Photo by Christian Steiner

Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov brings company for return to U.S.


America welcomed Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov from the start. After his United States recital debut in 1975, critics compared him to Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh. A Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote,  “He has everything.”

But even though Spivakov has maintained a solo career — including a recent recital tour in Spain — conducting began taking up more of his time after he founded the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra in 1979.

In just a few years, Spivakov, who remains the ensemble’s principal conductor, earned the respect of no less a figure than Leonard Bernstein, who presented him with one of his batons.

“It was a very valuable gift — his blessing for my conducting career,” Spivakov said recently as he prepared to lead the Moscow Virtuosi on its upcoming North American tour, which includes a stop at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on June 10. “I still carry it and use it to this day.”

The Moscow Virtuosi consists of some 30 musicians, with a string section known for conveying a plush warmth that is characteristic of Russian orchestras. But Spivakov said the sound of the ensemble changes depending on the score.

“We perform Bach and Mozart with a more contained, classic sound than we play [Astor] Piazzolla,” Spivakov said, referring to the Argentine tango composer. “This is a matter of good taste, professionalism and appropriateness.”

The conductor said the musicians, who originally included the most talented students of Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “look much younger” these days. “But the unified pure tone, spotless technique, tight vibrato and deep appreciation for the composer’s underlying meaning is still there. Call it the Russian sound, or maybe it is just the Russian classical school.”

Spivakov said the Moscow Virtuosi grew out of his love for chamber music. “This was not just any orchestra,” he said. “All of the musicians were soloists or first chairs in the major orchestras in Russia, the crème de la crème of the Russian classical music scene at that time.”

The conductor said the orchestra had been scheduled to make its U.S. debut in 1980, but because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, that tour was canceled. The U.S. debut came seven years later.

For Spivakov, that was not the first time politics attempted to silence his music-making. In November 1976, his Carnegie Hall recital became the setting for an aggressive protest by American-Jewish militants against the Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish citizens. During his performance of Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, a man ran down the aisle shouting in Russian, ‘Remember the Soviet Jews,’ and in the middle of his next piece, Bach’s solo Chaconne in D minor, another militant splattered Spivakov with a paint bomb.

“The irony of it all is that I am Jewish,” Spivakov said. “At the time, it was an international scandal, but it reminds us how hard the situation was in Russia for Jews 40 years ago.”

Spivakov, who was born in the Urals in 1944, said being Jewish in the Soviet Union was difficult. “My parents were born in Russia, but growing up in the Soviet Union, being Jewish was forbidden. Me and other Jewish boys in my neighborhood got beaten up really hard for just being Jewish, and that was really hard to comprehend.”

After one particularly bad incident, Spivakov said he decided to learn a sport to become strong enough to hold his own in these fights. “I chose boxing and still practice this sport sometimes to keep in shape,” he said.

He added that although he doesn’t observe any religion, “I do identify myself as Jewish, feel proud of the country of Israel and love performing there.”

After years of providing young musicians with expensive instruments and opportunities to perform abroad, sometimes with the Moscow Virtuosi, Spivakov started the Vladimir Spivakov Charity Foundation in 1994.

“We practically had no organizations in Russia working with kids,” he said. “Since its inception, our foundation has helped over 20,000 kids. We get thousands of letters from all over Russia asking for help, and not necessarily related to music. We also helped with medical assistance. There is no law in Russia that gives a tax break to charities or to people who contribute to charities, so there is not financial incentive to help, like in the U.S.”

For his Ebell Theatre program, Spivakov, who also will perform as a soloist, will present a mix of entertaining and challenging works, including Mozart’s Divertimento No. 1 in D major (K. 136) and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor (Op. 110a) — an orchestral arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 dedicated “to the memory of victims of fascism and the [second world] war.”

The concert also includes charming orchestral pieces by Grieg and opera hits sung by Russian star soprano Hibla Gerzmava.

Max Bruch’s prayerful adagio “Kol Nidrei” for cello and orchestra, featuring young Israeli cellist Danielle Akta, follows Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony.

