To most people, "Jewish music" is something familiar: the "Avinu Malkeinu" they hear every Rosh Hashana, a Yiddish lullaby or the theme from "Schindler's List."
Neal Brostoff thinks way outside that particular box.
Brostoff is the impresario responsible for "Beyond Bim-Bam: New Directions in Jewish Music," a series of Jewish music events being held in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley April 15-May 4. Along with two symposia, the concerts in the festival will present music ranging from opera excerpts to klezmer, with an emphasis on chamber works.
"When I was smitten by the Jewish music bug, I began to see that there was music outside the synagogue that had a real Jewish connection," said Brostoff, who established the Jewish Music Foundation in 1986. Music presented in Foundation-sponsored concerts tends to be secular in focus, with composers taking Jewish themes and Jewish genres but recasting them in ways that don't fit the popular image of folk tunes or liturgical music.
"My interest has always been, where has klezmer gone, where has Chasidic music gone, where has synagogue music gone?" Brostoff told The Journal. "If Jewish music can only be chazzanut, these old warhorses, that doesn't work for me."
Brostoff's eclectic tastes are evident in the "Beyond Bim-Bam" programming. One concert will combine klezmer with tango (and chamber music based on each); another features a composer-pianist, soon to be ordained as a rabbi, who will trace his spiritual journey through classic piano pieces.
The concert kicking off the festival, "New Jewish Music From CalArts," will feature a scene from the opera "The White Hotel," a work-in-progress by Marc Lowenstein, who teaches at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia and will also conduct the program.
Lowenstein chose to dramatize the D.M. Thomas novel musically because "I knew I always wanted to write something about the Holocaust, but I didn't want it to be maudlin, and 'The White Hotel' is very nonmaudlin," he told The Journal.
The CalArts program, to be presented at the Skirball Cultural Center on Tuesday, April 15, will also feature Jewish-themed pieces by Morton Feldman and Steve Reich, both of whom have been associated with the school.
On Thursday, April 24, "Prophecy and Penitence," a program devoted mostly to instrumental chamber works, will feature an unusual recent piece by Henry Brant, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music last year at age 89. In "Prophets," four local cantors will stand in four corners of the performance space at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills and chant, two, three and all four at a time, passages from four different prophetic books of the Bible, using traditional haftarah cantillation. The chanting will be interrupted at times with blasts from a shofar.
The Santa Barbara-based Brant, a self-described nonreligious Jew who for decades has written "spatial music," with the performers placed throughout the hall as well as on stage, said that he has always been interested in traditional Hebrew music but was dissatisfied with Jewish composers' adoption of non-Jewish musical modes since the 19th century.
Biblical texts set to music are "either changed so much that they're not recognizable as Hebrew texts, or they're based on musical forms outside Hebrew traditions," he said. Four cantors with very different voices singing biblical chant, which has survived basically unchanged for centuries, "will make it unmistakably a cantorial polyphony ... using an authentic traditional form," Brant said.
Mark Kashper, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic who has been concertmaster for the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony since its creation in 1994, will play in chamber ensembles in two of the "Beyond Bim-Bam" programs. Brostoff got him involved in Jewish music soon after he emigrated from the Soviet Union as a young man in 1978.
With Brostoff, who "always manages to put together very good programs," Kashper said, he gets to play music he'd never get to play with the Philharmonic. Although Jewish chamber music is difficult to define, he said, "I found that it is close to my heart and close to my soul.... It is satisfying; a lot of it is very good music."
Brostoff, an accomplished pianist who grew up in Los Angeles, entered the professional world of Jewish music in 1971 when he became the organist at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. Since 1986, the West Hills resident has been music director at Temple Aliyah.
He put up some of his own money for "Beyond Bim-Bam" rather than lose any of its programs. "One of my hopes is that this program will spark enough interest so I don't have to beg, borrow and steal for the next one."
The Jewish Music Foundation has helped other local groups, including the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, get off the ground, and it's brought unusual Jewish musical works to audiences that might not otherwise get to hear them.
"I'm finding that some of the things I've done in the past 10 years are finding their way into other people's programs," Brostoff said, "and I'm very happy about that."
For complete details about "Beyond Bim-Bam," including event locations, dates, times and tickets, visit www.jewishmusicfoundation.org
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