Versatile Israeli Violinist Gains ‘Dream’ Hip-Hop Hit


Perusing the hot R & B/Rap Billboard charts, one does not expect to see a red-headed Israeli artist — replete with a classic “Jewfro” mop of curls — represented by the No. 3 song. ” TARGET=”_blank”>Miri Ben-Ari, however, doing the unexpected is standard fodder; so it should come as no surprise that her new single, “Symphony of Brotherhood” (featuring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech weaving in and out of an extended string solo) topped the charts just one month after its radio release.

Given the violin diva’s penchant for multitasking high-profile projects, it also should come as no surprise that topping the charts is just a drop in the bucket for Ben-Ari. Since April, she has been featured on billboards internationally as the poster girl for Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” campaign; in May, she and Israeli hip-hop mogul, Subliminal, recorded a video, “Classit VeParsi” (Classical and Persian) — which topped Israel’s video charts.

Next Ben-Ari went on national tour with the popular hip-hop group, The Roots, even as she was getting ready to release a hip-hop single about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, VH1 announced her as a new artist working with its Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to restore instrumental music education in U.S. public schools.

For many, it’s exhausting just to read Ben-Ari’s list of accomplishments, but the artist is full of energy. She is, after all, on a mission: “I want to bring music back,” she said matter-of-factly. “In an era where everything is music samples, I’m representing a movement that’s turning to live music again.”

Ben-Ari grew up as a classically trained violinist in Israel, and as a child prodigy, she caught the attention of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Though she bowed to the top of one music competition after another, Ben-Ari was convinced that the classical scene was not for her.

“The whole time, I knew I wasn’t going to be a classical violinist,” she explained. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was really good with the violin. It was fun playing so fast on the instrument — almost like a sport. But I wasn’t feeling the orchestra thing.”

At 17, Ben-Ari won a scholarship to study music in Boston, where she was exposed to jazz for the first time. After hearing a Charlie Parker CD, she knew where her future lay.

“I had to study whatever it was that Parker was doing,” she said. “I had to be able to improvise like he did. I had to learn that language!”

Following obligatory service in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari packed her bags and moved to the Big Apple — where she hustled gigs every night. “If I walked into a club, and there was a stage,” she said, “I’d pull out my violin and play. If there was no stage, I’d still play. At first I’d get my ass kicked. But you go home, practice all day and go out and get your ass kicked again.”

Persistence and gutsy acts — which Ben-Ari attributes to Israeli chutzpah — got her noticed by jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and the late Betty Carter, as well as by hip-hop moguls like Kanye West and Wycleff Jean. Once the heavyweights got into her act, it was not long before Ben-Ari had played Carnegie Hall, The Apollo, and Jay Z’s Summer Jam — where she received a standing ovation from 20,000 screaming audience members.

“I was a nobody,” Ben-Ari chuckled, “but I had the second feature, after Missy Elliot.”

Since then, Ben-Ari has gone on to record and perform with pop icons like Alicia Keys and Britney Spears, and she won a Grammy in 2004 for her violin chops on Kanye West’s smash-hit single, “Jesus Walks.”

It is heartening to know that someone so openly Jewish and Israeli can receive so much love from the non-Jewish world.

“Wycleff Jean and Jay Z put me on the map,” Ben-Ari said with passion. “They were not Jewish white people. I’ll never forget that. This is also why I relate to [African American] history. I’ve been working with them. I got embraced by the black community, more than any other community — including the Jewish community. They loved me like one of their own.”

The fact that she is Israeli, Ben-Ari continued, actually strengthens her connection to African Americans, whether Jewish or not. “Struggle relates to struggle,” she said. “They appreciate that I’m from Israel, because I’m coming from struggle.”

That mutual struggle, Ben-Ari continued, was in fact the inspiration for her recent hit single: “MLK is the hero for the black American struggle. Of course, if you’re coming from a struggle yourself, you can’t help comparing…. It always crosses my mind — if we had MLK in Nazi Germany, would it have helped?

Would it have affected the outcome of the Jewish Holocaust?”

These kinds of questions are what led Ben-Ari to work on the Holocaust hip-hop single, due to be released in the coming months.

“It’s almost like they say, ‘music is therapy,'” she explained. “It’s a way to deal. There is no other way for me.”

Four Ways to Hear the Days of Awe


The Days of Awe evoke many feelings, but my first thoughts invariably turn to the special music of these days. From the solemn, almost brooding melody of Kol Nidre to the lilting “High Holiday” tune that unifies the music of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is much in which to delight.

Perhaps because this is the only synagogue music that many Jews hear all year, there are fewer alternative versions of the High Holiday liturgy than of, say, “Lecha Dodi” or “Adon Olam.” Still, these albums should help put you in a proper frame of mind.

