Inon Barnatan. Photo by Marco Borggreve/inonbarnatan.com

Israeli pianist takes atypical path to prominence


All soloists look for the big break that takes their careers to the next level. That lucky break occurred for Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan three years ago when he was appointed the first Artist-in-Association with the New York Philharmonic.

For Barnatan, the post came as a surprise. No wonder: Although he received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009, he claimed no career-making competition wins and was never promoted as a wunderkind the way, say, Evgeny Kissin was. Since more than one conservatory director has put the success figure for soloists at less than 1 percent, Barnatan is one of the few musicians to make a living as a concert pianist.

“For the longest time, I really didn’t think about it being a living,” Barnatan, 38, said from New York. “It was something I always did and always wanted to do, but being able to live off it was a happy coincidence.”

Now the pianist has embarked on a 12-city U.S. tour with London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF), his third tour with the acclaimed chamber orchestra, stopping at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on March 31 and at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo the following night. In a program that includes works by Mozart and Copland, Barnatan also is giving the U.S. premiere of Scottish composer Alasdair Nicolson’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (“The Haunted Ebb”).

Barnatan will lead the usually conductor-less ASMF from the keyboard in two pieces: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat major (K. 271), and Nicolson’s concerto for piano, trumpet and strings. Barnatan commissioned the Nicolson piece for the ASMF and the ensemble’s principal trumpet, Mark David, who also will be featured in Aaron Copland’s hauntingly nostalgic “Quiet City.”

The concert closes with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A major, (K. 201/186a).

“I love the idea of juxtaposing work of the 20th and 21st centuries with Mozart,” Barnatan said. “They always jolt each other and make us hear each in a different way.”

Barnatan, who recently gave the last subscription concert of his successful run as the New York Philharmonic’s Artist-in-Association, said the position, created by the orchestra’s outgoing music director, Alan Gilbert, accelerated the process of making him part of the city’s musical culture.

“Instead of just making my debut with the Philharmonic, I was given an opportunity to develop a relationship with the orchestra, the city and the audience,” Barnatan said. “Even when a debut goes well with an orchestra, it takes a long time before a relationship develops.”

Luck, as it happens, tends to favor the well-prepared. After leaving Tel Aviv when he was 17, Barnatan entered London’s Royal Academy of Music. He moved to New York in 2006, slowly establishing himself in the next six years with two stunning Schubert recordings on the Bridge and Avie labels. Both records confirmed him as one of the most imaginative and poetic Schubertians of his generation.

Writing in The New York Times in 2014, critic David Allen said Barnatan demonstrated “a sensitivity reminiscent of two other New York institutions, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia.”

Although Allen called the pianist an “Israeli-born New Yorker,” Barnatan said his thoughts are never far from Israel.

“There’s such a rich, varied and exciting cultural life in Israel,” Barnatan said. “I love going there. The audiences are so warm. I grew up listening to the Israel Philharmonic where all the great people came to play. It’s that special atmosphere one’s home always has.”

Barnatan’s latest project with the ASMF is as soloist in the ensemble’s first recorded cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. “It surprised me, because they’re the most recorded orchestra in the world and this is their core repertory. But they’ve never released a full cycle.”

After he finishes his tour with the ensemble in April, Barnatan starts a joint U.S. tour with his regular chamber music partner, Alisa Weilerstein, a MacArthur “genius grant”-winning cellist.

“Alisa understands that the music is more important than ego,” Barnatan said. “It’s not about being a star.”

Barnatan said with an ideal chamber music partner, like Weilerstein, “you can bounce off each other and let it rip.” But two musicians working together takes an equal investment in both instruments. For a soloist, the process is somewhat more internal.

“Playing the piano is so much more about the ears than it is about the fingers, which is why so many pianists don’t sound the same,” Barnatan said. “You can play on different pianos but you try to get the piano to sound like what’s inside your head, what’s in your inner ear. That really determines what your interpretation will sound like.”

Barnatan’s career advice for young musicians is similarly internally driven.

“I didn’t follow any path you’d recognize as being similar to any other,” he said. “When I recorded the Schubert sonatas, I felt that’s what I needed to do. The same with everything I’ve done. I found you get a response when you do something you care about. You can’t really fake that.”

For tickets to Inon Barnatan and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, go to: www.thebroadstage.com

Igor Levit. Photo from igor-levit.de

Igor Levit takes on the pinnacle of piano repertory


Igor Levit rarely does anything small. The acclaimed Russian-Jewish-German pianist raised eyebrows as a 26-year-old when, for his Sony Classical debut in 2013, he tackled Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas, considered by many to be among the most challenging and profound works ever composed.

Levit continued to set the bar high with his next recordings: Bach’s six partitas and an award-winning three-CD set of three massive scores — Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, Beethoven’s “33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli” and Frederic Rzewski’s 1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (36 Variations on a Chilean Song).”

For his March 9 recital at Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, Calif., Levit is scheduled to perform the second half of Rzewski’s 2014 suite “Dreams,” which is inspired by an Akira Kurosawa film, and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations (Op. 120), an intense musical-intellectual-emotional Everest many pianists don’t usually attempt to climb until later in their careers.

“I don’t make my life easy sometimes,” Levit said by phone from Berlin. “People say you’re too young to play Beethoven before age 40, but without knowing the individual musician, without being in touch with the individual personality, to say, ‘Under 40, you should not play Beethoven’ is, to put it in short form, BS.”

The pianist said Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations set has always been “the pinnacle” for him. “I’ve been living with it longer than any other score, working on it longer than any other,” he said. “When Leonard Cohen passed away, a friend wrote that probably the only adequate obituary must be ‘Go listen.’ That’s it. Here I would say the same. There’s much more to say, but first thing, go listen.”

Levit was born in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in Russia in 1987. His family took up permanent residence in Hanover, Germany, when he was 8. Levit said he learned German “in a couple of weeks.”

Though he still speaks Russian fluently, Levit said he has few memories of the country. “I’ve been back twice for brief visits, the last time 15 years ago,” he said. “Through my parents I know a lot, but I can’t recall anything, almost.”

After 21 years in Hanover, Levit moved to Berlin last year. He said the city — whose thriving, close-knit artistic community and culture have attracted many Jewish musicians over the past decade — offers a unique kind of freedom.

“Berlin hasn’t found itself yet,” Levit said. “This is a very beautiful thing, because the city is open to questions, to new ideas. It was only 27 years ago that Berlin was reunited. And what is 27 years? I am older than 27. Berlin still hasn’t decided who it is, and thank God it hasn’t. There are about a million identities and answers to the question, ‘Who or what is Berlin?’ ”

Levit said that while he’s not observant, he identifies as Jewish. And while he is socially and politically outspoken, he harbors no illusions about the power of music to affect the world’s current political situation.

“It’s very tricky and complicated,” Levit said. “I don’t think it is possible to change anything with music. It can help, but people make decisions. We have to act. Music can and should inspire ideas and create a certain environment. But just because you love Beethoven doesn’t necessarily make you a good human being.”

To inspire, music should somehow reflect the current time, Levit said. For him, it’s not enough to study the era in which a composer lived.

“It’s important, but only one-half of what is important,” Levit said. “The other half is, ‘I’m a child — a person — of my time and not of the composer’s time.’ ”

Whether he’s confronting a new score like Rzewski’s “Dreams” or a classic such as Beethoven’s 1823 “Diabelli” Variations, he keeps an open mind.

“I can hear what I read,” Levit said. “I start learning a piece for the first time without preconditions. I play it and certain ideas arrive and disappear. I see what I see.”

Levit counts pianists Artur Schnabel and Marc-André Hamelin among his major influences. “I don’t know a single recording of any Beethoven piece which is as alive, incredible, insane, unpredictable and inspiring as Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings,” Levit said. “And Hamelin has a huge responsibility for my repertoire curiosity. Without his recording, I wouldn’t have known about Rzewski’s ‘The People United’ and many other scores.”