For Spivakov, who has three daughters, Akta’s presence is a hopeful sign for the future of music. For him, music-making these days is all about investing in future generations. Indeed, Spivakov’s foundation helped the 14-year-old Akta, who already is a veteran performer of Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei,” which is based on Hebrew melodies.

Akta first learned and performed “Kol Nidrei” when she was 10. A few months ago, she performed the piece in Poland at a cemetery where people who had been executed are buried.

“I played in memory of the Holocaust victims,” Akta said from Berlin, where she is studying at the Barenboim-Said Academy.  “The piece feels so strong and deep. I am taking many of the moments from that concert and ceremony with me for all my life.”

Akta’s relationship with the Moscow Virtuosi began in 2013, when she was awarded a grant from Spivakov’s foundation. She already had won several cello competitions and performed abroad and in Israel. Akta was 12 when she made her debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

“She is an extraordinary talent and also a very inspirational young lady,” Spivakov said. “Her love of music, creative freedom and mature sound make us all treat her like a grown-up peer, although she is just a kid.”

Last year, Spivakov’s foundation also awarded Akta an expensive Italian cello and bow. “That cello is definitely a part of me,” she said.

While Spivakov continues to enjoy a solo career — his last U.S. recital tour was in 2012 with pianist Olga Kern — he also is the principal conductor of the National Philharmonic of Russia, president of the International House of Music in Moscow and artistic director of the music festival in Colmar, France, which he founded in 1989.

“I am wearing a lot of hats,” he said, “and there is less time for my solo career. But I still try to practice daily and really love my instrument. Violin is my life.”

Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, with Hibla Gerzmava and Danielle Akta, will perform on June 10 at 7 p.m. at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 939-1128 or visit ebella.org.

Klezmer, classical royalty at the Bowl


“Energy is eternal delight,” the poet William Blake said, and klezmer music proves his point. For centuries throughout Jewish Eastern Europe, rhythmically high-strung klezmer bands, which often featured a virtuoso violinist and clarinetist trading licks, were a provocation to dance. They could also make brides weep at the drop of a yarmulke.

Once viewed as a profoundly autobiographical music of the Jewish people, klezmer has shown range and flexibility over time. In the first half of 20th century America, and during its resurgence in the late 1970s and ’80s, klezmer took on an almost jazz- and big band-like sound.

On Aug. 20, Itzhak Perlman joins Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot and the Klezmer Conservatory Band at the Hollywood Bowl in a program including klezmer and cantorial songs from Perlman’s latest CD, “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul.” The concert seems designed to show klezmer as more than just up-tempo ethnic dance music.

“It’s very heartfelt, and some of it is just plain happy,” Perlman said by phone from Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. “There is definitely improvisation. In some ways, there’s improvisation in anything. In classical music, even though you may not change the notes, you still improvise musically so that not every performance is the same.”

Perlman also sees a link between klezmer and prayer. “When you hear the klezmer style of clarinet playing, there’s a lot of praying and krechzing [sighing or groaning] and sobbing in the clarinet,” Perlman said. “I will try to do a bit of that when I play the violin. It’s about adding human emotion.” 

For Perlman, the human voice is a natural conduit to emotion, and he compared Helfgot, a tenor and chief cantor at the Park East Synagogue in New York City, to Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

“I knew about him, heard him on YouTube, but didn’t hear him live until two or three years ago in Israel,” Perlman said. “I went backstage and said, ‘Let’s make a record.’ ” 

The result is “Eternal Echoes,” released by Sony late last year. “The timbre of his voice is attractive,” Perlman said, “and his style and technical ability are quite phenomenal. It’s my opinion that it’s easy for him to sing, and you can hear it. It’s just very effortless.”

