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CLASSICAL MUSIC:

A legacy cut loose

In the push-pull of identity and assimilation, ancient strains inflect a Broadway theme, a Bernstein Mass, a Minimalist air -- great Jewish music.

February 15, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

In "Tropic of Cancer," Henry Miller recalls a brief Florida sojourn. Hungry and looking for a handout, he dragged himself into a synagogue. The rabbi impressed him, but the music -- "that piercing lamentation of the Jews" -- transfixed him.

It's a bit reductive to condense several centuries' worth of music into two words. But Neil W. Levin -- artistic director of the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, which Naxos is releasing on CD -- is more reductive still. He points out that "there are only 12 notes, and none of them has a Jewish mother."

All the same, many composers with Jewish mothers helped shape 20th century music: Mahler, Schoenberg, Gershwin, Darius Milhaud, Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the new-music gang known as Bang on a Can.

None has garnered fame or influence by dint of religion or ethnicity. That's true even of the overtly Jewish Bernstein. Would anyone, for instance, go so far as to label "West Side Story" Jewish? Mahler's religion was a drawback in anti-Semitic 19th century Vienna, so he converted to Catholicism.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Weill work -- An article about Jewish music in the Feb. 15 Sunday Calendar mistakenly referred to Kurt Weill's stage work "The Eternal Road" as "The Lost Road." In the same article, composer Lazare Saminsky's first name was misspelled Lazre.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Weill work -- An article in the Feb. 15 Calendar mistakenly referred to Kurt Weill's stage work "The Eternal Road" as "The Lost Road." In the same article, composer Lazare Saminsky's first name was misspelled Lazre.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Weill work -- An article about Jewish music in the Feb. 15 Sunday Calendar mistakenly referred to Kurt Weill's stage work "The Eternal Road" as "The Lost Road." In the same article, composer Lazare Saminsky's first name was misspelled Lazre.

Like Mendelssohn a century earlier, Schoenberg converted to Lutheranism, although he converted back while fleeing Nazi Germany. In the case of most other major Jewish composers, their religion has not been of particular interest to their wide publics.

But guess what? "West Side Story" is Jewish; Raphael Mostel, a composer steeped in Jewish tradition, has identified the show's opening phrase as aversion of the call of the shofar, the ram's horn blown on the Jewish New Year.

And however non-Jewish the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, they can nonetheless express the Jewish experience. To prove it, under Levin's supervision the Milken Archive has recorded about 600 works of American Jewish music, enough to keep Naxos CDs coming for a long time.

Something's clearly up. Klezmer music, with its folk-inflected Eastern European strains, has become a bestselling subset of world music, and Yiddish music is playing catch-up in popularity among Gentiles. Los Angeles has a Jewish Symphony. A trio of leading cantors have cantillated their way onto PBS, and one of them, Alberto Mizrahi, is being billed as "the Jewish Pavarotti" for a recital next Sunday at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino. Osvaldo Golijov, whose music will be featured by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this month, is a new music sensation who seductively merges his Russian Jewish upbringing with the music of his native Argentina.

One way to gauge this growing interest in Jewish music is to consider that it hasn't been a category for that long. The critical literature didn't begin with any seriousness until a century ago, and it got a major boost only recently with the boom in Holocaust studies. With each edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the article on Jewish music has doubled in size and scope. In the latest edition, it runs nearly 100 double-column pages. Read it and be overwhelmed.

What do we speak of when we speak of Jewish music? For starters, there are the complex and often arcane liturgical traditions of the Friday evening and Saturday morning Sabbath services, much of them chanted by a cantor and a rabbi. The variants are great, depending on heritage, nationality and orthodoxy. The folk styles that developed outside the synagogue (where instruments were not allowed and where men and women were segregated and had their own musical styles) are more familiar, particularly klezmer, because of its adaptability to jazz and popular music.

But you need to know nothing about Jewish music to grasp the origins of a cantor's soulful chanting. There is never any doubt about the ethnicity of the laughing, crying, wheedling, enticing klezmer clarinet. Yiddish folk songs are immediately identifiable as such. Miller's "piercing lamentation" may be simplistic, but we know what he meant.

With the Diaspora, the sense of identity in Jewish music has remained strong of necessity. Yet there is also no fighting off assimilation, the other principal facet of Jewish culture. Jews argue, and tradition versus assimilation is one thing they argue about.

It is this struggle between identity and assimilation that, in one way or another, makes Jewish music Jewish. It takes a sleuth to discover the hidden shofar call in "West Side Story" or identify the tune of Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" as that of a blessing said over the Torah. These references were undoubtedly subconscious. But one tradition nevertheless informs another.

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