Like Hamelin’s, Levit’s wide repertory includes rarely performed works. When he made his Southern California debut in 2015 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, he performed British composer Ronald Stevenson’s “Fantasy on ‘Peter Grimes.’ ” So don’t expect Chopin anytime soon. Indeed, a London newspaper once quoted Levit as calling Chopin “dumb.”

“That was a misinterpretation,” Levit said. “I never said Chopin was dumb. On the contrary, I love listening to Chopin’s music. There are pianists who play him in the most incredible way. It’s only me playing it. I don’t feel comfortable.”

Levit is currently in the middle of performing a complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, and he’s working on Shostakovich’s cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. His future plans include more Schumann — “I love playing his concerto” — and eventually some Liszt. “But there are so many things going on now that he’s in the back room.”

Meanwhile, Levit said he takes his roles as both musician and citizen seriously. “This society was created and built by responsible fellows,” Levit said. “To say, ‘Oh, well, I’m a musician and I’m making art, so don’t bother me with daily life’ is arrogant and wrong. I am a citizen of my country who happens to be a musician, and not vice versa.”

Songs in the key of Nero


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

András Schiff talks family, war and humanity


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schiff laughed, but clearly the memory still hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey Siegel brings his ‘Keyboard Conversations’ to The Wallis


Sometimes, a stranger’s chance remarks can redirect and enhance a career. Pianist Jeffrey Siegel still recalls a woman at a party many years ago, who said, after one of his concerts, “I know I’m missing something not to have great composers in my life. What can you do to make the listening experience more than just an ear wash of sound for me?”

The question triggered “Keyboard Conversations,” a trademarked concert-with-commentary series, including a Q-and-A session, which Siegel developed and has since taken to 22 American cities. The pianist also gives three programs every year at Kings Place in London. Siegel has given 90 “conversations” this season alone. 

“The series has taken over my life,” Siegel, 72, said by phone from his home in New York. “When the woman asked me that question, I thought it probably represented 95 percent of concertgoers. One of the goals of each program is to heighten the listener’s musical experience. I have to be careful not to bore the expert or lose the novice.”

When the pianist brings his program, “The Romantic Music of Chopin,” to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on Jan. 17, he will include his commentary on and performance of such demanding masterpieces as Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” and “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”

“This is not a master class,” Siegel said. “It’s about going beyond the program notes for avid music lovers and novices of all ages who want to become more active listeners.”

The pianist’s well-organized, eloquent commentary employs a good dose of humor. In his conversation on “The Glory of Beethoven,” for instance, Siegel explains that the composer’s well-known piano work “Fur Elise” was not a teaching piece, as it has come down to us, but actually “a love poem in sound, a private gift from Beethoven to his lady friend.” That lady’s name was Therese Malfatti, not Elise, he said, and it’s possible Beethoven had proposed to her. 

As Siegel dryly observes on a YouTube segment, “For some reason, she turned him down, preferring instead a good-looking, wealthy, aristocratic landowner.” 

For Siegel, knowing what inspired a score allows us to hear it differently — and better. For his upcoming Chopin program at The Wallis, Siegel said he’ll talk about the 19th-century Polish composer’s life as it directly relates to a certain piece.

“In periods of despair, Chopin could write some of his happiest music,” Siegel said. “There’s a tune in the middle of Chopin’s posthumously published ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’ used for the hit pop song, ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,’ recorded by Judy Garland.” 

Given the enduring quality of the score, Siegel added, “It’s a shock that Chopin never wanted it published.”

Siegel said Chopin’s music is “immediately accessible and engaging to the ear,” even when the composer’s passions are flowing. The impetus for the “Revolutionary Etude,” for example, may have been Chopin getting news while on tour that the Russians had taken over his country. 

“It’s fiery, full of rage and defiance, but Chopin didn’t call it ‘revolutionary,’ ” Siegel said. “The music is about itself.”

Siegel’s impressive musical background includes studying at the Juilliard School with the famous pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne. He also was coached by the Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein. In Chicago as a kid, Siegel played jazz, which later informed his stunning recordings of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Piano Concerto in F” with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. 

Siegel also made a remarkable recording of Henri Dutilleux’s harmonically rich piano sonata, and has premiered unusual pieces such as Liszt’s technically thorny paraphrase on “Ernani,” which he discovered, and Leonard Bernstein’s tender, unpublished “Meditation on a Wedding.”

“Bernstein was my guiding light,” Siegel said. “He knew how to talk about a piece. Musicians are trained to communicate wordlessly, in tones, not in words about tones. There are few musicians who can talk about music. Bernsteins do not grow on trees. Slatkin can do it. We learned at Bernstein’s feet.”

Siegel’s past programs have included “Great Jewish Composers,” and next up is a trip to London for “Schubert in the Age of the Sound Bite.” For the pianist, Schubert summoned a special memory of being young in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.

“I was 20 years old and had just done a concert with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic when Edward G. Robinson [born Emanuel Goldenberg] walked backstage and told me how much he enjoyed it. I always liked that we were about the same size — short, dumpy Jews,” Siegel said with a laugh. “It was one of the great moments for me. Robinson said Schubert’s last piano sonata was his favorite.”

Siegel, who recently performed in concert with Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, called himself “a concert pianist who talks, rather than a lecturer who plays.” For him, the need for what great music offers a thinking, feeling person is greater today than it’s ever been. 

“We’re living in an impersonal age,” Siegel said. “I am playing the greatest music that’s ever been written, and as I get older, I want to play and share it more. It never feels stale, particularly Chopin.” 

For tickets or information about “The Romantic Music of Chopin” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 17, call (310) 746-4000 or go to

Pianist Inon Barnatan to bewitch audience with one of Mozart’s greatest concertos


Soloists such as Van Cliburn and, more recently, Lang Lang, made their mark on the world’s stage at a relatively young age. But such careers often hit a plateau or, worse, suffer burnout. Other artists, like the 35-year-old Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, grow more gradually. Happily, Barnatan’s music-making — both in concert and on disc — continues to deepen, delight and enrich.

Last season, the pianist’s tour stop at Soka Performing Arts Center with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields impressed Orange County Register music critic Timothy Mangan, who observed that the pianist played Bach’s Concerto in D minor with “compelling ebullience, like a jazz musician jamming with friends.”

On Aug. 21, Barnatan joins conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for his debut as a soloist with orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in one of Mozart’s longest concertos, the charming and poetic Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat (K. 482). 

“This concerto is one of Mozart’s greatest,” Barnatan said recently from his home in New York, “especially the dark and heartbreaking slow movement. Following the 1785 premiere, Mozart wrote to his father with great pride how the audience clapped so hard after the slow movement that they had to repeat it.”

Barnatan, who will be performing his own cadenzas (Mozart never provided them), chose this score for his U.S. concerto debut in 2007 with the Houston Symphony. Since then, Barnatan’s career has taken off on both coasts. He was recently appointed the New York Philharmonic’s first “artist-in-association,” a three-season post that begins next spring. 

Born in Tel Aviv, Barnatan left Israel at 17 and entered the Royal Academy of Music in London. He moved to New York in 2006, where he studied with pianist Leon Fleisher, whose meteoric concert career, interrupted by a serious hand injury, turned into an illustrious career as teacher and mentor.

“Fleisher tried to make you take clues on the page and think about, say, the rhythmic and emotional structure of a piece,” Barnatan said. “The actual notes we hear are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s about what you can’t hear. Every note exists for a reason you have to discover.”

Barnatan, who seemingly would rather play music than speak about it, quoted the aphorism, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Still, he is an eloquent spokesman for his art.

“It’s like an actor giving an inflection to certain words,” the pianist added. “It’s about understanding what’s behind and beneath.”

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein said she and Barnatan share an instinctive approach to the score at hand. They plan to record a duo recital for Decca later this year.

“We prefer not to talk too much in rehearsal,” Weilerstein said. “We’ll try playing something different ways, but we don’t have to talk to convey an idea.”

Playing chamber music is clearly one of Barnatan’s passions. “When you work with a soloist, singer or orchestra, you can’t just say your piece,” Barnatan said. “You have to listen and adjust your thinking.” 