Helfgot said his voice stood out from the crowd even when he was a child. “But I didn’t think I’d make from that a profession,” he said. “I remember at the Shabbos table at home, my father would ask, ‘Why do you sing so much higher than everyone?’ And I said, ‘This is my voice.’ ”

Helfgot said it is the variety that makes the new disc and concerts with Perlman special. “It’s not only one kind of music,” Helfgot said. “You have khazones, Yiddish folk music, klezmer and real khazones, which is a little more heavy. That’s what makes this project unique. Everyone can find something that he’s close to.”

Helfgot is especially happy about the multicultural audience he sees at concerts. “In New York, we played to thousands, and I saw all kinds of people in the audience,” he said.  “Jewish, not Jewish, Orthodox, not Orthodox. People of every kind.”

Kids from Perlman’s summer music program on Shelter Island in New York performed on the “Eternal Echoes” disc, as well, he said, adding, “I would say 95 percent of them never heard this kind of music before. Not all of them were Jewish. You could tell they were excited about the musical experience, the singing. They couldn’t stop talking about it.” 

Perlman’s students won’t be coming out for the Bowl concert, but musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be among the additional players. 

Hankus Netsky, founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, who is also Perlman’s musical arranger on “Eternal Echoes,” called the klezmer show a dream come true. “The show is Perlman’s baby,” Netsky said. “He’s the only one who could do this — take this to the Hollywood Bowl.”

Netsky, a faculty member at the New England Conservatory, started the Klezmer Conservatory Band as an experiment in 1979. “It was a missing link in 20th century music,” he said. “It’s our classical music.”

Supertitles on the Bowl’s high-definition screens will make the songs accessible to everyone, Netsky said. “They are great settings of poetry, musically attuned to what’s in the prayer,” he said. “Klezmer has come back because it’s good. It’s not nostalgia.”

Asked why the clarinet started to take over the sound world of klezmer in its American incarnation, Netsky said, “Because the clarinet sounds like a violin, and it’s louder. It became a more dynamic violin. In America, louder worked.” Indeed, the band’s clarinetist, Ilene Stahl, has been called the “Jimi Hendrix of klezmer clarinet.” 

Perlman, Helfgot and company will be performing most of “Eternal Echoes” on the Bowl program, but there may also be room for songs like “Yiddishe Mamma,” not on the recording. Perlman said he wasn’t sure about “Kol Nidre,” the disc’s concluding track, but with the High Holy Days near, Helfgot said he was considering it. 

“It’s such an incredibly sacred piece,” Perlman said, “but we’ll see.”

Perlman also said to expect “a little shmoozing” with the audience during the Bowl program, and he agreed you can’t have a klezmer concert without dancing.

“Let’s hope that the audience can do a little dancing in the aisles,” Perlman said. “We did that at Symphony Hall in Boston. Can you imagine? The home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They were dancing in the aisles. So let’s see what happens at the Bowl.”

Lessons in Vilnius


Robin Solomon stood in the Ponary Forest in Lithuania, surrounded by fellow educators who wore white and sang Yiddish songs, accompanied by a violinist.

It was a captivating and stunning experience this summer, a stark contrast to the fact that Nazis viciously executed tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and Russians there during World War II.  

The forest is a fitting metaphor for the Jews of Lithuania and the surrounding Baltic states today. Despite the pain and suffering people there have gone through, they’ve flourished into a vibrant and growing community, said Solomon, a teacher at Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village. 

“Jewish life exists there. People survived, and now the Baltic state has a desire for Jewish life and an attachment to the history and Israel. We saw evidence of this.” 

Solomon learned about this as part of “From Memory to Identity: Reclaiming Jewish History in Vilnius,” a program that took her and 47 other teachers from Los Angeles and Tel Aviv to Lithuania and Latvia from July 2 to 9. 

Participants learned about what the area was like before World War II and took a walking tour of the ghettos, visited the elderly and helped to restore a Jewish cemetery. They also went to the Ponary Memorial and Forest, traveled to a Jewish children’s summer camp and school, and toured the Latvian capital of Riga. 

The trip was part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ school twinning program, an initiative that connects teachers and students in Tel Aviv with those in Los Angeles. It has been active for 12 years and sends middle- and high-schoolers from one country to the other, according to the Federation’s Web site. There are 19 schools from each country that participate. 

