Whether it is the music of Jewish composer Bernard Herrmann heard in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” performed at sports stadiums around the country, or Leonard Bernstein’s classic theatrical urban tragedy West Side Story, the Jewish musical influence in America is as homegrown as Hollywood, baseball and Broadway.
Many of America’s foremost composers, from George Gershwin, who collaborated with his brother Ira to write some of Broadway’s most famous music, to Jerome Kern, who wrote the Broadway musical Showboat, to Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill, and Aaron Copland, have been Jewish.
Between September 2004 and May 2005, while Jews across the U.S. are celebrating 350 years of history in America, Seattle will honor Jewish composers of the 20th century in a concert, “The Jewish Composer at Home in America: Who could ask for anything more?” The concert will take place on March 28 at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island.
“This concert is celebrating Jewish composers that found a life here, found a musical voice here and assimilated American culture into their music,” Judith Cohen, pianist, artistic director of the Governor’s Chamber Music Festival and musical director for the concert, told JTNews. “There’s a pride and a gratitude that this country was able to provide the kind of fertile territory for this growth.”
Mezzo-soprano Julie Mirel and tenor Melvyn Poll, Temple Beth Am musical director Wendy Marcus, along with Seattle-area cantors Marina Belenky, Bradlee Kurland and David Serkin-Poole, will team up with musicians from the Seattle Symphony, Music of Remembrance, Seattle Chamber Players, the Bacchus Trio and Epic Klezmer to perform the works of many of the great Jewish musical icons. Jazz pianist Julie Wolf will also appear.
The Washington State Jewish Historical Society is coordinating activities in the Northwest as Jewish communities throughout the country celebrate the historic milestone in Jewish life. The WSJHS, JTNews and Classical KING-FM 98.1 are sponsoring the program in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
“The forthcoming concert of great music by American Jewish composers, performed by some of our most talented local musicians, will surely be a highlight of the outstanding commemorative events,” said Doris Stiefel, president of WSJHS.
The concert is one of many commemorative events taking place around the state.
In November of last year, former Gov. Gary Locke issued an official proclamation declaring all of 2004 as “Celebrate Jewish Life 1654-2004” in Washington State. The document honors the small band of Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil, who settled in New York in September 1654, forming the first North American Jewish community.
“What a wonderful opportunity this concert provides for our community to come together in joyous celebration of all that American Jewry has achieved in the past 350 years,” added Stiefel. “Our creativity, many contributions to America and the influence of America on our lives affirms our hopes for the future.”
Gigi Yellen Kohn, evening host at KING-FM (and JTNews music writer), will narrate the program. Yellen Kohn believes her role is to “frame the music” the way a frame highlights a piece of art, so it can be appreciated in all its beauty.
“I am approaching my role at the announcer’s podium for this concert in exactly the same way as I do every night on the radio,” said Yellen Kohn. “A little bit of information about performers, composers, and eras goes a long way. I’m the frame. The musicians and the music—that’s the art.”
Yellen Kohn said the Seattle Jewish community often speaks of Jewish unity in terms of religious or political issues, but the talent, both of the chosen composers and evening’s performers, she believes, will overcome any of the usual divisions.
“This is an evening for feeling good!” she said. “These Jews wrote music that defined the American experience: energetic, adventurous, bold and at the same time oddly traditional using not only Jewish sounds like the klezmer clarinet that opens ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ but also the music of those among whom we lived, like the Shaker hymn ‘Simple Gifts,’ a defining moment in Copland’s famous ‘Appalachian Spring.’”
Rabbi James Mirel, chair of the Concert Committee and head rabbi at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, chose Yellen Kohn to coordinate the talent and help them select the music for their part of the program.
“This event will be, we hope, maybe even historic in some way,” said Mirel. “Hopefully, people will go home saying ‘That was one of the best events ever in our Jewish community.’”
Yellen Kohn feels sure that everyone will recognize something Jewish and familiar in the program’s musical selections.
“You have Copland, who incorporated American folk music and Gershwin who embraced Jazz,” she said. “The composers adapted various art forms and incorporated them into their compositional styles. It has a kind of richness. Even if you’re not a sophisticated listener you’re going to hear a variety of musical modes and styles. It won’t be one-dimensional.”