Leonard Bernstein — “Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish)” and “Chichester Psalms” (Milken Archive/Naxos).

For all his conservatory training, for all the years as musical director of great orchestras, Bernstein was fundamentally a man of the theater; his symphonic and choral works owe more to the stage than to the recital hall. These two Jewish-themed compositions from the 1960s offer a reminder of his powerful sense of drama.

As performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic directed by Gerard Schwarz, the emphasis falls rather unflatteringly on the composition’s occasionally forced drama, amplified by Willard White’s stentorian delivery of Bernstein’s text (which the composer himself admitted was “corny”).

But nobody expresses yearning better than Bernstein: Think about the love songs from “West Side Story” or “Some Other Time” and “Lonely Town” from “On the Town.” The soprano solo, beautifully sung by Yvonne Kenny, in the middle of the symphony is one of the most moving examples of this emotion in all his work.

By contrast, “Chichester Psalms” is remarkably gentle, almost sweet.

Bernstein apparently disdained the piece for precisely that reason, yet it is one of the most effective expressions of both his Jewishness and his deeply spiritual side. This version, featuring Michael White, is quite handsome.

Available at www.amazon.com

Moshe Schulhof — “Moshe Schulhof Sings the Classics: The World’s Greatest Cantorials” (Emes Recordings)

There is a long-standing argument between composers and cantors over what is better to render honor to the Almighty: works that congregants can sing or more difficult, great music written for performance by great voices. To what extent is worship fundamentally participatory? Or can you also find spiritual satisfaction in merely listening?

A powerful argument on behalf of listening comes from recordings of the great cantors of “golden age” chazzans, the Rosenblatts and Sirotas and Hershmanns who dominated Jewish liturgical music in the first third of the 20th century. Schulhof, a powerhouse tenor, very consciously invokes that tradition, offering new renditions of recitatives by Moshe Koussevitsky, Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota and others, backed by the Yuval International Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Mordecai Sobol. Schulhof has the same kind of big, operatic voice as his predecessors (although his top is a bit nasal) and if his recordings of these pieces are a bit studied, they are nevertheless impressive for their sheer pyrotechnics.

Available through Hatikvah Music, 436 Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles or www.hatikvahmusic.com.

Greg Siegle — “Vessels” (MindzEye Music)

Siegle, a young acoustic guitarist in the John Fahey-Leo Kottke vein, has turned his quick, expressive hands to Jewish music. The tunes he essays are mostly familiar ones from Shlomo Carlebach, but he gives them a refreshingly light reading. The result is a very pleasant diversion that should make its way onto a lot of turntables as a prelude to sundown and the holy days.

Available from gsiegle@pitt.edu.

Craig Taubman — “Inscribed: Songs for Holy Days” (Craig and Co.)

There is something about the intensity of the High Holidays experience that brings out the best in Jewish composers. Craig Taubman’s previous folk- and pop-tinged CDs have seldom displayed spiritual emotional heat, but “Inscribed” is a cut above his previous work. The production is less busy and Taubman allows his sweet, light tenor to carry more emotional weight. The simplicity of his tunes works to their benefit here, because the weightiness of the themes don’t require anything trickier. The result is Taubman’s best album to date, as befits the solemnity of the Days of Awe.

Available at www.craignco.com

 

Long-Hair Music Gets Kid’sBuzz Cut in ‘Beethoven’s Wig’


Move over Baby Mozart and Baby Bach. If you really want your children to learn the classics — and know the composer’s name to boot — check out “Beethoven’s Wig, Sing Along Symphonies.” The Grammy-nominated release by Richard Perlmutter adds witty lyrics to some of classical music’s best-loved pieces.

The CD’s title, for example, is from the lyrics set to the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: “Beethoven’s wig, is very big.” And while the lyrics are fun for children, adults will appreciate the droll humor. Regarding the finger speed of pianist Franz Liszt, Perlmutter croons that Liszt “could play the minute waltz so quickly that he’d end in 30 seconds flat.”

Last month, Perlmutter released a follow-up album, “Beethoven’s Wig II, More Sing Along Symphonies,” which proves equally amusing and addicting. Listen a few times and you’ll find yourself singing along with such lyrics as those accompanying Mendelssohn’s Wedding March: “Oh, what a wedding cake, it stands over six stories high….” In both CD’s, the sing-along versions are followed by orchestral versions without lyrics.

As a child, Perlmutter built his own guitar (“It was pretty bad,” he admitted) and later worked as a song leader at Stephen S. Wise Temple and other area synagogues in the 1980s. Perlmutter, who has produced several albums for children, was educated at the business and architecture schools at Yale.