Two years ago, Shalom Aleichem, a school in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, joined the initiative. It led to a three-way partnership with Kehillat Israel in Los Angeles and a school in Tel Aviv. In 2013, Kehillat Israel left the program, and Stephen S. Wise Temple took its place. 

The three-way partnership is what led Federation officials to take educators from throughout the broader program to the Baltics as part of the Twinning Seminar’s annual joint teachers’ seminar trip, according to Ahuva Ron, Federation’s senior education director. 

Ron said that one goal is for teachers to focus on the revival of that particular Jewish community with their students, who may deepen their Jewish identity through it.

Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation, added, “We hope that as a result of the experience, the educators have a fresh eye view of the way Judaism is flourishing and facing challenges in the rest of the world.”

The L.A. Federation has been financially supporting the Jewish communities in the Baltics region for years, and, according to Cushnir, it has encouraged the exchange of students in summer camps, found families in Los Angeles to sponsor children and expanded medical care at Jewish community centers.

Shari Davis, Los Angeles representative from the twinning program, and Tel Aviv director Lior Sibony led the eight-day seminar. The Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide Jewish humanitarian organization, played a big part in putting together the trip, Ron said. 

Rabbi Bruce Raff, head of the religious school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said he had anticipated a completely different view of Jewish life in the Baltics than what he actually saw. 

“While I went on the trip expecting to see the skeletal remains of Lithuanian Jewry and what was left of the Holocaust, what I saw was a group of Jews who are striving to live Jewish lives there,” he said. “Latvia was very contemporary and modern. They weren’t living in the past, but trying to create a future.”

One of the most poignant aspects of the trip, Raff said, was when the group ventured to a camp called Olameinu, which hosts summer sessions for Jewish children (ages 7 to 12) and teenagers (ages 12 to 18) from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The group participated in the younger children’s session. 

“If you’d change the language … to English, it was very much an American summer camp,” Raff said. “It was full of life, Jewish learning, and Israeli song and dance.”

Solomon said, “To hear the children singing Hebrew and chanting a mantra, ‘I am Jewish and I know it,’ you could close your eyes and think you’re in Ojai, Calif., at Camp Ramah. It was really unbelievable.”

Participant Andrea Gardenhour, Center for Youth Engagement director at Stephen S. Wise, wrote in an e-mail that at Olameinu, the counselors “were so inspirational and dedicated, it filled me with a beautiful sense of Jewish hope for the future of the Baltics.”

The rebuilding of Jewish life in these countries, which was thriving before the war, is occurring against all odds, according to those on the trip. 

Prior to World War II, there were more than 100 synagogues in Vilnius and 200,000 Jews, accounting for 45 percent of the city’s population, Ron said. Ninety percent of them were murdered in the Holocaust. 

Despite this, Raff said, the community there now, which is composed of 3,500 Jews, is determined to find itself. 

“They say, ‘We are going to live meaningful Jewish lives here in Lithuania.’ I thought it was amazing.”

Each educator brought back his or her own lessons from the visit. When school begins again this fall, Solomon is going to share the details of her trip with her students and talk about Jewish memories. Gardenhour said that because her school is involved with Shalom Aleichem, she hopes to raise funds to send children to Olameinu and perhaps “send our students over to work in the camp as counselors.” 

And that’s just the beginning. Roles will be reversed later this year when, from Nov. 21 to Dec. 2, students from Tel Aviv and Vilnius come to Los Angeles. They will go to the Center for Youth Engagement, stay with local families, learn about the Los Angeles community and visit the Museum of Tolerance and Federation. Cushnir stated that his overall vision is to incorporate the Baltic states from here on out in the twinning program. 

Raff said that the whole experience proved once again that Jews, no matter where they are located, have to look out for one another. 

