February 25, 2020

Symphony’s Sephardic Premier

Ten years ago, it was a first — and it’s still an only. When Noreen Green established the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) in 1993, Los Angeles became the only city in the world with a resident symphony orchestra devoted to Jewish music, and the city maintains that unique status today.

"It gave this multicultural city a musical organization that is like no other anywhere else," said Mark Kashper, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic who serves as the LAJS concertmaster. "It plays music others do not attempt at all."

In most other cities, a concert program of Jewish music is a one-shot event sponsored by a major synagogue or national Jewish organization. With musicians ranging from students and gifted amateurs to orchestra professionals, the LAJS has presented local audiences with an eclectic array of sounds, year-round, with three or four concerts a year.

"Even the Israel Philharmonic plays very little Jewish music," said Yuval Ron, a composer, arranger and performer of Middle Eastern music. One of his pieces will receive its world premiere at the LAJS program "Canciones Sephardi" this Sunday (see sidebar).

LAJS has earned plaudits for the attention it has given Sephardi and Mizrachi musical traditions over the years. Green has brought the Sephardi music to Los Angeles schoolchildren in programs that highlight the cultural connection between Jews of Spanish descent and the local Latino community.

Green, LAJS’s 44-year-old artistic director and principal conductor, was already immersed in Jewish music when she pulled together a board of directors and founded LAJS. She’d written her doctoral thesis on the work of composer/arranger David Nowakowsky and was leading a choir dedicated to performing his works. She was also working as music director at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a position she still holds.

With support from her husband, physician Ian Drew, Green’s vision hit the community like a bolt of lightning.

"They started off with such a bang in the first season — one spectacular concert after another," said Neal Brostoff, head of the West Hills-based Jewish Music Foundation and a member of the LAJS board.

Green and Drew have also put their own money into LAJS.

"I run the symphony as a mitzvah," she said. "Sometimes it’s been a financial hardship."

Green said she’s been watching the bottom line carefully of late, which may account for what one artist called a "more populist" slant in LAJS programming.

"It’s a hard public to grab," said Cantor Evan Kent, who sang in the symphony’s performance of "The Eternal Road."

Kashper said he’d like to see the organization "tackle more challenging projects from time to time and help us avoid becoming the L.A. Jewish Pops Orchestra."

Mostly, Green is thrilled to have the ongoing opportunity to present music that makes what she calls a "soul connection."

Green said her philosophy has always been to mix highly accessible and more esoteric works in her programs.

"Audiences need to walk out of concerts feeling they’ve heard something familiar and learned something new," she said.