Barnatan’s family still lives in Tel Aviv, and he said he wished such a humane collaborative process would function more often there. “I wish people would listen to each other,” he said. “Very few people know the intricacies of what’s happening in Israel. People block their ears while they speak. They don’t try to understand the other person’s narrative.”

A self-described “citizen of the world,” Barnatan said he loves returning to Israel, but added, “It’s an intense place to live, which can be great, of course. As an Israeli, you grow up with that intensity. There’s always a sense something will happen. You deal with the situation and make the most of it.”

Barnatan has maintained his New York base since 2006. The same year marked the release of his debut solo recital, a gripping all-Schubert CD on Bridge Records. The disc included a turbulent, searching account of Schubert’s great B-flat Sonata (D. 960), the kind of performance that announced a major artist in the making. His latest record on Avie, of Schubert’s Sonatas in C minor (D. 958) and A major (D. 959), confirms Barnatan’s stature as one of the most sensitive and imaginative Schubert interpreters of his generation.

But staying close to the contemporary music scene is also important to the pianist. In recent years, he has commissioned works from composers Avner Dorman, Matthias Pintscher and Sebastian Currier. Indeed, “Darknesse Visible,” his second solo recording, proves Barnatan is as luminous, stylistically flexible and impassioned an interpreter of works from Debussy and Ravel to Thomas Adès. 

Barnatan said he likes to present old and new music together. “The juxtaposition helps both, because nothing exists in a vacuum,” he said. “A 300-year-old score can sound like it was written yesterday. I still spend every day immersed in pieces hundreds of years old. I don’t think we’re ever finished, and that’s the beauty of what we do.”

Pianist Inon Barnatan will perform an all-Mozart program with Nicholas McGegan conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 21. For ticket information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

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.

Filmmaker gets up close and personal with Fleischer


Nathaniel Kahn achieved critical success and a 2004 Oscar nomination for his documentary, “My Architect” — a personal story about his relationship with his father, Louis Kahn, the much acclaimed modernist architect who braved travails such as a facial deformity and artistic angst before his death in 1974.

So what was the filmmaker to do for an encore? Kahn said he found himself drawn to yet another great artist who also had to overcome physical affliction and career challenges, albeit of a different sort.

Kahn’s short documentary, “Two Hands” — which has also been nominated for an Oscar — spotlights pianist Leon Fleischer, who lost the use of his right hand to a neurological disorder when he was 37 (see main story). The lyrical, 18-minute film describes Fleischer’s determination to reinvent himself as a teacher and conductor, his relentless search for a cure and his triumphant return to the concert stage after finding a cure for his ailment in his 70s.

Kahn, 44, admits that the movie metaphorically continues his own search for a father figure. “It was like getting close to someone who, like my father, struggled yet kept going, and who made art his life, which has been a great window for me,” the director said by phone from his Philadelphia home. “I couldn’t ask my father about life and art and adversity because he was dead. But I knew I could ask Leon those questions.”

Easier said than done. The 78-year-old Fleischer didn’t like to speak about his past troubles, although he agreed to participate in Kahn’s film immediately after viewing “My Architect” a year-and-a-half ago. “I’m a very private person, but I admired Nathaniel’s talent and his sensitivity,” Fleischer told The Journal.

“There was a kind of reserve with Leon,” Kahn said of his interviews with the pianist. To bypass this reticence, Kahn said he decided to mostly depict the pianist in extreme close-up, “because with the zoom lens you can really explore somebody’s face, feel what they feel and see the look in their eyes.”

His goal was to capture subtle changes in expression, such as the slightest grimace or furrowing of Fleischer’s eyebrows.

Although Kahn shot hours of footage, he believed the short documentary format would best depict Fleischer’s life journey in a dramatic arc.

“A film is more like a novel, whereas a short is more like a poem,” the director explained. “In a short, you don’t build up the layers the way you might in a feature film. You explore a few themes very precisely, so brevity is crucial. You must suggest things and use images to achieve an emotional punch.”

For example, when the pianist describes the traumatic loss of the use of his hand, Kahn uses jump cuts showing Fleischer talking to enhance his sense of agitation (and also the send of moving forward in time), rather than cut to related images. Myriad close-ups of Fleischer’s hands — clasping, playing the piano, waving in conversation — reveal the hand as a kind of character in the film.

A slow-motion image of Fleischer’s fingers unfurling, as he serenely performs, is perhaps the most crucial image in the movie.

“The entire short builds to the point where you see that hand, which has been immobilized for more than 30 years, finally able to open and play,” Kahn said.The piece Fleischer performs in that scene is Bach’s transcendent “Sheep May Safely Graze.” Close-ups show the artist’s hands covered with age spots, yet completely in control of the keyboard.

“In some ways, the piece is Leon’s theme song,” Kahn said. “It’s a work he’s played throughout this life, yet when he plays it now, you can hear behind it years of struggle, of desire and, finally, peace.”

Good to be the Chief; Get Your Challah On


Good to be the Chief

Health care veteran Tim McGlew has been named chief operating officer and vice president of operations for the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging. The Jewish Home is the largest single-source provider of senior housing in Los Angeles.

“With the recent dedication of the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center and many other exciting plans in development, the role of chief operating officer is more important than ever,” said Molly Forrest, Jewish Home CEO-president. “We’re committed to meeting the increasing demands for quality senior care, and we see Tim as a major contributor as we fulfill that mission.”

McGlew has 20 years of experience in acute hospital administration and most recently served as vice president and chief operating officer of San Gabriel Valley Medical Center for more than six years. He has extensive skills in operations, information systems, facility construction, and cost management.

“I’m extremely energized to be joining the Jewish Home at such a pivotal time in its history,” McGlew said. “Throughout the health care industry, the Jewish Home is a respected organization, and it’s easy to understand why, given its commitment to serve seniors at all stages of need. The home’s innovative combination of physical, mental and spiritual programs truly makes it a remarkable organization.”

For more information, visit ‘ target=’_blank’>www.challahforhunger.org.

Battle Against Bigotry

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reaffirmed its commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry and prejudice when it recently celebrated with 600 supporters at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel and raised more than $800,000.

Ambassador Rockwell A. Schnabel, chairman of the Sage Group, LLC, and former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and Finland, was presented with the Humanitarian Award by Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles.

International lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg was presented with the jurisprudence Award by federal Judge Stephen Reinhardt. Schoenberg recently recovered Nazi-looted Klimt paintings from Austria in a case that commanded international attention and acclaim.

Keynote speaker Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, addressed the evening’s theme — the ADL vision of “One World” — a world of peaceful co-existence and harmony and the many threats facing that vision, including militant Islam, neo-Nazis, extremists and racists around the world and in our community.

Foxman confers regularly with elected officials and community leaders here and abroad. In October, he was presented the French Legion of Honor for his lifelong service in the fight against anti-Semitism and prejudice and for working to build bridges of understanding among nations and people.

Seen celebrating at the dinner were Lynn and Laurie Konheim; Los Angeles Councilwoman Wendy Gruehl and husband, Dean Schramm; Faith and Jonathan Cookler; Harriet and Steven Nichols; Anita Green; Michael and Stacey Garfinkel; George and Ruth Moss, and Don Pharaoh, ADL director of major gifts and planned Giving.