“The Los Angeles community recognizes their responsibility to world Jewry,” he said. “To say that we care about Jews but only in Los Angeles is not really indicative of what we want to do or be as a Jewish community. We need to recognize the needs of Jewish kids all over the world. Each Jew is responsible for one another in the world. It gave us a firsthand look into that.”

Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchok Meir Helfgot to play Saban Theatre


Arranging a concert program is like planning a dinner, says Itzhak Perlman, calling from New York. First comes an appetizer, then the main course, and finally something to clear the palate.

By that yardstick, the violin virtuoso is preparing a menu for his March 30 appearance in Los Angeles unique in his 50-year career.

In “The Soul of Jewish Music” concert March 30 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Perlman will be on stage with famed Cantor Yitzchok Meir Helfgot, musical director Hankus Netsky, a klezmer band and an orchestra. Comedian Elon Gold will introduce the program.

“There’ll be some good fiddlin’, great singing and a little
Yiddish,” Perlman promised.

About his collaboration with Helfgot, Perlman noted, “I’m not exactly a stranger to playing the violin along some of the world’s great voices, but I’ve never done it in a Jewish context.

“When I was a kid growing up in Israel, on Saturdays I always listened to the chazzonish (cantorial) radio programs,” he reminisced. “That was my Jewish comfort music.”

A Perlman program is usually planned a year or so in advance, but the Soul Music event came together in a few weeks, thanks mainly to prompting and the obsessive enthusiasm of Los Angeles-based producer and entrepreneur Dan Adler.

“Dan first contacted me about this idea less than two months ago,” Perlman recalled. “We had no concert hall, no advance publicity, but Dan said he would take care of all that.”

Story continues after the video.

Perlman had heard Helfgot sing a year earlier and was stirred by his voice. Now he presented the idea of a joint performance to the cantor, who replied, “Why not?”

Helfgot, alternately dubbed the “Jewish Domingo” or the “Jewish Pavarotti” is, like Perlman, a Tel Aviv native and former child prodigy. He is chief cantor at New York’s Park East Synagogue, and in 2006 presented the first cantorial solo concert in the then-123-year history of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Netsky, a multi-instrumentalist, is the founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and teaches jazz and contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory. He previously collaborated with Perlman in the 1995 PBS special “In the Fiddler’s House.”

Perlman first came to America’s attention at 13 when he appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show, and he cemented his reputation five years later in his Carnegie Hall debut.

In his teens, he helped support his family by entertaining at fundraising dinners for the United Jewish Appeal, Zionist Organization of America and Israel Bonds.

Critics frequently comment on his rapport with audiences and unfailing enthusiasm. Perlman explained that “I am constantly stimulated and amazed by the music and the different ways of interpreting it. The work keeps me young.”

He also keeps switching roles. At 65, he triples as violinist, conductor and teacher, giving one-on-one lessons to some 15 students at The Juilliard School in New York.

Perlman estimates that he spends half of his year on the road, playing in different cities and countries. He enjoys the performances but hates the traveling.

A polio victim at four, he requires crutches or a wheelchair, which means long body searches each time he boards a plane.

“Sometimes the security checker will say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Perlman, we have to do this,’ but traveling is always a huge pain,” he said.

It’s equally challenging to find accessible hotel lodging for a man with his disabilities. Asked whether he didn’t have an assistant to scout ahead, Perlman answered, “Yes, but in the end it’s up to me, I have to be the judge.”

Perlman describes himself as a “traditional Jew,” who keep a kosher home, won’t perform on Friday nights, and, as the father of five and grandfather of nine, usually has some 12 family members around the Shabbat dinner table.

He shied away from talking about Israel’s domestic and foreign problems, but noted, “I am an eternal optimist. I always say, ‘Yihyeh Tov” or “It’ll get better.”

Later this year, Perlman and Helfgot will cut a record together and they’re talking about taking the Los Angeles show on a national tour.

At the end of the interview, Perlman excused himself to teach a lesson and then catch a plane to Texas.

He left behind a video shot during a rehearsal for the March 30 concert, in which Helfgot promises ticket buyers, “You’ll be treated to music that’s old, but new,” to which Perlman added, “—and Jewish.”

