The Musical Sound of ‘Lights’


Not all Chanukah music is kiddie music — even when it’s played by kids. On Sunday, Dec. 1, the Skirball Cultural Center will host the West Coast premiere of Russell Steinberg’s suite, "Lights On!" Steinberg will conduct the Stephen Wise Youth Orchestra, a group of 70 youngsters ages 9 to 18 from throughout greater Los Angeles, who attend more than 40 public and private schools.

The second half of the program will be Steinberg’s "Symphony No. 2," titled, "What Is a Jew?" featuring narration by actor Ed Asner, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple and Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom.

"Lights On!" gives a symphonic twist to eight traditional Chanukah tunes. After beginning in darkness, the musicians add one melody after another, with the light increased for each tune, until they finish in a blaze of light and a complex intertwining of sound — a musical chanukiah on the eighth night of the holiday.

"I didn’t like most Chanukah music," Steinberg told The Journal, speaking from a residency at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in New Hampshire. That disaffinity, he said, "gave me a blank canvas," and the piece wound up being "a lot of fun to write."

Steinberg, 43, who holds a doctorate in music composition from Harvard University, was hired at Milken Community High School four years ago to teach music. He created a conservatory at the school that gradually expanded to younger children. The youth orchestra is an outgrowth of the conservatory.

"We’re reaching out to the whole community, not just Jewish kids," Steinberg said.

A self-described "Valley boy," Steinberg said he came late to an interest in Jewish music, which was sparked by his involvement with Milken and through association with Noreen Green, director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Attending Shabbatons at Brandeis-Bardin Institute, he said, also brought him into Jewish life.

"I realized [music] was a wonderful way for me to explore Judaism," Steinberg said. "It’s a journey I never would have imagined taking."

The Stephen Wise Youth Orchestra will perform Sunday, Dec. 1, at 4 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. $8 (Skirball members), $10 (nonmembers). For tickets call (310) 440-3500 ext. 3344.

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