November 21, 2018

Bringing music to AJU

“Once upon a time there was a legacy of producing original pieces in all the different arts, and for whatever reason, we’d strayed from that,” said Rabbi Gary Oren, dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University (AJU), on a recent afternoon.  

The hilltop university’s Gindi Auditorium has been filled in recent years with famous speakers and thoughtful debate, but less frequently with high art. Officials hope the creation of a choir and collaboration with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) will offer a breath of renewed artistic life. 

For Noreen Green, LAJS director and conductor, the decision to approach AJU last year with the idea of linking up and starting a choir was an easy one. She had just finished a 20-year run working at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where the symphony had performed frequently over the years, and wanted a new place for LAJS to stage a yearly concert.  

“We experimented last year with the ‘Classics to Klezmer’ concert, and it was really successful,” Green said. “The musicians love [it], and I love conducting on the stage — acoustically, it’s the best.”

The appeal of the Gindi was partly based on its sound, but history had a role, too. 

“There were so many people doing music out here — of course, [composer] Max Helfman. Part of my mission has been to kind of re-establish that excitement that was here as far as performing classical Jewish music,” Green said. 

Josh Feldman, AJU’s new director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity, is excited about the possibility of realizing the Gindi’s full artistic potential. 

“We’re in a process of rebuilding, and the choir and the symphony are both great examples of that. It’s a gradual process,” he said. “We’re looking to bring high-quality examples of both explicitly Jewish arts and culture, and culture [in general] to that space. More broadly, we’re hoping over the next 15 years to become one of the leading destinations for Jewish arts and culture in the country, and the Gindi is central to that vision.

“Arts and culture is for everyone, and I can’t think of better institutions than choirs or symphonies under great leadership that meet that sort of utility, where everyone can be a part of this, either by singing or playing, or to be listeners,” he continued.

For Green, her work at AJU requires her to wear two hats: one as the director of the independent LAJS, and another as the director of the university’s choir, an official program of the Whizin Institute. 

“Being the choir director is like being a mom. You’ve got to nurture them, and you’ve got to get them to do what you want them to do,” Green said, laughing. “It’s a different relationship with the choir and with the orchestra. I love both.”

The choir performed as recently as March 29, and the LAJS’ big spring concert will take place April 12 at 7 p.m. The concert will consist of three pieces, feature local composers Russell Steinberg and Sharon Farber, and run approximately 90 minutes.  The evening will be rounded out with a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Halil.”

Steinberg’s work, “Canopy of Peace,” was commissioned by the Schulweis Institute and weaves in text written by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died this past December. It’s a particularly personal piece for Green. 

“Rabbi Schulweis was one of my dear, dear mentors … There’s a real big hole in my heart since he passed away,” she said. “The performance is a couple of days before what would have been his 90th birthday.”

Farber’s piece is based on a poem called “Only a Book.” According to Green, “It basically describes the journey of the Jewish people and how they survived throughout the ages with only ‘The Book,’ the Bible.”

As for Bernstein’s “Halil,” she called it the most modern-sounding of the bunch. She’s particularly excited to have Israeli flutist Itay Lantner with the symphony to play in the flute-heavy piece.

For Green, the works are linked by some essential questions about art: What is the inspiration to write music? Is it text? Is it something that happens? Where does it come from?  

In her mind, all three pieces feature unique viewpoints on the subject. “It’s not just entertainment, you also learn something,” she said. “And you feel like you’ve come away with some knowledge about music, about Judaism.”

Or, as Feldman suggested, about life and the human experience. 

“For many of us, in our hardest or most joyous moments, it is a piece of music or a piece of art that explains for us … what that experience is in its vastness in a way that words can’t even begin to do,” he said. “Every time we put on the radio, we are a listener, and that makes us more than just a participant — we’re an active part of a community and dialogue.” 

If Feldman has his way, this will be the start of a long and fruitful relationship between LAJS and AJU. 

“AJU has a long legacy of arts and culture from its very beginning. There’s a strong belief that culture is a continued investment,” he said. “I heard a great rabbi say — Rabbi Sharon Brous — that if you can’t pray, you should sing. I think that there is a holiness to arts and culture.”