As host of weeknight music on KING-FM (98.1), it’s been my good fortune to share, on recent Monday evenings, selections from the radio series “American Jewish Music from the Milken Archive.” In addition to the music—some of which isn’t yet released commercially—the series often includes commentary from the Milken Archive’s Artistic Director, Dr. Neil Levin of the Jewish Theological Seminary. As in any good Jewish learning session, the commentary emerges in conversation. Happily for Seattle, Dr. Levin’s chevruta is none other than Seattle Symphony Music Director (and Milken Archive Advisory Board member) Gerard Schwarz.
These conversations have revealed more than music-history surprises, although there are plenty of those: how many casual classical-radio listeners knew that Stravinsky—who wasn’t a Jew—wrote a Tower of Babel piece for a multi-composer project designed to show off the greatness of Jewish culture? That Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Segovia’s great friend, was not only a gifted composer of guitar music but also a Jewish refugee from Italian fascism? That “Mack the Knife” composer Kurt Weill wrote a Madison Square Garden extravaganza—“The Eternal Road”—designed to dramatize not only the case against Hitler, but also the case for a State of Israel? And who, indeed, talks much these days about Leonard Bernstein’s Zionism?
Neil Levin does, and Gerard Schwarz does with him, and that’s what has made hosting this series uniquely challenging. To speak of being Jewish is to step out of the cultural closet, and own up to an inheritance that can, literally, put you in the line of fire. Indeed, it was the fire of 20th century Europe that brought many of the composers in this series to America in the first place.
For over a year, JTNews has been huffing and puffing to keep you up to date with the outpouring of CDs from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music on the Naxos label’s American Classics series. I hope you are occasionally moved to audition some of these recordings for yourself. Nobody much writes in response to music reviews here. Are you paying attention?
You should be, you know.
From operas to concertos to Yiddish theatre classics, from world-premiere Bernstein recordings to Reform Shabbat services, from children’s choirs at Hanukkah to The First S’lichot, the Milken Archive, brainchild of philanthropist Lowell Milken, was painstakingly researched and carefully produced over the past decade. About 30 CDs have been released so far. Another 20 or so are planned for release during the coming year. Performances are by first-rate concert artists, including Maestro Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, as well as gifted performers from the synagogue and theatre worlds.
This project demands attention from any music-loving Jew in our time.
You can listen to snippets on the Milken Archive Web site (www.milkenarchive.org). You can take that leap beloved to music discoverers the world over, and buy some unknown thing. On the radio, where we’ve been playing whole pieces, we reach not just you but audiences way beyond the tribe.
Some of you have told me personally that you have been touched by these broadcasts. So have I, and not without some discomfort; they wander across the borders between the concert hall and the synagogue.
The concert music world swells with breathtaking compositions written for use in non-Jewish religious settings. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t swelled in harmony with them. Personally, for prayer, I prefer an instrument-free synagogue, anchored in the mysterious tropes of Torah, Haftarah and Megillah.
But to my dear friends whose synagogues and temples rock and fill with organ, flute or guitar, with grand choirs or brass trumpets, I entrust that part of myself which learned to love music in just such a place—though all we had were the choirs and the organ—and I invite us all to consider, as these Milken Archive recordings do, how very wide must be our reach in the spirit of Jewish unity.
The dialogue about what constitutes “Jewish music,” and indeed, “American Jewish Music,” invites each of us to examine where these identities—Jew, American, music lover—intersect.
The Milken Archive recording project will, ultimately, make available a great deal more archival material than Naxos will release commercially. Maestro Schwarz has mentioned privately, for example, that these include the recording made at Seattle’s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, with Hazzan Isaac Azose’s traditional Turkish Sephardic liturgy. This documentary recording, and others like it, will keep available for future generations the unique melodies brought to America and maintained here in active use.
At the heart of today’s recordings and broadcasts and concert performances of all this American Jewish music are the hard questions about which Jews often argue: can you mix this with that? Can you say that in public? Is it good for us? And finally, the ultimate music question: is it good?