February 24, 2020

Milken Opens Vault of Jewish Music

The Milken Family Foundation, well-known for its philanthropy to education and medical research, has announced that it will begin to issue recordings this fall from its 13-year-old music archive project, an enormous undertaking spanning more than three centuries of American Jewish music.

Possibly the most ambitious single compendium of Jewish music ever put together, the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music has recorded more than 600 works, the great majority of them never before recorded. Pieces range from humorous Yiddish songs to symphonies, operas and complete worship services.

Beginning in September, 50 compact discs will be released over two years on the Naxos label, a company known for its catalog of serious and often obscure music. Some 85 CDs’ worth of music has already been recorded, and the foundation plans to create a larger collection, available two or three years from now, for libraries, schools and specialists in Jewish music.

In celebration of next year’s 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America, the archive will also sponsor an international conference and festival in New York this November.

“This is the most monumental thing that’s ever been accomplished in Jewish music,” Nathan Lam, senior cantor at Stephen S. Wise Temple, told a Los Angeles audience in May.

Artists include non-Jewish as well as Jewish performers, including the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the BBC Singers, the Barcelona Symphony/National Orchestra of Catalonia and the Vienna Boys Choir (the choir’s first performance of Jewish music in Hebrew). Nor is every composer necessarily Jewish; one upcoming release is of jazz great Dave Brubeck’s cantata “Gates of Justice,” a piece on brotherhood that uses Jewish and black musical idioms and texts.

The first releases include highlights from Kurt Weill’s 1937 epic work “The Eternal Road”; klezmer-inspired symphonic and chamber pieces; works by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who fled Italy after it came under Fascist rule; and volume one of “Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage.”

Lowell Milken, chairman and president of the Santa Monica-based foundation, created the archive project in 1990. A lover of both classical and synagogue music, Milken decided to bring to the public an awareness of the quality and variety of Jewish music, both sacred and secular, written in America. The foundation has spent $17 million on the archive so far.

The impending release of the recordings was announced officially on May 19 in New York, but a local audience received a preview of the archive’s scope on at the national convention of the Cantors Assembly (CA).

“It is an honor for us to preserve and protect our artistic legacy,” Milken told the cantors and guests.

During the CA program, Milken credited his father, Bernard, with instilling in him a love for music. As an adult, Milken said, he learned “a lot about Jewish music” after joining Stephen S. Wise Temple and began to sponsor concerts there because of Lam’s leadership, “or constant pestering.”

Dr. Neil W. Levin, a professor of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and artistic director of the project, defined Jewish music as “music that has arisen out of or is intended for or is related to Jewish experience.”

The archive’s American emphasis, he expanded, includes music that is Jewish by tradition and/or culture, “enhanced by the American environment, with the power to speak to all of us, Jews or non-Jews.”

The archive has also videotaped more than 100 oral histories of cantors, veterans of the Yiddish theater and other artists involved with American Jewish music over the years, along with interviews of composers represented on the archive’s recordings.

In addition to live performances of some of the pieces included on the CDs scheduled for release, attendees at the CA program saw video footage of participants in the archive recordings and excerpts from the oral history component of the project.

One tape, made in 1995, shows three venerable Los Angeles cantors, Samuel Fordis, Samuel Kelemer, and Uri Frenkel, visiting a colleague’s grave at Home of Peace cemetery in East Los Angeles and standing outside Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, where Fordis davened as a youth.

In a nod to the future, Frenkel, who died later that year, told an interviewer that cantors have a responsibility to keep up with new music. If they don’t, he said, “that’s ignorance, and the chazan [cantor] who is supposed to be a good chazan is not allowed to be ignorant.”

The archive, Lam told the CA audience, will preserve not only Jewish music but Judaism itself.

“[A Torah scroll] can be alive for 1,000 years, so when you put a letter in the Torah, your legacy lives,” he said. “The Milken Family Foundation and the Milken Archive have written a Torah of Jewish music that will last for centuries.”

For more details about the Milken Archive, visit www.milkenarchive.org .