For more information visit AJ Congress wowed; Shaare Zedek gets record donation; Koufax in the house

Tragedy and Triumph Comes Alive for Teens


 

As 14-year-old Lisa Jura said goodbye to her mother at a Vienna train station in 1938, Jura’s mother spoke words that would inspire her for a lifetime: “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.”
Jura didn’t imagine that these words — and how her life came to embody them — would inspire subsequent generations of teenagers, even 70 years later.
An aspiring pianist, Jura traveled from Vienna to London as part of the Kindertransport, an effort to save children from Nazi peril that ultimately rescued nearly 10,000. Jura, like most Kindertransport children, never saw her parents again. But she nurtured her dream, continuing to study music while living throughout World War II in a London orphanage. She ultimately earned a scholarship to the prestigious London Royal Academy of Music.
Jura’s story was chronicled in a book by her daughter, Mona Golabek, who herself became a Grammy-winning pianist. Now, an array of educational materials are being developed to bring the story to teens nationwide.
The book, “The Children of Willesden Lane” (Warner Books, 2002) will now have a teacher’s guide, geared for middle and high school. The Santa Monica-based Milken Family Foundation commissioned the teacher’s guide, after being impressed with the book’s themes of resilience, hope and triumph over tragedy. The Milken Foundation also funded a companion CD featuring Golabek reading excerpts and performing the classical music mentioned in the book.
The Massachusetts-based nonprofit education organization, Facing History and Ourselves, created the curriculum, which explores such concepts as what it means to be an outsider, why people choose to help others, and what is a legacy. The historical context of the Holocaust also is examined.
The Pennsylvania-based Annenberg Foundation will produce video resources, including footage of Golabek playing piano and showing how teachers have applied the lessons in their classrooms. It’s due to be completed next summer.
The book itself is available through Hold On To Your Music, a nonprofit founded by Golabek to help make copies available to schools at a discount.
Some 58 public, private and religious schools throughout the country have obtained the curriculum materials, including the lower school of Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. That number will likely grow after next month, when the materials will be shared with Jewish day school principals at a meeting hosted by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles.
“I think we’ll have a lot of takers,” said Aviva Kadosh, the bureau’s director of day school and Hebrew-language services. The curriculum applies to the study of history, literature and music, she said.
Children from both urban and rural areas have embraced the story and its characters, said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Foundation. She described how an audience of 4,000 students in Scranton, Pa., “greeted Mona like a rock star. They gave her a standing ovation before she even started to speak.”
“This story spans ages, religions, races and academic disciplines,” said Foley, adding that students are especially affected by Jura’s story because they’re close to the age of Jura at the time the narrative takes place.
Jura was, said Foley, “a firsthand witness to the events of World War II.”
For free downloads of “The Children of Willesden Lane” study guide and CD, visit www.mff.org or www.facinghistory.orgwww.facinghistory.org.

 

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

With Valentine’s Day comes melodrama, though if you’re lucky it’s just in the form of Neurotic Young Urbanites’ new show, “Golden Prospects: A Los Angeles Melodrama,” which promises opium, pornography, prostitution, disfigurement, blindness, and a live on-stage pianist. Enough excitement to take your mind off the day, should that be your wish.8 p.m. (Friday and Saturday), 7 p.m. (Sunday). $20. Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica. (310) 396-3680.

Sunday

We know, we know:What you really want to do is direct. Today, you at least get closer. Filmmakers Mariel McEwan and Sergio Palermo have put together 30 minutes of a projected 90-minute-long documentary titled “This Daunting Task — Conflict, Consequence and Reconciliation: A Conversation Between Germans and Jews.” They’re looking for input from the public on this first segment of the doc about post-World War II Jewish and German immigrants living in the same community. Have a say in the final cut by attending a screening and discussion today at the Workmen’s Circle.2 p.m. Free (donations welcome). 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Monday

How do the Jews do it in the O.C.? They go all out. Sixteen Jewish films screen down in Orange County this week for the Pacific Jewish Film Festival. Three are documentaries by Orthodox Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, who will discuss his stealth tactics after the screenings.Runs Feb. 15-22. $6 (family programs), $11 (general). Edwards Park Place 10 and Tarbut V’Torah Theater in Irvine. (714) 755-0340. Check ahead for sold-out shows.

Tuesday

Points of inspiration in the University of Judaism’s Platt and Borstein Galleries’ latest exhibition include Rashi, lichens, flotsam and pastel sticks. Somehow it all comes together under the banner of “Up Close and Impersonal,” a show of works by David Schoffman, Gary Brewer, Roger Marshutz and Richard Parker. It runs through March 14.10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Monday-Thursday), 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Friday), 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Sunday). University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Wednesday

Happy Birthday, Eddie Cantor. In honor of what would’ve been his 112th, Hollywood Heritage Museum throws him a little party. Join some of his old friends for refreshments and a screening of “Roman Scandals,” including his co-star from the film, Gloria Stuart. Also scheduled to attend are Margaret Kerry-Wilcox (“If You Knew Susie”) and Fayard Nicholas (“Kid Millions”).7:30 p.m. $5 (members), $8 (nonmembers). Hollywood Heritage Museum, Lasky-Demille Barn, 2100 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 874-2276.

Thursday

Head to Long Beach today to celebrate the double-x chromosome’s contributions to society over the last century. The Long Beach Museum of Art is the sole California venue for the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition, “Women of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Photographs from the National Portrait Gallery.” On view are portraits of Helen Keller, Janis Joplin and other icons, taken by photographers like Edward Steichen, Lotte Jacobi and Arnold Newman.11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Sunday). Free (members, children under 12 and first Friday of the month), $4 (students and seniors), $5 (general). 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.

Friday

Distinguished at a young age for his extraordinary abilities on the piano, Leon Fleischer had to cope with focal dystonia, a debilitating condition that affected his right hand. Switching gears, he moved from performing to teaching and conducting, and eventually to working on repertoire for the left-hand alone. These days, he is back to performing both left-hand work and selected pieces for both hands. He plays an evening of Brahms at the Cerritos Center tonight, with a quartet featuring Cho Lang Lin and Daniel Phillips on violin and Gary Hoffman on cello.8 p.m. $25-$50. 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (800) 300-4345.

Behind the Music: The Wedding Singer


In the 1998 hit comedy "The Wedding Singer," the eponymous character was a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. At the Sept. 2 Century City Park Hyatt reception of 30-something newlyweds Daphna Ghozland and David Hollander, the wedding singer is a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. True, the latter — singer/pianist/bandleader Robbie Helperin — will occasionally perform the odd ’80s pop song with his Simcha Orchestra as Adam Sandler did in the movie, but that’s where the parallels end, or at least, that’s where Helperin would like them to end.

"It was kind of painful to watch," Helperin said of the movie that immortalized his profession as a "Loserville" populated by "creepy musicians," in his words.

But this 39-year-old Jewish band performer doesn’t see his job that way. "Part of my drive has been to dispel the stigma of the job by making it as phenomenal as it can be," Helperin said.

The job of a wedding singer is unlike that of other musicians, like a rock star or concert pianist, because a successful wedding band is one that you notice — and one you don’t. It’s the soundtrack of your wedding, but it’s also the background music.

"I want people to be comfortable speaking," Helperin said. "I don’t want to be the kind of performer that takes away from the bride and groom. At the same time, you need to be control. You say as little as possible but as much as you need to get the job done."

While Ghozland, a psychologist, and Hollander, an optometrist, helped Helperin narrow down the song list for their Labor Day wedding, they trusted Helperin enough to let him choose most of the material.

"Robbie’s very organized, which certainly helped," Hollander said. "I told him I wanted to dance all night. I didn’t want any rap. Basically dance music from the ’70s and ’80s."

At his Beverly Hills office, Helperin has binders filled with music culled from dozens of cultures. He uses the latest computer software to keep clients and schedules meticulously organized and cross-referenced.

For the big fat Jewish wedding, Helperin offers a wide variety of styles: Klezmer, Moroccan, Yemenite, Persian, Israeli Folk, Chasidic, Yiddish, Musica Mizrachit, modern Jewish rock, modern Jewish funk and modern Jewish disco.

"Most Jews are exposed to a very tiny percentage of the Jewish music out there," Helperin said.

Ghozland also needed some French standards to entertain her father’s Algerian-French side. The Simcha Orchestra offered "La Vie En Rose," the Moroccan tune "Porom Pom Pero" and, for the father-daughter dance, "Under Paris Skies" — all sung in French.

Helperin was a 24-year-old aspiring pop star who counted James Taylor and Billy Joel as inspirations when he joined the Simcha Orchestra, which was founded 20 years ago by Jerry Katz, a guitarist who had once performed with Shlomo Carlebach. "At the time, I had hair down to my shoulders," Helperin said, "Jerry asked, ‘You a musician?’ I said, ‘Yes.’"

