During Orange County's annual "Chanukah Concert", a corner of Costa Mesa's Performing Arts Center is transformed into an all-Jewish music store featuring CDs recorded by some Reform cantors who participate in the performance.
"They don't have much opportunity to put their CDs up for sale," said Dr. Gordon Fishman of Newport Beach, who co-produces the concert with his wife, Hannareta. She and some friends supervise sales, which this year include works by Ruti Brier, Nancy Linder, Shula Kalir-Merton and Arie Shikler. Also available are CDs by the Orange County Klezmers, who play at the concert intermission.
Unlike mainstream recording artists, who count on frequent gigs and building street credibility to win a recording and distribution contract, the aim of these gifted artists is not about achieving commercial success, but liturgical renewal. "The Reform litmus test is, 'Can you sing it in a synagogue?'" said Mark Kligman, an associate professor of Jewish musicology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
"Very few are able to make money from recording," he said, noting that a folk artist is considered noteworthy with sales of 5,000 copies. A rare exception is Andy Statman, who is credited with reinvigorating klezmer music, under contract to mainstream label Sony Classical.
The cantors, like many performers still holding day jobs, each self-produced their own recordings, though some received more help than others. Most attempt to achieve national distribution by submitting their work for consideration to the handful of Jewish music distributors. Distributors receive about 300 unsolicited submissions annually, half of which are aimed at Orthodox consumers, who by far eclipse non-Orthodox Jews in music buying, Kligman said.
The concert audience will get a sample of the most recent recording by Shikler, cantor of Irvine's Congregation Shir Ha Ma'a lot. From "Libi Ba Mizrach," Hebrew for "My heart is in the east," he will perform to a reggae beat "Every Young Lion." Onstage, as on the CD, he will be backed by the Flying Falafel Bros., a four-man band that accompanies him for musical Shabbat services.
The CD spans several musical styles and includes 12 numbers from an archive of original compositions that Shikler estimates number in the thousands. It was recorded by Irvine's Woodland Music Productions. "It's like a pipe that's open," he explained of his music-producing flair. "Two nights ago, I wrote four songs," he said.
His earlier CDs, "The Torah in Song" and "Hebrew Reggae," are live recordings from services where the liturgy is sung to Shikler's arrangements.
"Most people in the Jewish world aren't doing original music," said Randee Friedman, president and founder of Sounds Write Productions Inc. of San Diego, which distributes works by 200 contemporary artists, including New York's Debbie Friedman and Albuquerque's Rabbi Joe Black.
Ruti Brier, cantorial soloist with Irvine's University Synagogue, in May released her first CD, "Shabbat Alive," which she co-produced with Sam Glazer, a well-known Jewish music producer in Los Angeles. She sings the Friday night prayers to a blend of jazz, pop-klezmer and Mideastern melodies. Even without a distributor, 800 copies of "Shabbat Alive" have sold, Brier said. She is considering an English-language CD next.
Nancy Linder, of Westminster's Temple Beth Emet, recorded "My Favorite Hebrew Songs," and "Songs of the Jewish Spirit." She is finishing work in a Fountain Valley studio on a third CD, tentatively titled "Simchat Shabbat."
Among the lot, the most ambitious CD was made by Shula Kalir-Merton, cantor for Aliso Viejo's Temple Beth El. She commissioned new compositions from Cantor Meir Finkelstein, Craig Taubman and Cantor Alan Weiner. Its title song, "Don't Ask Me to Leave You," was written by the late Ami Aloni, who was to produce the recording. The rest are well-known Israeli songs with unusual arrangements. She recorded at a Los Angeles studio with full orchestral arrangements.
"It was a labor of love all the way," said Kalir-Merton, who received financial help from an anonymous donor. "I didn't want it to be half-baked. I love music. It's poetry. I wanted the magnitude of the passion to come out."
In two years, she has sold 500 CDs. All proceeds go to the synagogue.
"That was my commitment to the donor. I have stuck to it religiously," she said. Â