‘Mission’ accomplished for hybrid composer Lalo Schifrin — with new book and CD

As a recent Sunday afternoon interview wound down, composer Lalo Schifrin got up from the couch in his Beverly Hills studio and went over to a baby grand. Launching into Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” then into two jazz standards, “Cherokee” and “Israel,” he effortlessly illustrated how seamlessly harmonic ideas in classical and jazz music intersect.

Bridging the perceived gap between, say, Beethoven and Ellington has been one of his lifelong goals, ever since he first discovered jazz as a 16-year-old living in Buenos Aires.

“You see in ‘Cherokee’ how the Ravel chords are used as a bridge?” Schifrin asked. Suddenly the 76-year-old composer, conductor and pianist, who will be honored on Sept. 21 with a lifetime achievement award at the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival, seemed like a teenager.

“It’s the harmonies of Ravel and Debussy that attract jazz musicians,” he said. “I once showed Dizzy Gillespie Ravel’s ‘Histoires naturelles’ for voice and piano. He heard one passage and said, ‘Oh, this will go well with Monk’s ‘Round Midnight.’ From then on we had to play it with the Ravel chords.”

Schifrin played in the trumpet virtuoso’s jazz group from 1958 to 1963, when he came to Hollywood and started composing for television and film. His most famous work is probably the Latin-flavored theme from “Mission: Impossible.” But he’s also written classic scores for “Bullitt” and three Academy Award-nominated films, “The Fox,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Voyage of the Damned.” Schifrin also scored four of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” films. Schifrin explained that sometimes the best film music is none at all.

About one of his most celebrated film scores, Schifrin said, “Everybody tells me I wrote a fantastic car chase sequence in ‘Bullitt,’ but I didn’t. I wrote tension and suspense up to the moment where Steve McQueen puts his Mustang into gear.”

Schifrin seems most proud of his “Jazz Meets the Symphony,” a musical encounter that he hopes will be a “celebration of walls and fences coming down” and the “merging of two cultural heritages.” He was scheduled to play and conduct the piece in Paris on Sept. 13.

Schifrin’s autobiography, “Mission Impossible: My Life in Music” (edited by Richard Palmer, Scarecrow Press, $35, includes CD), which just hit bookstores, looks at his early years living under the fascist Peron regime in Argentina, his subsequent studies with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory and his evolution into one of Hollywood’s elite composers.

Schifrin left Argentina in 1952, returning four years later. By the early ’60s, however, he was solidly planted in Hollywood. The many military dictatorships that followed Peron’s made it impossible for him to attend his father’s funeral in Buenos Aires in 1979. By that time, Schifrin was under a death threat.

Schifrin’s father was concertmaster of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, and his uncle was principal cellist. His father thought young Boris — Schifrin legally changed it to “Lalo,” which is a nickname for Claudio, his middle name — might be better off as a classical musician. He studied with pianist Daniel Barenboim’s father, Enrique, who used to whack his fingers with a sharp pencil whenever he made a mistake. “That was the way musical education was at that time,” he said.

Although he later rebelled, Schifrin now seems grateful for the European musical education instilled in him by his father. When he was 9, he played Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Teatro Colon with Erich Kleiber conducting. By then, Schifrin had already seen and absorbed operas, ballets and symphonies.

Looking back, Schifrin says his father did finally accept his unusual hybrid career, which fuses jazz with the European tradition of classical music. No doubt he would be proud of his son’s four Grammy awards and six Oscar nominations — and that past honorees for the Temecula Festival lifetime achievement award have included Ray Charles, Karl Malden, Robert Wise and Etta James.

The composer said his father thought the tango was “vulgar,” but his natural feel for that sultry urban dance may have saved him from a night in jail. He was coming home late one night in Buenos Aires when two policemen spotted him.

“I had a case of LPs,” he recalled. “A whole case made for LPs was new in Argentina, and the police thought I looked suspicious, especially when they saw English labels and the word ‘jazz’ on many of them. They wanted to take me to the station. There was a cafe across the street with a piano, and I asked them to go there. I opened the piano lid and played a tango. They smiled and let me go.”

It was a close call, but other incidents, such as seeing Argentine soldiers goose-stepping in German uniforms, made it clear that the time had come to leave his beloved city. At the Special Section for Anti-Argentine Activities, his interrogator asked him why he wanted to leave Argentina to attend the Paris music conservatory. Schifrin answered: “Do you realize the honor it represents to have an Argentinean admitted to one of the most prestigious music schools in the world? I respectfully submit to you that this should be a cause for pride to our country!” His passport was signed and stamped.

Schifrin grew up in a religiously mixed family where Jews and Catholics intermarried. His father would take him to temple, and on Sunday mornings he would go to mass.

As he notes in his book, “All this was confusing to me since I was observing different rituals for the same God.”

His mother’s side was half-Jewish and half-Catholic but, he said, she “became Jewish.” There was a note of slight offense in his voice when he recalled how an aunt and uncle on his mother’s side once tried to convert him to Catholicism. Yet Schifrin has “great respect for people who believe sincerely in a religion and a God.”

Art, and particularly the art of music, forms a large part of Schifrin’s identity, but when asked whether he feels Jewish, he told a story.

“Well, I have to tell you when I went to Israel for the first time I felt something when I saw that the police had the Star of David on their uniforms. I mean, this did something to me.”

The Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival runs Sept. 17-21, 2008 at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula. For more information on the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival, visit www.tviff.com or call (951) 699-5514.

Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?

For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at fsafran@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.