Over time, Helperin’s role within the band expanded. After Katz made aliyah to Israel, Helperin inherited the Simcha Orchestra on June 5, 1993.

"The same day the business became mine was the day I got married," Helperin said. But he and the band didn’t perform at his own wedding. "My wife told me to take the day off."

With a wife to support and the details of his rapidly growing endeavor to oversee, Helperin put aside his pop-singer dreams. Under Helperin’s leadership, the Simcha Orchestra amassed a roster of musicians who have performed with Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Woody Herman, and have played for Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan and Quincy Jones.

The band’s present lineup includes guitarist Tom Bethke, bassist Chris Haller, Bob Faust on trumpet, Joel Lish on viola and singer Sareet Atias. Drummer Jay Setar has been with the band since the early 1980s. Recent additions include cellist Jan Kellie, trombonist Rob Kaufman, and violinist Jonathan Dysart.

Percussionist Jeff Stern — a Burbank resident who recently played at "Hallelu" and has worked with Craig Taubman, Sam Glaser and Debbie Friedman — had his very first Jewish gig under Katz’s Simcha Orchestra.

Woodwindist Geoff Nudell, who reconnected with junior high school pal Helperin six years ago, admitted that he does not get too sentimental doing weddings and b’nai mitzvah. "It’s a job. I don’t mean to sound callous, but I don’t have any emotional commitment," Nudell said.

Some gigs can be trying, especially religious weddings, which can demand long, uninterrupted performances from the band.

"The schedule is such so that there’s continuous music and intensity," said Nudell, who has played bass clarinet for the TV series "Monk" and on the "Undercover Brother" soundtrack. "Typically, the average hora is 30-45 minutes nonstop, so that can be taxing."

Helperin still dreams of returning to his original singer-songwriter aspirations. But for now, he has a wife, a 4-year-old boy and a 9-month-old girl to provide for.

"I really like what I do," Helperin said of leading the Simcha Orchestra. "It’s got a little element of everything I ever loved about music — I get to orchestrate and arrange, conduct, I get to sing, I get to make people happy. The only thing I miss is the songwriting. I’m still looking forward to getting back to that one day."

A Song in His Heart


Singer-pianist-archivist Michael Feinstein’s new album, his first with a symphony orchestra, is all standards and all Jewish.

"Using all Jewish composers didn’t take effort," Feinstein said, describing his latest CD, "Michael Feinstein With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra" (Concord Records, $17.98), released in May. In the liner notes, Feinstein explains, "It’s an extraordinary fact that most of the major American popular song composers of the 20th century were, for some inexplicable reason, Jewish."

Backing Feinstein on the album, which features about 50 years’ worth of songs from theater, films and cabaret, is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which turned itself into the biggest of big bands to work with Feinstein. The singer recorded the songs in spring 2001 in Tel Aviv, during his very first trip to Israel.

Feinstein sees his collaboration with the IPO as a musical thread in the struggle for peace in the Mideast, pointing out that the orchestra has been involved in programs bringing together Arab and Jewish musicians. He is donating proceeds from the new CD to the Arab-Jewish youth organization Seeds of Peace.

"I feel that music is a healing modality that can help bring peace," Feinstein told The Journal, adding that one of the cuts on the album, "Somewhere," is an homage to its composer, Leonard Bernstein, who had a long association with the IPO and "represented ideals of peace."

Feinstein and the IPO had been scheduled to play the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 26, but their eight-city American tour was canceled by its promoters. The orchestra denied that it faced security and insurance problems when it announced in late July that the tour was "postponed," but subsequent stories in the Los Angeles Times and Variety cite concerns over security affecting ticket sales and ability to obtain insurance as reasons for the tour’s cancellation.

Feinstein, 45, learned to play piano by ear as a small child in Columbus, Ohio, and as a teenager was playing weddings and parties. As a kid, he favored the show tunes his parents listened to rather than the rock and teen pop choices of his peers.

Classic American songs from theater and film, Feinstein told a reporter in April, "resonate in a way other music does not. It is music that transcends time."

A New York Times review of a June performance at Carnegie Hall described Feinstein as both an acolyte and a peer of his musical heroes, which include the Gershwins, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, "conversing with his idols in a musical time warp."

After graduating from high school, he began playing piano bars around Columbus instead of continuing in school. At one point, he told The Journal, he went to his mother and said, "Aren’t you even going to ask me about college?"

"My parents were very supportive of my music," Feinstein said. "My love for music came from them; they are truly responsible for my career."

He moved to Los Angeles in 1976 at age 20, and the following year, met lyricist Ira Gershwin, then about 80 years old, through June Levant, widow of pianist, comic actor, and Gershwin intimate Oscar Levant. Feinstein had obtained June Levant’s phone number and called her after coming across some obscure recordings of her husband’s work in a used record store.

Well-versed in the music of Gershwin’s era, Feinstein was put to work cataloging phonograph records, but eventually became Gershwin’s musical assistant, organizing his papers and bringing the latter-day world of show music into his home before Gershwin’s death in 1983.

Gershwin introduced Feinstein to Liza Minnelli; he’d been best man at the wedding of Minnelli’s parents, Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland. Minnelli, in turn, made possible Feinstein’s first big club date at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in 1986, which began a stream of high-profile club and concert performances, recordings and film and television appearances that shows no sign of drying up.

Feinstein said he’s "very devoted to the Jewish community," though not religious. His parents sent him to Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue in Columbus; Feinstein said he didn’t much like the classes, which met in a dingy basement. He complained to his folks until his mother visited the classroom and said, "My God, it is that bad."

When Feinstein chose not to have a bar mitzvah, "it was more of a scandal in the neighborhood than it was to my parents," he said.

His Ohio roots and his eponymous New York nightclub, Feinstein’s at the Regency, notwithstanding, Feinstein is very much an Angeleno, with a home in Los Feliz. As a young man new to Los Angeles, he played piano at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda twice a week, and he still goes back occasionally.

"I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else," Feinstein said. "I feel very connected to Los Angeles, and I feel very connected to the Jewish community here."

The Power of Music


"The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival" by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen (Warner Books $23.95).

Vienna, 1938. In the city of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Strauss, 14-year-old musical prodigy Lisa Jura looks forward to a promising career as a concert pianist. Hitler has other plans. With the breaking of glass on Kristallnacht, Jura’s dreams are shattered.

Internationally celebrated concert pianist Mona Golabek, with journalist and poet Lee Cohen, has crafted a loving, lyrical tribute to her mother, Lisa Jura, in "The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival."

Jura was one of 10,000 Jewish children saved from the Nazis by the British and sent on the Kindertransport to safety from Eastern Europe. Already being compared to "The Diary of Anne Frank," this simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting tale weaves together the stories that Golabek’s mother told her about prewar Austria; the gut-wrenching separation from her family; life at the orphanage on Willesden Lane; and the power of music to help her survive.

As Jura’s mother, Malka, puts her on the train, she says the prophetic words that will sustain and inspire her daughter and future generations: "Hold on to your music. Let it be your best friend."

In a world turned ugly, the beauty of music becomes Jura’s strength, and, against tremendous odds, with the help and encouragement of the 30 other displaced children at the orphanage, she wins a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy.

"Each kid saw something in my mother’s music that reminded them of what they had left behind in Czechoslovakia, in Austria, in Germany," says Golabek, a Grammy-nominated artist, "and that’s what I tried to do in the story, not only to pay homage to my mother, but to all these kids and to their bravery."

The book opens with Jura’s tantalizing daydream of performing in a great concert hall and closes with the fulfillment of that dream, as she makes her debut before an exhilarated crowd. And in between, the pages burst with melody: Jura pounding the cadenza of the Grieg "Piano Concerto" to drown out the sounds of bombs during London’s blitz, Jura visualizing Chopin fleeing a flaming Warsaw as she struggles with the somber coda of the "Ballade," Jura remembering her mother’s Sabbath candles as she plays the solemn opening of Beethoven’s "Pathetique."