Beneficiary of the concert is the Bet Tzedek Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, a national coalition, under the auspices of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, to provide dignity and resources to survivors.

For tickets, ranging from $75 to $350, phone (323)655 0111, or visit www.ticketmaster.com. For information about VIP packages, including a post-concert dinner, phone (323) 549-5813 or (310) 201-5033.

Itzhak Perlman and Yitzchok Meir Helfgot: The Soul of Jewish Music [VIDEO EXCLUSIVE]


A just-released video captures a bit of music history.  It’s a rehearsal, but no ordinary rehearsal.   

Itzhak Perlman and Yitzchok Meir Helfgot are practicing for an upcoming concert in which the virtuoso violinist and the world-famous cantor will join forces with acclaimed Klezmer revivalist Hankus Netsky and a Klezmer ensemble on March 30th, in Los Angeles, at the Saban Theatre.

Titled “The Soul of Jewish Music,” the show is a dream of Perlman, who was moved the first time he heard Cantor Helfgot and decided that his once-in-a-generation voice deserved a wider audience. Under the musical direction of Netsky, Perlman and Helfgot will be joined by a Klezmer band and a full orchestra.

Proceeds from the LA performance will benefit Bet Tzedek’s Holocaust Survivors Justice Network. The show is being produced by Media Eagles and IMG Artists.

Tickets are available at ticketmaster.  The Jewish Journal, an event co-sponsor, will feature an interview with Perlman in an upcoming issue.  Meanwhile, watch:

MUSIC VIDEO: Hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari Obama video — ‘Stand With Me’


From the YouTube page:

Miri Ben-Ari, a Grammy Award-Winning violinist, originally from Israel, dedicates her rendition of the National Anthem titled Stand With Me, a music video in support of the Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Supported by Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons and fashion designer Marc Eckó, Ben-Ari introduces a new musical approach to capture the spirit of the American people before the 2008 Election Day while hoping to influence fans among the Jewish community.

Ben-Ari states At this time of economic crisis, we need leadership that can bring change to our country while capturing the essence of the American Dream. Coming to America as a new immigrant, poor and without my family helped me to better understand and appreciate the American dream.

Directed by: Kenzo Hakuta & Miri Ben-Ari
Exec. Producer: Howard Mark Offenhutter

 

Classical Musicians’ Volume Decreases


The conductor raises his baton. On cue, 73 young musicians launch into a heartfelt rendition of “Sabbath Fantasies,” a piece that weaves together snatches of Jewish liturgy and folk tunes.

This is the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (LAYO), a 6-year-old ensemble sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple to encourage the next generation of music lovers. The players, all between the ages of 8 and 18, represent a wide range of cultures and ethnicities.

But because the orchestra rehearses on Sundays on the temple’s grounds, it especially attracts young musicians from Jewish homes. The LAYO is one route through which Jewish community leaders are trying to keep alive the noble tradition that links Jews with classical music.

Russell Steinberg, who conducts the LAYO and composed “Sabbath Fantasies,” is at the forefront of this effort. As founder and director of the Stephen Wise Music Academy, he also works to provide music education for all students at Stephen Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.

Another pioneer is Bryna Vener, who for 28 years has led Sinai Akiba Academy’s popular after-school orchestral program. But many other Jewish day schools that offer elective music programs are struggling to keep them afloat.

Perhaps it’s a matter of scheduling. Students today face mounting academic obligations that leave many feeling hard-pressed to take on an instrument.

Still, Steinberg suspects also that many Jewish parents view classical music as an outmoded form of entertainment. Because they themselves prefer the likes of Pink Floyd to Prokofiev, they are less inclined to push traditional music lessons on reluctant offspring.

There was a time when Jews dominated the ranks of American orchestras, and superstars like Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern were musical ambassadors to the world. The fact that today’s master Jewish musicians tend to have proteges with names like Yo Yo Ma, Kyung-Wha Chung and Lang Lang is one hint that for many Jews, classical music is no longer a top priority. This gives Steinberg an important goal: “I’m trying to build a parent culture that values music.”

