A new CD titled Jewish Music of the Dance includes not one hora: orchestral music for the concert hall is the program on this, one of three new releases we’ve recently received in the final installment of the extravagant recording project known as the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music (www.milkenarchive.org). Launched in 2003 with a promise of 50 CDs, the Milken Archive reaches that milestone this Hanukkah season, filling up a box set and heading off into new directions.
Like so many other CDs in this series, Jewish Music of the Dance breaks new ground, with two different composers’ music for a work about Moses by the choreographer who created “Billy the Kid.” Darius Milhaud, who fled his native France after the installation of the Vichy government, had already written for Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille when he wrote “Moïse.” Stefan Wolpe had fled from Germany to Jerusalem, then to New York, when he wrote his version, “The Man from Midian.” Milhaud writes a stately royal theme for percussion, brass and broad strings, contrasting it with an anxious, hurried woodwind idea. Wolpe includes a delicious fugue infused with the flavors of Jerusalem.
Joseph Silverstein, a frequent visitor to Seattle during the life of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, conducts the Wolpe; Seattle Symphony’s music director Gerard Schwarz conducts the Milhaud. The disc also includes the extraordinary tenor voice of Alberto Mizrahi in two scenes from a 1916 opera-ballet, Ariel, by the Russian-born Lazare Saminsky, and three accessible orchestral interpretations of Hassidic dances by a central figure of Chicago’s Jewish musical life, Leon Stein.
An essay titled “One Ballet and Two Composers” continues the meticulous scholarship that characterizes all the Milken Archive liner notes (which, I’m thrilled to report, are available in larger type on request — ever try to read a dissertation printed in 8-point type?). We learn a great deal of history of in each of these little booklets. The point of the whole project, really, is both to fill in our educational gaps and to develop our respect for the talent and passion that Jews and the American Jewish experience have brought to musical life.
Education gaps there surely are: a standard music history course skirts most of the material covered in this series, and it’s a safe bet that a standard American history course won’t come near it either. As for developing respect, from synagogue to concert hall to musical theater, the music has its work cut out for it. Compared to centuries of music written for Christian liturgical use or inspired by that tradition, which often shows up in the concert hall (Handel’s Messiah; Mozart’s Requiem; Bach’s entire career), Jewish composers’ concert interpretations of our traditional prayers and themes are relative newcomers. Grammy Awards have come to the Milken project; the recordings are being distributed worldwide as part of the Naxos American Classics series. That’ll help.
Sacred Services from Israel introduces us to what Levin calls “The Mediterranean Style” in excerpts from works by Paul Ben-Haim, Marc Lavry and Yehezkel Braun. All were European-born refugees to Israel before its establishment. Ben-Haim sets the welcoming song for Shabbat, “L’cha Dodi,” as a quiet, elegant andante for choir and tenor soloist; Lavry’s setting of the same song, for just the choir and instruments, bounces like a children’s Hanukkah tune. Braun composed the most recent work on this disc, a Hallel, in 1984 for a Minneapolis synagogue. Its songs of praise are set to syncopated rhythms, for an energetic chorus and a big orchestra. Gerard Schwarz conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra with choir and tenor soloist. One very satisfying result of hearing these familiar prayer texts set by Israeli composers is that the music reflects their understanding of the meaning of the words! We should all be so fluent.
Psalms of Joy and Sorrow collects settings of (mostly) psalm texts by 12 composers, including Miriam Gideon, Ursula Mamlok, and Philip Glass, whose setting of Psalm 126 for narrator (in this case, Theodore Bikel), chorus and orchestra resembles only distantly his much more radical psalm-based “Tehillim.” Just hearing Bikel intone a translation of “Shir HaMa’alot” is worth your four minutes, though, and Glass’s pulsing cushion of sound surrounds the text perfectly. The patchwork of styles on this CD makes for uneven listening, but from the point of view of scholarly interest, multiple settings (the 23rd, the 93rd) do invite comparisons among composers. Some texts are in Hebrew, some in English translation.
Unfortunately, as in many of these Milken Archive projects, the psalm texts are not printed in the booklet. Of course, if they were, the thing probably wouldn’t fit into the jewel case; it’s already crammed with scholarly detail, including extensive biographical information on each composer, setting the life and music into historical context. Still, I like to follow along with the singers — don’t most people? I also like to see track listings inside the booklet, but that’s another luxury sacrificed often (though not always) in this series, for the sake of the copious notes. Again, the Milken Archive’s Artistic Director, Professor Neil Levin, comes at the reader like a man on a mission, which of course is exactly what he is: his mission is to fill you with intellectual discovery, while your ears feel their way through the music he’s introducing you to.
Will you be thrilled by all of it? No. By some of it? Sure. Will you take notice of the Milken Archive’s future projects — oral histories, research, future recordings? I’ll bet you will. Whole new musical careers will be born from this project. Performers will discover and play these many musics, new audiences will discover and talk about them, composers will discover and respond to them with music for a next generation. Meanwhile, for the library-builders among us, the entire Milken Archive catalogue is now available as a deluxe 50-CD box set. The final two releases are Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage, vol. 3 and Scenes from Jewish Operas, vol. 2.