"My mom and her mother never cared if a piece is in C major. What really counts is the passion behind it, the image. If it’s ‘Clair de Lune,’ imagine the moon over a desert island. That imagination allowed her to survive the horrors of what she experienced, because a C-major chord will not inspire you through the horrors. It’s the moonlight, the idea that maybe the composer wrote it for someone he loved. These things inflamed her imagination, and that’s how she inflamed mine."

And now Golabek’s book will inflame the imagination of a whole new generation. The Milken Family Foundation, together with Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization that teaches tolerance to 1 million students annually, are working with Golabek to bring the story to schools across the country by developing a companion curriculum guide.

Plans are under way to launch the book in Austria, and make it available to teachers as part of the now mandatory four-year Holocaust education program for students.

The saga of Golabek’s 18-year struggle to get the story published is almost as harrowing as her mother’s story itself. "It went through many, many writings; many, many ups and downs, starts and disappointments," Golabek says.

Now the accolades and offers are pouring in. On Sept. 24, she will be an honored guest speaker at the California Governor’s Conference for Women at the Long Beach Convention Center and will appear at Beth Am on Nov. 17 with her sister, pianist Renee Golabek-Kaye, and Jura’s four grandchildren, all musicians: Michele, 16; Sarah, 14; Jonathan, 8; and Rachel, 7. Brandeis University will honor her at the Skirball Cultural Center next March 31.

Last week Golabek was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition and was the subject of a feature story by Andy Meisler of the New York Times. In the planning stages is a concert next year co-sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Austrian government. And, of course, Golabek is considering movie offers.

On her syndicated radio show, "The Romantic Hours," which highlights stirring writings against a musical backdrop (Saturdays at 10 p.m., 105.1 FM), Golabek often quotes the poet Jean Paul Richter: "Life fades and withers behind us, but of our immortal and sacred soul all that remains is music."

"That was a quote my mother taught me, and the whole reason why I wrote this book and why I created ‘The Romantic Hours’ was that my mother felt through words and through music our souls would be immortalized."

7 Days in the Arts


30Saturday

The 50th anniversary revival of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman” won four Tony awards on Broadway last year, including Best Revival, and Best Actor for Brian Dennehy’s portrayal of Willy Loman. Now that Broadway production has come to the Ahmanson Theatre for just eight weeks, and this is your chance to see the heartbreaking, powerful show with an award-winning cast. $15-$60. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. Through November 5. 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772. For lower-priced student group and educator tickets, call (213) 972-7231.

1Sunday

Actress and stand-up comic Heidi Joyce brings together some of L.A.’s funniest women each Sunday in October for Stand-Up Against Domestic Violence. Featuring comics Stephanie Hodge, Karen Rontowski, Danielle Koenig and a host of others, the performances benefit local women’s shelters and other programs sponsored by Theatre of Hope. $15. 2 p.m. Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. For reservations or more information, call (818) 766-9702.

2Monday

Russian immigrant artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, working and performing together for 35 years as Komar & Melamid, are held responsible for initiating the “Sots” art movement, the Soviet equivalent of Western Pop Art. Perhaps best known for using a professional polling team to discover and produce “America’s Most Wanted Painting” (dishwasher-size, pastoral scene, color blue) and “America’s Most Unwanted Painting” (sharp angles, paperback-book-size, color teal or peach), the duo will team up with two American authors for a performance tonight at LACMA. With Ian Frazier and Dave Eggers, Komar & Melamid present “The Healing Power of Art,” which will be followed on Thursday by an evening of conversation with all four participants. 7:30 p.m. Bing Theater, LACMA East, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations or more information, call (323) 857-6088.

3Tuesday

The Fine Arts Division of Pepperdine University tonight presents its fall choral concert, “Reflection and Folklore.” The Pepperdine University Concert Choir, conducted by Milton Pullen, will perform J.S. Bach’s Motet No. 2, along with three Israeli folk songs, “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” “Zum Gali” and “Bashana Haba’ah.” 7:30 p.m. $10 (general admission); free (Pepperdine students, staff and faculty). Smother’s Theatre, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. For tickets or more information, call (310) 456-4522.

4Wednesday

Author and journalist Amram Duchovny, known for his book “David Ben Gurion: In His Own Words,” and for the Broadway play “Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald,” will be at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles tonight to discuss and sign copies of his first novel, “Coney.” Part noir thriller and part coming-of-age story, the novel is also a chronicle of 1930s Coney Island. If the author’s name sounds strangely familiar, yes, he is the father of “X-Files” star David Duchovny. 7 p.m.-9 p.m. 6006 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations or more information, call (323) 761-8648.

5Thursday

Pianist Charles Fierro has recorded the piano works of Aaron Copland under the auspices of the great composer himself. Tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center, in honor of Copland’s centennial anniversary, Fierro performs an evening of his piano compositions, including the Passacaglia Piano Sonata, Piano Variations, and Piano Fantasy. 8 p.m. $15 (general admission); $12 (members); $10 (students). Magnin Auditorium, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is also having a gala and benefit concert in honor of a great musician’s birthday. Beloved violinist Issac Stern celebrates his 80th with the help of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The evening is the opening concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season. 7 p.m. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets or more information, call (323) 850-2000. For Gala dinner information, call (213) 972-3051.

6Friday

For more music, in a less formal vein, catch a performance by Roy Zimmerman at the Beverly Hills Public Library, where the singing satirist’s political folk songs will kick off the library’s “October Surprise” series of political comedy shows. As a founder of funny folk heroes The Foremen, and in his own solo career, Zimmerman’s writing and performing have earned him constant comparisons to the master of the genre, Tom Lehrer. 8 p.m. $15. Beverly Hills Public Library, 444 N. Rexford Dr., Beverly Hills. For reservations or more information, call (310) 471-3979.

Jazz With Jewish Roots


“George Gershwin Alone,” the only one-man show ever permitted by the heirs of the composer for the commercial stage, began in the shadow of the Holocaust.

The year was 1995. Actor-pianist-composer Hershey Felder, fluent in French, Hebrew, Yiddish and English, had been invited to Poland to conduct interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Late one wintry night, he was summoned to the Cafe Haus in the old Jewish section of Cracow, where Helmuth Spryczer, who as a youth had been pressed into service as gofer to the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, described how he used to amuse the Auschwitz guards by whistling Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The piece saved his life, Spryczer said, though as he whistled he heard in the notes the clackity-clack of the cattle-cars and the screams of the dying. As Felder played the piece on the cafe’s honky-tonk piano, well past midnight, he heard the screams, too.

Three years later, his monologue “SING! A Musical Journey” told the story of the survivor and the “Rhapsody” and earned mostly good reviews at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. The Los Angeles Times, in a laudatory notice, said that viewers would “never hear the ‘Rhapsody’ the same way again.” Gershwin’s heirs were not pleased. Apparently they were concerned that the play associated their forebear with the Holocaust.

Soon thereafter, Felder received a letter from an official at Warner/Chappell Music ordering him to cease performing the “Rhapsody” during his play. He had not secured the proper rights, the official said. Felder, now 31, was perplexed. A musical prodigy who had made his concert debut at age 11, he had performed the “Rhapsody” no fewer than 500 times; he would never disparage the piece or its composer. The “Rhapsody” was, in a way, his signature piece, the one a childhood friend had suggested he learn to make a name for himself. Felder knew he needed to convince the Gershwins that his play lauded the “Rhapsody” for saving a life.

Discreetly, he acquired the telephone number of Gershwin’s nephew, Leopold Godowsky III, through cabaret artist Michael Feinstein. Shaking, he picked up the telephone.

Over the next year, the Montreal native, who hails from a prominent Canadian rabbinical family, befriended the Gershwin heirs in Los Angeles and New York. The pianist even hosted the bris of the composer’s great-grandnephew at the Canadian consular residence in Hancock Park, where he lives with consul general Kim Campbell, the former Canadian prime minister, who is in her early 50’s and, Felder says, his “partner in life and in art.”

