Charles Feldman remembers Los Angeles as a city burgeoning with new synagogues but not a lot of innovative liturgical music at the time he began his career.
"There were very few people in the city who were major Jewish musicians at the time. I was a kid going into a field wide open," says Feldman.
"When I came to Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin was there, and the temple was basically in its classical Reform mode. From a musical point of view, it meant that there was no cantor, solo parts were sung by members of the choir on the choir loft, and there was no congregational participation in the music."
As director of music for the venerable synagogue and its camps, Feldman helped change all this. On May 7, a musical tribute will be held in Feldman's honor as he steps down after 42 years.
"Chuck has a marvelous way with people," says Wilshire Boulevard's Senior Rabbi Harvey J. Fields (Feldman's colleague since 1982), "whether it was at [Camp Hess Kramer] or with the religious-school kids...or working on a one-to-one basis with a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah child."
Feldman not only contributed as a choir leader but as a composer, having created original Jewish compositions for all occasions.
"A great deal of Jewish music goes unheard, unpublished and undistributed, but somehow there are pieces of mine which have become standards at camps and synagogues around the United States," says Feldman, somewhat incredulously.
Feldman's ear for synagogue song developed while he was growing up in the Bronx, when his Orthodox grandfather would take him to the Hebrew Institute of University Heights. In 1944, Feldman moved to Los Angeles and learned baritone horn and string bass at Fairfax High School. After majoring in music at Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles State College, Feldman studied piano with Jacob Previn (Andre's father) before attending Brandeis Camp (now Brandeis-Bardin) under the tutelage of Max Helfman. It was Helfman, along with Isadore Freed, whom Feldman cites as his greatest influence.
Last year, Feldman enjoyed a career highlight when he was hired to work on the "Avinu Malkeinu" track on Barbra Streisand's album, "On Higher Ground." After a Malibu meeting with Streisand and Marvin Hamlisch, he went about assembling a 24-person choir. Naturally, when he presented each singer with the opportunity to work with the legendary chanteuse, "not one of them turned it down," says Feldman, half-joking that they would have quit their day jobs to perform at what turned out to be a four-hour recording session. "It was a wonderful professional experience."
Despite a professional dalliance with pop divas, it is the synagogue musical catalog that has captured Feldman's heart and imagination.
"There's been a lot written about the future of American Jewish music," he says. "Of the opposing forces of formal synagogue music and sing-a-long, my belief is that for the future of Jewish music in the synagogue is a liturgy that strikes a balance between both [genres]."
Feldman is looking forward to his time ahead, which he will spend with his family and, in his words, "compose, compose, compose and relax, relax, relax."
For more information on the tribute, call (213) 388-2401.
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