“Music didn’t seem like the type of thing you could do as a career,” he said. Looks like he’s turned that theory on its head.

Selections from “Beethoven’s Wig” will be performed at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA, Reading by 9 Stage, on Saturday, April 24, at 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 25, at 1:30 p.m.

For more information, visit www.beethovenswig.com .

Classical Klezmer


What do you do when your symphony season hinges on a theme of celebration, but your country is still reeling from terrorism? When your opening concert features a piece called "Suite for Klezmer Band and Orchestra," and the klezmer band cancels?

If you are Noreen Green, artistic director, conductor and founder of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS), you find another band and you put on the show. "I think it’s important we get on with our lives," she says. "Jews are no strangers to tragedy. Our music has reflected our hopes, our dreams and our tragedies."

When the Swiss klezmer band Kol Simcha canceled after the Sept. 11 attacks, Green called up the spirited three-piece Hollywood Klezmer, longtime friends of the symphony. And on with the show.

On Dec. 2, Green’s dedication to Jewish orchestral music bears fruit once again in the LAJS’ eighth season opening concert, featuring the eclectic range of composers and musical styles for which the symphony is known. For the first half of the "Celebrate Joy" concert, LAJS offers a musical Chanukah, with Peter Yarrow’s "Light One Candle," Zamir Bavel’s "Hanukkah Rhapsody" and selections from Aminadav Aloni’s "Or Ha-am."

Then the symphony really gets cooking with Hollywood Klezmer, playing Sid Robinovitch’s "Suite," blending klezmer with elements of burlesque and even tango, for a little extra holiday spice.

Not a Jewish music expert? Not to worry, Green is that rare conductor who interacts with listeners and explains the music, "so the audience isn’t walking into a vacuum," she says. "And they walk out feeling not only did they hear great music, but their spirits have been lifted, and they learned something. And people are hungry for that."

"Celebrate Joy" concert Sunday, Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m. $25-$45. K.L. Peters Auditorium, Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Ave., Beverly Hills. For tickets, call (818) 753-6681.

Symphonic Globe Trotter


It says something about Gisele Ben-Dor’s dedication to her profession that when she made her conducting debut with the Israel Philharmonic in 1983, she was nine months pregnant.

Her concluding piece was Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which, in view of her particular condition, was renamed by the orchestra as “The Rite of the Offspring.”

“All during the performance he didn’t move, but as soon as it was over, he did a mambo,” recalls Ben-Dor. The musically attuned fetus was born two weeks later as the first of her three children, and named Roy.

These days, Ben-Dor leads a bi-coastal existence as musical director and conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony, musical director of the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and wife and mother of the Ben-Dor clan in Englewood Cliffs in New Jersey.

The conductor, an effervescent blue-eyed blonde, was born 43 years ago in Uruguay, the daughter of Leon and Selva Buka, who had emigrated from Poland in the early 1930s.

The Buka family made a permanent move to Israel in 1973, a few months before the Yom Kippur War, and settled in a small apartment in Ramat Gan.

Gisele studied at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and in 1980 enrolled at Yale’s School of Conducting.

Shortly after her Yale graduation in 1982, her budding talent was recognized by Leonard Bernstein, who adopted her as one of his last protégés and sharpened her skills with the Tanglewood Young Artists Orchestra.

In 1994, in the best Hollywood a-star-is-born tradition, she stepped in at the last minute for the ailing Kurt Masur to conduct the New York Philharmonic without a rehearsal, score or baton. Of course, she was a smash.

Twice a year, she returns to Israel, where her parents still live, to conduct the Israel Philharmonic.

Ben-Dor is only one of three women conductors leading prominent orchestras, and her gender inevitably comes in for comment by audiences and critics.

“If I worried about (the audience’s perception), I would become self-conscious,” she says. “I have conducted since I was 12 years old. Being a woman conductor may not be normal to the outside world, but it’s normal to me. I must say that since I came to the United States, I have been given every opportunity, and I hope I deserve it.”

Some 60 percent of orchestra members live in Los Angeles and during the season make the 200-mile round trip to Santa Barbara four times a week.

Harking back to her birthplace, Ben-Dor is rapidly gaining a reputation as the premier interpreter of the works of Latin American composers.

Leading her orchestra, she recently recorded, for the first time, the ballet score from, “La Cornela” by Mexico’s Silvestre Revueltas. Due out in the next few months is the world premiere recording of the “Amerindia” symphony by Heitor Villa Lobos.

“Maestra Ben-Dor,” noted the Los Angeles Times music critic, “is just the conductor we have been looking for to make a really persuasive case for Latin composers.”