Three generations of Gershwins filed past the massive wooden portal of the brick mansion, adorned with the mezuzah that had been a gift to Felder and Campbell from actor Chaim Topol. In the vast living room decorated with gilded mirrors and frescoed portals, they raptly listened as Felder serenaded the baby with a performance of the “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Around the same time, a screenwriter friend suggested to Felder that he scrap the idea for “SING!” as his Broadway debut. A Holocaust-themed play, after all, wasn’t the way to make a big splash in New York. Why not write a one-man show about George Gershwin, she suggested. Felder’s physical resemblance to the late Jewish-American composer was striking, after all.

The pianist’s response was prompt. “The Gershwins will never let me do it,” he said.Nevertheless, he began to write the play, without formal permission; he waited nervously after performing the work-in-progress for the Gershwins at Steinway Hall in New York in June 1999. Two weeks later, word came from Adam Gershwin, the composer’s great-nephew: Felder was in.

The ecstatic performer, who has appeared in Montreal’s famed Yiddish theater, promptly stepped up efforts to research his piece. To complete the play, he interviewed Gershwin’s surviving friends and biographers on both coasts and dictated all the composer’s correspondence into a tape recorder at the Library of Congress.

Eighty-nine-year-old actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, Gershwin’s old friend, sang “The Man I Love” as Felder accompanied her at the piano, just as the composer had done decades earlier. Between songs, she told Felder that at a Passover seder, Gershwin and his pianist pal, Oscar Levant, once sung the entire haggadah to jazz melodies.

“George Gershwin Alone,” now at the Tiffany Theatre, reveals a Gershwin who was not just an American composer, but an American-Jewish composer. Born Jacob Gershovitz, he was “the son of immigrants looking to find his own voice, a new voice, one that could belong to him,” Felder says. That new voice was jazz.

Yet the Jewish influence is also apparent in Gershwin’s work. Listeners have suggested that his song “‘S Wonderful” borrows from Abraham Goldfaden’s Yiddish musical “Noah’s Ark” and that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” owes a bit to the melody of the haftarah blessings. Gershwin’s father, Morris (né Moishe) called “Rhapsody in Blue” the “Rhapsody for Jews”; Henry Ford, the industrialist and anti-Semite, referred to the piece as part of a Jewish plot to contaminate America with “bestial” African music.

One of the more amusing segments of “George Gershwin Alone” describes how Gershwin’s Russian-born mother, Rose, attended a dress rehearsal of his opera “Porgy and Bess,” only to scream from the back of the theater the moment the lights dimmed. “George, George, who made the dresses?” she lamented. “These are poor people, but they’re dressed fancy, like they’re coming from a Bar Mitzvah!”

Rose then marched the entire cast down to the Lower East Side, where she found a shmatta salesman and ordered the actors to don some of his old, wrinkled clothing. She stepped back, and took a look. “From this, I approve,” she said.

Whether or not Gershwin’s heirs will approve enough of the production to allow Felder to take the show on to Chicago and New York remains to be seen, but the performer is optimistic. “When you treat something seriously, people respect you,” says Felder, who concludes the play with a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

“The standing ovation is not for me,” adds the Steinway concert artist. “It’s for George Gershwin, and that is how I want it.”

“George Gershwin Alone” runs through June 25 at the Tiffany, 8532 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (310) 289-2999.

Spectator


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.


The Arts


Actor-composer Hershey Felder, 29, has a way with politicians.

Mayor Richard Riordan has asked him to collaborate on a musical. And Felder is writing another musical with Kim Campbell, Canada’s former prime minister and the country’s current consul general in Los Angeles. Last week, she hosted a luncheon to promote Felder’s one-man show, “Sing! A Musical Journey,” which comes to UCLA’s Freud Playhouse on March 11 and runs through March 15.

So why are pols drawn to the pianist? Perhaps it’s because Felder, a Steinway Concert Artist, is also a Renaissance man. He began performing on the concert stage at the age of 11, and, as a boy, he acted with Montreal’s Yiddish Theater. By 1988, he was touring the world as a pianist and actor. Fluent in English, French, Yiddish and Hebrew, he has also interviewed Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Last week, a reporter caught up with Felder during the “Sing!” luncheon at the Canadian consular residence in Hancock Park. Felder cooked all the food for the luncheon, which featured an incongruous menu that included chicken soup, stuffed cabbage and pieroges — the childhood food of the Holocaust survivors profiled in “Sing!” Felder said.

Actually, Felder moved into the consular residence after he and Campbell, 50, fell in love while collaborating on “Noah’s Arc,” a Holocaust allegory, last year. Today, an enormous menorah, a Passover plate and a mezuzah are displayed amid the fine furniture in the elegant ballroom; once a month, Felder and Campbell host a Shabbat dinner for some 35 guests. He supervises all the cooking; she recites some of the brachot.

The two had met when Felder came to the consulate in fall 1996 to renew his passport for a trip to Auschwitz. Campbell then persuaded him to perform selections from “Sing!” at a star-studded Christmas party; eventually, the two became “a unified couple in life and in art,” Felder said.

At first glance, however, the collaborators seem an unusual couple. Felder, the artist, comes from a family of Holocaust survivors and Orthodox rabbis. Campbell, the attorney and politician, is of Protestant, Scotch-Irish extraction. She served as Canada’s first female attorney general, defense minister, justice minister and prime minister, the latter a brief, turbulent term in 1993.

Nevertheless, Campbell told a reporter, her collaboration with Felder makes sense and is, in fact, beshert. In college, she used to write for the musical theater. And all her life, she has been deeply affected by the Holocaust.

Campbell grew up with the World War II stories of her parents, both veterans; as a child, she devoured Holocaust-themed books such as Leon Uris’ “Mila 18.” Her first husband was Jewish, she said, and, as Canada’s justice minister, she oversaw the deportation of the first Nazi war criminal from Canada.

“Sing!” she believes, personalizes the enormity of the Holocaust. In the play, Felder transforms into several survivors and also tells his own story of survival. His mother died of cancer when he was only 13. Thereafter, he clung to the piano and to the music lessons he had previously despised. “That was all [I] had left of her to hold onto,” he said.

After the “Sing!” run, Felder and Campbell will redouble their efforts on “Noah’s Arc,” which they’re hoping to stage as soon as June. “If we have a good response, it will be tempting for me to do this full time at some point,” said Campbell, the co-lyricist.

Actor-composer Hershey Felder in “Sing!”

‘I am Tateh’


After months of rehearsal as a poor immigrant struggling to protect his daughter, Rubinstein has forged a close bond with Danielle Weiner, the young actress who plays Little Girl
In “Ragtime,” the part of Tateh, a widowed, immigrant Jew who comes to New York with a young daughter in tow, is in many ways a role that is especially close to the heart of actor John Rubinstein.

“Twenty years ago, I wanted that part,” said Rubinstein, who was “thrilled” to be approached for the role in the new musical. “I am Tateh. Like him, I have artistic aspirations. I enjoy the art of acting, but, ultimately, I’m Daddy.” (He is the father of four children who range in age from infancy to adulthood.)

Both as a father and as a son, Rubinstein had plenty of material from which to build this character. His father, world-renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who first visited the United States in 1906, the year that “Ragtime” begins.

“My parents were older, particularly my father, who was 61, when I was born,” he said. “They both had such vivid memories of that period. My mother remembers fleeing Lithuania after the Russians took over. She and her family moved to Warsaw, where her father — a conductor — founded the Warsaw Opera. She was Catholic, so for her, it was all about nationality, about Russia confiscating her family’s property…. Their estate was on a rather large piece of land. It was almost Chekhovian.

“For my father, being a Polish Jew was the flip side of that experience. It wasn’t about Polish nationalism in the least. They left in ’38 or ’39, before I was born — first to Paris and then to the U.S. When they fled Hitler, the Gestapo took over their Paris house and robbed it of everything, including a portrait of my father by Picasso.”

Years later, the Rubinsteins traveled back to Poland. It was then when the enormity of the Holocaust began to take shape in the young actor’s mind.

