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Jewish Journal

Chanukah Concert Picks Up the Pace

by Andrea Adelson

December 4, 2003 | 7:00 pm

About three weeks before an annual Chanukah concert, Kathleen Abraham renews a Jewish ritual little practiced outside the county's borders.

On her day off, Abraham left home at 5:30 a.m., stopping at a convenience store to fill a 64-ounce coffee mug before heading to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Besides java, Abraham's other provisions include a nosh, cell phone, PalmPilot and beach chair.

Her goal: to be at the head of the box office line to buy a block of 100 prime seats at the Dec. 7 Chanukah show for parents and congregants of Newport Beach's Temple Bat Yahm.

"I thought they were psychotic," said Abraham, who spurned the box office rush when first hearing about it four years ago. "We ended up in the cheap seats," conceded the cantor's assistant. Not this year.

She and a dozen other designated ticket buyers from day schools and synagogues reprise the predawn ritual more typical for a touring rock star.

This year's 2 p.m. concert, produced by Newport Beach residents Dr. Gordon and Hannareta Fishman since 1995, will take a fresh, faster-paced approach with more musical continuity. Each of the 11 children's choruses, drawn from throughout the community, will perform music arranged and composed solely by singer-songwriter Sam Glaser, who headlines the show.

With a lineup of representative choruses from each Jewish denomination, Fishman contends no other place in the country orchestrates such a pluralistic Chanukah event.

Synagogue and school choirs will perform Glaser songs in small groups and as a large ensemble. They will accompany the singer along with a seven-piece band. The show will also feature an Israeli dance troupe from Irvine's Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School.

To shorten the show, cantors will forego individual solos. "It's a great format," said Cantor Jonathan Grant, who won't miss his turn in the spotlight. "Kids put in hours and hours rehearsing. It's an enormous way of teaching the value of Jewish community."

Previous concerts relied on a musical theme, such as Broadway tunes, to unify presentations by individual choruses. Each cantor selected his own music and a celebrity typically served as a master of ceremonies.

However, last year's turnout showed signs of audience fatigue with many unfilled seats in the second and third tier. Since much of the audience is made up of parents of performers, attendance ebbs and flows with the size of each chorus.

The Fishmans decided to revamp their approach after attending an all-Glaser concert last February put on by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony at the lovingly restored Alex Theater in Glendale.

"He was touched by the fact that the audience was young and old, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox," said Glaser, a record producer and performer, who adopted Orthodoxy as an adult. He took the plunge into Jewish music in 1991 and has since produced 12 CDs. He brings high-energy pop rhythms to songs in Hebrew and English.

"Music is a very special language," Glaser said. "It's cross-cultural and cross-denominational. Words penetrate the intellect but music goes straight to the soul."

Creating a platform that would appeal to the community's diverse Jewish groups is what initially motivated the Fishmans, who relocated in 1993 from Detroit and its more established Jewish community. Only six synagogues participated in the first concert held at Irvine's more intimate Barclay Theater. "We had to talk them into it," Gordon Fishman said. "They weren't doing anything for one another and were jealous of their fiefdom."

He dangled an incentive too good to pass up: half the proceeds from ticket sales, priced this year at $18 and $36 for adults and $9 for children. (Bat Yahm, for instance, alone takes in a minimum of $1,200 from its share of ticket sales.) The result is that the concert is generally only promoted within organizations sending a performance group. The only marketing that reaches a general audience is an ad included in the Performing Arts Center program distributed during other shows.

The Fishmans, who underwrite whatever ticket sales don't cover, sought a bigger house after averting a near riot in the first year by the sellout crowd. The Performing Arts Center presents different logistical problems, such as drafting one adult volunteer for every 10 kids.

And sometimes well-intentioned diversions go awry, such as an intermission appearance one year by the television superheroes known as the Power Rangers. The second half was delayed by 15 minutes because the audience refused to return to their seats.

Or last year's ceiling drop of Chanukah gelt, which set off a stampede of sorts that scattered kids while parents impatiently waited at pre-arranged pick-up doors.

"I've learned we can't do everything," Gordon Fishman said.

One unexpected result is the Fishmans' own social calendar is now crowded with cantorial music. Having become acquainted with cantors throughout the county, they now accept invitations to three or four concerts a year that individual cantors organize at their home synagogue. "When you give a little," Gordon Fishman said, "you get a lot in return."

The curtain goes up at 2 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets, $18 and $36 for adults, $9 children, can be purchased at the center's box office or Ticketmaster.

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