The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) needs a concert hall. It has an outstanding conductor in Dr. Noreen Green, talented and accomplished musicians, and a loyal following. I've heard LAJS perform with increasing brilliance at venues, including the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, University Synagogue, and Sun., April 29, at Valley Beth Shalom. Without doubt, a hall makes a difference.
The LAJS season-closer, titled "Remembrances -- Reflections of the Holocaust," featured two world premieres: the "Piano Concertino" of Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose son Andrej flew in from Warsaw to attend, and the suite from "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" by Lee Holdridge, with survivors of the historic rescue present in the audience. Moving and memorable as the evening was, it suffered from unavoidable drawbacks.
In a strong opening with Michael Isaacson's lyrical "Remembrances," the singing strings were led in their melancholy melody by concertmaster Mark Kashper and were accompanied by a rich contrapuntal background.
The men of Valley Beth Shalom Choir and narrator Peter Mark Richman joined the orchestra for son Lucas Richman's treatment of "Dachau Lied," the song of slave laborers ironically based on the hated words above the concentration camp's gates: "Work makes you free." Dissonant instrumental effects and the denied raw power of oppressed humanity in the male voices at least partially compensated for an imbalance of sound, despite the best efforts of the sound crew.
Rounding out the first half of the program was Shony Alex Braun's "Symphony of the Holocaust." Introducing it, narrator Richman read Braun's story of his "audition" in Auschwitz. One of three prisoners who could play the violin, he watched the other two play for the German officers and get beaten to death on the spot. When it was his turn, he describes his terror and despair, and then how inexplicably his hands started to move and the "Blue Danube" poured out of his fiddle and saved his life. He felt a divine destiny, and he expressed it in the five movements of his symphony culminating in one called "The Joy of Life." I remember hearing Braun play the work many years ago. Unable to play now, he approved Kashper to take his place. The brilliant concertmaster performed with feeling and virtuosity. His tone is not big, but it is pure, and he and the orchestra earned a standing ovation.
In the second-half opener, "We Will Tell Them" by young local composer Robert Elfman, Noreen Green was at her best, inspiring the orchestra to dynamic nuances that brought some in the audience to tears. Prompted by his own visit to Buchenwald among some 7,000 other young people, Elfman employs restless counterpoint and unsettled harmonies featuring lower strings, horns and harp to express his feelings on seeing the camps and his resolve to carry out the message of his title.
Motion picture composer Lee Holdridge dramatizes the remarkable experience of the Jewish children in the award-winning documentary "Into the Arms of Strangers" through a suite adapted from his film score. Tortured innocence sings in the a cappella song "Kycera Kycera," sung in Czech by child soloists Ariel Tepel and Rachel Warner.
The finale, coming as a sudden lift after the heavy emotion of the evening, was Szpilman's "Piano Concertino," with the keyboard magic of 16-year-old virtuoso Arthur Abadi.
Written in 1940, while German planes were bombing Warsaw, this is an upbeat work of jazz themes that should be heard again and again, because its very vitality says to the world, "We will live!"
The evening was a well-planned, well-executed topper to a fine season for this orchestra. May they soon be blessed with a home.