Why in recent years have so many American Jews sidestepped classical music?

One answer is that most 21st century American Jews are far removed from the immigrant experience of their forebearers. The Jews who came from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as those who arrived as refugees after World War II, brought with them a passion for music.

Nostalgic for the culture they left behind, they flocked to concerts and regarded soloists as heroes. Their love of good music dovetailed with eagerness for success in their new homeland, making them hugely ambitious for their American-born children.

Sylvia Kunin Eben, 91, was raised in a Jewish enclave in South Central Los Angeles, where “everybody we knew had a piano. Even if you couldn’t afford lessons, you had a piano.”

Eben’s Russian-immigrant father somehow scraped together 90 cents for her weekly piano lesson. In return, she was expected to be a prodigy. Although stage fright derailed her performing career, she went on to create award-winning music programs for television.

A generation later, immigrant Jewish parents were still avidly steering their children toward classical music. Music educator Neal Brostoff is the American-born son of a couple who left England for Los Angeles in 1936. He began concertizing at a early age, often rubbing shoulders with such soon-to-be-famous young Angelenos as violinists Glenn and Maurice Dicterow, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, pianists Mona and Renee Golabek and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. All had parents who were staunch supporters of their youngsters’ careers, and all had strong European roots.

Today, times have changed. Aaron Mendelsohn, whose Maestro Foundation lends musical instruments to talented but impoverished young players, notes that many of the Asian-born musicians he helps are “clawing their way out of poverty, just the way the Jews did.”

Young Jews, for the most part, now tend to be firmly ensconced in the American middle class. All professions are open to them, and they’ve long-ago cast off the immigrant tradition of letting their parents determine their future path.

Jewish mothers and fathers, who in earlier eras might have overseen their children’s lessons, monitored their practice sessions and carted them to musical auditions, are now much more likely to emphasize academics, sports and, in Los Angeles, acting auditions.

UCLA music professor David Lefkowitz provides a telling example. His 9-year-old son has been playing the violin since age 3. A promising musician, he practices an hour a day but also plays soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring.

A colleague’s daughter, exactly the same age, started the violin at the same time. She practices two hours daily, and Lefkowitz doesn’t doubt that by 12 she’ll have moved far beyond his son, for whom music is one of several boyhood interests. It’s probably no coincidence that the girl’s mother is a fairly recent immigrant.

If Jewish parents are less driven now to turn their children into stars of the concert stage, they’re also well aware that music as a profession has become less promising. With the number of quality orchestras diminishing, 200 applicants vie for each open seat.

Some record labels have done away with their classical divisions. Hollywood studios that once employed a full complement of musicians often make do now with synthesized music and the licensing of pop tunes. Alan Chapman, composer, music educator and KUSC radio host, stressed, “The value of being a classical musician to society at large is not what it used to be.”

In a materialistic age, it’s no surprise that young Jews have learned to be pragmatic about their career choices. When Steinberg introduced his students to a professional conductor, their first question was, “How much money do you make?”

But sometimes pragmatism can be idealism by another name. Adam Mendelsohn, a recent UCLA graduate, for years played violin in the American Youth Symphony. Unlike most members of that highly motivated group, he gave up any thought of a formal music career to enter a doctoral program in biomedical engineering.

His father’s Maestro Foundation has shown him firsthand the hardships faced by music professionals. As a scientist, he can treat music as a serious hobby and “play the music I want to play when I want to play it.”

The dearth of rising young Jewish musicians does not extend to Israel, where ongoing political tensions may be part of what makes the arts an appealing outlet. In addition, Israel’s subsidies for artists, as well as its numerous institutes for promising students and its European-based tradition of respect for classical music, also play a significant role.

When Israeli composer Ariel Blumenthal attended a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, he was amazed to find an auditorium full of graying heads. At home, the Israeli Philharmonic had always attracted a younger crowd, including uniformed soldiers who get in for free.