“We went back in 1958, when I was 12 years old,” he said. “A huge swarm of people came to meet us from my mother’s side. ‘I’m your granduncle,’ this one was saying. That one is your second cousin, and so on. Amid this mass of people, just one young man approached my father — a nephew of some sort who had survived. Just him. It was then that I really got it.”

Rubinstein said that while his father was never particularly religious, “he was a proud Jew and a staunch Zionist” who remained tremendously involved with Israel. “You know, after 1914, my father said he’d never play again in Germany, and he never did.”

After months of rehearsal as a poor immigrant struggling to protect his daughter, Rubinstein has forged a close bond with Danielle Weiner, the young actress who plays Little Girl, Tateh’s mostly silent daughter.

“I adore her,” he said. “After every show, I get down on my knees and thank her for her energy. She’s my partner. Eighty percent of my role, in a sense, is addressed to her. Her support and good acting make it work. And sometimes, she tells me to remember my props.” — Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Go to The Jewish Journal’s 7 DAYS IN THE ARTS

America, Set to Music


Coalhouse Walker Jr.
(Brian Stokes Mitchell),
a ragtime pianist brimming
with confidence and plans
for the future

America, Set to Music

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Broadway-

bound

‘Ragtime’

reaches

deep

into the

heart of

Doctorow’s

novel and

pulls out

a rousing,

epic musical

After the countless ads, fluff pieces and an advance press packet thick enough to choke a horse, the question hung in the celebrity-studded lobby of the Shubert Theatre last Sunday evening: Could “Ragtime” pull it off?

The answer is a resounding yes. Fans of “big” musicals who may have been unmoved by the direction the genre has taken in recent years will be heartened by “Ragtime,” a sweeping and ambitious $10 million production with a soul. Librettist Terrence McNally, director Frank Galati, musical composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have created an epic musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel that places its stirring, human-scale narrative front and center.

The syncopated music made famous by Scott Joplin is the show’s central metaphor — marking the beginning of a new century humming with energy and the promise of big changes to come.

“Ragtime” begins in 1906, and the entire company is on stage for the stylish and rousing opening number that sets the scene: It was the music of something beginning/ an era exploding/ a century spinning in riches and rags/ and in rhythm and rhyme. The people called it Ragtime….”

It’s a smartly staged introduction to the three narrative strands that constitute the story. The gentry of New Rochelle, dressed in costume designer Santo Loquasto’s creamy Victorian whites and twirling lacy parasols, sings sweetly of their America, a smugly romantic place destined for a rude awakening. Their world was an affluent WASP idyll where, “there were no Negroes or immigrants….”

Suddenly, the African-American members of the cast twirl to the foreground, dancing with defiant joy to the syncopated new rhythms of rag, determined to bust loose into a new age. Both groups are then joined by a gaggle of immigrants. Jews in shtreimels and beards, babushkas and shawls, rush warily to center stage, only to huddle uncertainly in the middle. They glance back and forth between the black and white ensembles, which square off and face each other in a dance buzzing with tension and the threat of conflict. It’s a compressed, evocative tableau of American history, and one of many pleasurable moments in the play when Graciela Daniele’s inventive choreography adds dramatic punch to the proceedings.

Understandably, certain plot points from Doctorow’s sprawling, intricate novel have been cut. Even so, this “Ragtime” is a tapestry of interweaving stories that adheres more closely to the spirit and scope of the book than Milos Forman’s ponderous and lopsided film adaptation.

At the outset, “Mother,” “Father,” “Younger Brother” and “The Little Boy” live a charmed and bucolic life in New Rochelle. All of that is destined to change after Father (John Dossett), a pompous and hidebound traditionalist, leaves with Admiral Peary for a yearlong expedition to the North Pole. In his absence, the heatedly idealistic Younger Brother finds that his walloping juvenile crush on vaudeville sex symbol Evelyn Nesbit metamorphoses into a passion for radical justice, sparked by the fiery rhetoric of anarchist Emma Goldman one night in Union Square.

Meanwhile, Mother (Marcia Mitzman Gaven) has taken in a young and frightened black woman and her newborn son. It is Sarah (LaChanze), on the run from a failed romance with the handsome Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell). Coalhouse, a ragtime pianist brimming with confidence and plans for the future, is unaware of the birth of his child and determined to find his lost love. After they reunite in all-white New Rochelle, Coalhouse takes to visiting Sarah at Mother’s house every Sunday, driving there in his beloved new Model-T Ford. The weekly specter of “the nigger” in his gleaming automobile, however, infuriates the men of the town’s largely Irish volunteer fire department. Seething with hatred, they destroy Coalhouse’s car, setting the story’s tragedy in motion.

Back in the city, the immigrant Tateh (John Rubinstein) and The Little Girl (Danielle Weiner) are trying to scrabble out an existence on the teeming Lower East Side. A struggling artist, Tateh cuts out silhouettes for a nickel apiece. But as he and his daughter sink deeper into poverty, his dream of life in the goldene medina rapidly darkens into a relentless nightmare. They flee New York, get caught up in a violent labor strike in a Massachusetts mill town, and finally find salvation through Tateh’s little handmade “movie books,” crude cutout images that seem to move as one flips the pages. After the books become a modest hit, Tateh invents a primitive film projector and scores success in the early movie business as director “Baron Ashkenazi.”

It’s a daunting mosaic of a plot, but McNally and company prove themselves up to the challenge. The real-life historical figures who peppered the original narrative — Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and escapologist Harry Houdini — are used artfully here, both as metaphors of an age and as bits of our collective past come to life. Only Evelyn Nesbit (Susan Wood), whose celebrity as “the girl on the swing” was sealed after her millionaire husband murdered her lover, architect Stanford White, fails to become a meaningful thread in this tapestry. Instead, she remains a free-floating bit of camp history, never resonating on a deeper level.

“Ragtime” producer Garth Drabinsky held exhaustive Los Angeles auditions for the cast, and, by and large, it’s a solid and able company.

The elegant Mitchell, a charismatic baritone who soars in his role as Coalhouse, is the sole holdover from the Toronto production. He infuses the doomed hero with feline grace and stiff-necked nobility. Coalhouse was always a compelling character, even if his early optimism about America is a bit of a puzzle. In lesser hands, Coalhouse could easily ring false, a maddeningly naïve riff on the Brother from Another Planet. But Mitchell’s expressive portrayal is, at once, specific and larger than life — a metaphor for how our best hopes of America persist in spite of everything. It makes his descent into rage and despair a fall that has consequences for all of us.

Some other performances stand out. The patrician-looking Gaven is luminescent as Mother. LaChanze, in the smaller role of Sarah, is able to stir the back row of the theater with her piercing “Your Daddy’s Son” and “The Wheels of a Dream.” As Tateh, Rubinstein is fine in “Gliding,” a bittersweet lullaby to his daughter flavored with Jewish melody. But he is most winning here as an actor. Despite his role as the archetypal immigrant, he studiously avoids any whiff of schmaltz, and is especially good in a boardwalk scene with Mother.

Flaherty’s musical score is blessedly free of the forgettable segue numbers that dilute much of musical theater. Ahrens’ lyrics neatly enrich the characterizations and propel the story forward with depth and style. They are moving but not manipulative — even in numbers where the temptation to woo us with false sentimentality may have been great. “He Wanted to Say,” “Back to Before” and “Till We Reach That Day,” an aching anthemlike ballad against racism, are vivid cases in point.

Eugene Lee’s fun and evocative set is money well spent. During the number “Success,” J.P. Morgan strides self-importantly along a catwalk that slowly descends to crush the hopeful plebes below. In a memorable Ellis Island scene that looks like a sepia photo come to
life, bedraggled immigrants rush forward with their documents at the ready, their hope impervious to the succession of barred gates that slam shut in front of them with each advancing step. They, like Coalhouse, Sarah and the rest, are looking for the country of their dreams. Instead, what they get in “Ragtime” is America — “a strange new music,” as powerful and dissonant today as it was a century ago.

“Ragtime” plays at the Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. It closes on Sept. 7. Tickets are available at the theater box office or by calling (800) 447-7400.

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