When Dr. Richard Braun started hanging out with his temple's organist in the late '60s, he probably didn't think he'd become a player in the evolution of synagogue music.
But the Valley doctor's 30-year friendship with composer Aminadav Aloni was the nucleus of the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles (JMCLA), an organization that for two decades has brought new music on liturgical and other Jewish themes to Southland audiences.
On March 30, JMCLA will present an intercultural concert, "The Mystical Music of the Middle East, Celebrating the Sacred Music of Judaism, Sufism and the Armenian Church," at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino.
Braun met Aloni at VBS when Aloni was accompanist to Samuel Fordis, a legendary Los Angeles chazan (cantor).
The Israeli-born Aloni and Braun, a lifelong amateur musician who played viola and sang in the VBS choir, participated in the same temple chavurah and played chamber music together. "We were good friends beyond music," Braun told The Journal.
Aloni began composing music on Jewish themes in 1970 and by the mid-'70s was part of a coterie of synagogue composers, including Michael Isaacson, now associated with Stephen S. Wise Temple, and Chuck Feldman, longtime music director for Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Their efforts represented the beginning of a new wave in Jewish art music, but their music went unheard outside their own synagogues. "We used to say how terrible it was that all these great composers couldn't get their music performed," Braun said.
Finally, in 1982, a grant from VBS allowed Braun to establish the music commission, and its first concert took place the following year.
"It was a big concert; a thousand people came," Braun said. "They all left at halftime because it was a concert of Jewish music, and they weren't hearing 'Fiddler.'"
Since then, JMCLA has staged scores of concerts in venues throughout Southern California and has sponsored numerous Jewish music festivals and competitions, raising the consciousness of local audiences as to what Jewish music can be in the process.
"[Braun and Aloni] paved the way for a lot of interest in and devotion to Jewish music in this city," said Cantor Perryne Anker, who has sung in JMCLA programs.
"I know of no other regional cultural entity that has achieved more than the JMCLA in encouraging young American writers to become involved in Jewish music," said Isaacson, whose series "Ten Lessons in Composing Jewish Music," was released on audiocassette by the commission in 1998.
David Kates was writing music for a new version of Disney's "Silly Symphonies" series when Isaacson persuaded him to get involved with JMCLA and give his attention to Jewish music.
As the commission's executive director, a post he's held since 1997, Kates helps develop its programming and is currently working on plans for the Max Helfman Institute of Jewish Music at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, where composers can study Torah and other Jewish texts to inspire their music.
Aloni's death in 1999, after a long battle with cancer, tore a large hole in the fabric of Jewish music in Southern California and in Braun's life.
"I still miss him, personally and for the leadership and energy he brought to the Music Commission," Braun said.
The March 30 concert will feature the ensemble of Yuval Ron, an Israeli-born composer who has written scores for films, TV and dance works. For the past few years, Ron has worked mostly in the record industry, with a focus on sacred music of the three monotheistic world faiths.
Even as a youngster outside Tel Aviv, Ron said, "I was always aware of the different sounds around me, different chants and market calls."
When the peace process broke down, "I couldn't just sit and watch TV and say, 'That's terrible,' and continue to do my work," Ron said. In May 2001, he put together a group of American Jewish, Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab, Lebanese, and Armenian musicians for what was supposed to be a one-time concert in Santa Monica showing the cross-fertilization among Muslim, Jewish and Christian music of the Middle East.
The response was so positive, he said, that the musicians asked to stay together and began rehearsing once a week. In two years, the Yuval Ron Ensemble has played 20 concerts.
"The impact is incredible," Ron said. "It's wonderful to see people appreciate what is so important to us."
Braun invited Ron and his ensemble to play VBS (a frequent venue for JMCLA concerts and an annual financial supporter of the commission) after hearing them in concert. "I'm really grateful to Dick and David for their interest and support, because I don't do the mainstream Jewish thing," Ron said.
Local composers and performers give Braun full marks for his role in creating opportunities for new Jewish music. "He supports it financially and spiritually," Anker said.
"It is said that in every generation there are 10 righteous men who hold up the world; in my opinion Dr. Braun is certainly one of them," Isaacson said.
Modestly calling the commission's work "a drop in the bucket," Braun acknowledged that "we've helped make some people aware that they can write Jewish music and made others aware of what Jewish music is."
"We did a lot of wonderful things and some not so wonderful," Anker said of her concerts with JMCLA. "The point is, we got to do them."
"The Mystical Music of the Middle East" will be presented at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 30, at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Admission is free; tickets can be ordered through JMCLA at (818) 907-7194 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org p>