One source of Israel’s eagerness to produce the next Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman lies in its thousands of music-loving emigres from the former Soviet Union. The Russian musical legacy also shows itself in the U.S. Sixteen-year-old Simona Shapiro, whose Russian grandmother was a concert pianist, admits that her own budding piano career is fulfilling the dreams of several generations: “My entire family is basically living this through me.”

But most American Jews have to force themselves to be philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their youngsters can make a living in the classical field.

But many American Jews feel, at best, philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their talented youngsters can make a living in the music field. One organization trying to help is the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity (jewishcreativity.org).

This small but ambitious nonprofit based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem has, for the past 16 years, worked to promote Jewish identity through support for the arts. Proceeds from the center’s ongoing $3 million fundraising campaign go toward such projects as international arts festivals, subsidized residencies at an Israeli arts colony, and multidisciplinary events at major universities.

More than 400 Jewish artists from many nations and in many fields have been named center affiliates. On behalf of Jewish classical musicians, the center underwrites the L.A.-based Synergy Chamber Ensemble as well as an Israeli group, Metar. It also sponsors recordings, awards prizes, and has commissioned works from such rising Jewish composers as Ofer Ben Amots, Sharon Farber, David Lefkowitz and Yale Strom. The center’s founders, led by board president John Rauch, recognize that from the time of King David forward, music has played an integral role in Jewish life.

They hope their support will smooth the way for the talented Jews of tomorrow.

 

Eulogies


Marshall Sosson, Violinist and Studio Concertmaster, Dies at 91

Marshall Sosson, concertmaster at many Hollywood studios, died on April 29, 2002, at the age of 91.

Music was his fountain of youth. A passionate and tender nature sang through his violin. Active professionally for 60 years, first in Chicago and later in Los Angeles, he was a virtuoso of classical repertoire and improvisational jazz, and excelled as concertmaster of orchestras for Hollywood’s major motion picture studios and record companies. Wherever he worked, musicians respected his artistry and were drawn to his warm and generous spirit. He energized, inspired, amused and enriched the lives of his devoted friends and family.

He studied with Max Fischel at the Chicago Musical College, and with Efram Zimbalist at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. During the ’30s and ’40s, his jazz quartet, Marshall Sosson and the Chicagoans, made regular coast-to-coast live radio broadcasts. He played with the swing bands of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. An army enlistee, he shared co-concertmaster duties with Felix Slatkin of the Army-Air Force orchestra in Santa Ana. After the war, he formed the Los Angeles String Trio and Piano Quartet, giving chamber music recitals with pianist Leonard Stein and cellist and violinist Kurt and Sven Rehr, varying his diet of serious music with rollicking jam sessions with pianist Johnny Guerneri at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.

He recorded with the giants of popular music — Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. In such films as "All The Kings Men," "From Here To Eternity," "On The Waterfront" and "Picnic," his set tone and sure phrasing perfectly underscored a film’s meaning. He was especially proud of being chosen as concertmaster for Disney’s 1981 rerecording of "Fantasia" and responsible for selecting the 60-piece string selection. His was a long life of bravos.

He is survived by his sister-in-law, Sylvia; nephews, Steven and Michael; niece, Deena; grandnieces, Julie Braly and Vivien Braly Arquilevich; great-grandnephews, Jonah and Max; in-laws, Harriet and Norman Beck; and many other friends and family. — Deena Sosson

Judy Kurz Gold, Midwife and Artist, Dies at 59

Judy Kurz Gold, midwife and artist, died on April 28, 2002, at the age of 59.

She died after a two-year struggle with lung cancer at Kibbutz Hatzerim in Israel. She is the wife of Dr. Jonathan Gold; mother of Ilan, Tali, Noam and Aviv Kurz; grandmother of Ori Kurz; and daughter of Ruth Faine and the late UCLA professor Hy Faine.

We mourn her death. Condolences can be sent to ruthfaine@yahoo.com. — Rachel and Tom Tugend