstrike back if someone’s trying to exploit our vulnerabilities. Imarried for security and left after 18 months forself-preservation.
The fascinating thing about being single and inyour 50s is that there’s a possible second 50 years more to live –if you’re lucky. I don’t see myself walking down yet another aisleand saying, “Till death do us part.” I would much rather becompletely engaged. “This is my intended,” he’d say. “This is myfriend,” I’d say.
Columnist Linda Feldman is the co-author of”Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom” (Simon& Schuster).
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