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Jewish Journal

Milken music archive is a treasure trove

by Tom Teicholz

March 29, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Can you tell the story of a people by its music?

Last November, the classical music label Naxos released the 50th CD of its American Classics series, music from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, so the time has come to give the archive its props (just imagine Randy Jackson saying: Yo! Yo! Dog, check it out....)

The Milken Archive defines American Jewish Music as "music inspired by or relating to the American Jewish experience." The Naxos recordings cover a vast range of music, secular and religious, from Leonard Bernstein's early Jewish music to "Kaddish," from "Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage" to Ladino love songs and chants and prayers from the Colonial era.

Music that, in many instances, had never been recorded. You need neither to be Jewish to love these Jewish recordings nor even to be Jewish to be included in the archives -- the archive has recorded Thomas Beveridge's ecumenical "Yizkor Requiem" and Dave Brubeck's "The Gates of Justice," a cantata based on Jewish biblical texts and African American spirituals.

What is comparable to the accomplishment of this archive? It is a bit like Alan Lomax's project to record American folk music for the Library of Congress. Lomax's wide-ranging recordings not only captured a slice of American life, they also preserved a whole treasure trove of American culture and gave recognition to artists few had ever heard or otherwise would ever have known. The recordings of what has come to be called "American Roots Music" (from Woody Guthrie to Muddy Waters) inspired a generation of singer-songwriters who, in turn, have inspired successive generations to this day. The achievement of the Milken Archive is no less grand and its global impact may, with time, be just as great.

Recently, I dropped by the offices of the Milken Family Foundation to chat with Richard Sandler about the archive and to learn its history and discuss its future. Sandler is the executive vice president of the Milken Foundation and a partner in the law firm of Maron & Sandler; he has been involved in the foundation and the archive since its inception.

As he explained, businessman and philanthropist Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, had a long-standing interest in American Jewish Music -- he even commissioned a piece from Michael Isaacson for one of his children's b'nai mitzvah. Milken has written that conversations with American Jewish composers during the 1980s led him to believe that a "collective memory" of Jewish music would be lost if not collected and recorded.

Around 1990, he conceived the idea of an archive of American Jewish music, an idea that took wing as Neil W. Levin, formerly of the Jewish Theological Seminary, joined the archive as musical director in 1993.

"We came up with this idea that if we are going to do this on a first-class basis with world-class musicians, there is an advantage to recording in Europe." Sandler explained. European orchestras, which are subsidized by their governments, were looking for new repertoires to record and would do so at reasonable rates.

As a result, although the archive did record with the Seattle Symphony in this country, they also recorded in Barcelona, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and London, with the added benefit that the music was played (and in some cases, broadcast on radio) all over Europe.

According to the Milken Archive's own publication, they have recorded "700 pieces, more than 100 CDs [worth of music], representing the work of more than 200 composers, many of which are world premiere recordings."

But having recorded the music, they now had to decide how best to distribute it. They considered producing their own CDs, or distributing the musically digitally. Instead, the archive's Paul Schwendener, who holds the titles of chief operating officer, director of marketing and artist and repertoire adviser, introduced the Milken Archive to Naxos, a classical musical label with worldwide distribution, which was "fascinated by the project."

Naxos is known for producing reasonably priced CDs that make the classical repertoire accessible. For Naxos, the fact that the material was already recorded was attractive; for the archive it was compelling that Naxos showed tremendous interest at a time when other labels were cutting back. It was, according to Sandler, "a perfect fit." Naxos agreed to produce 50 CDs over a three-year period.

The results have been impressive: Naxos has sold more than 200,000 CDs of the Jewish American Music Archive recordings worldwide, in more than 57 countries, with sales split equally between North America and abroad.

Among the most popular are recordings of Kurt Weill's "The Eternal Road," a work that was first performed in 1937 with a cast of more than 300 and speaks to the dream of a Zionist homeland; "Great Songs From the Yiddish Theater," featuring works by Abraham Ellstein and members of his circle, and the aforementioned "Gates of Justice" by Brubeck. However, what's even more surprising has been the strong sales of some of the more religious and esoteric material, such as a Sephardic service, a collection of cantorial favorites and a recording of a High Holiday service.

Among the archive's greatest discoveries was Jewish music by celebrated French composer Darius Milhaud. Sandler describes his "Service Sacré" as "a real jewel." The archive also was able to reconstruct "The Genesis Suite," a collaboration between several European exile composers, such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Toch -- who were working in Hollywood and whose score was thought lost -- that had only been performed once in 1945 at the Hollywood Bowl after World War II.

Music, however, is only one part of the accomplishment. Over the years, the Milken Archive has also videotaped more than 800 hours of interviews with such important figures as Robert Merrill, Jan Peerce, Hugo Weisgall, and Ralph Shapey. It has also recorded interviews with prominent cantors; stars of the Yiddish musical theater, such as Seymour Rechzeit, who recalled the history of the theater, and some of his fellow performers, such as Molly Picon.

Among the most memorable is an interview with Herman Berlinski. German-born Berlinski, who fled his homeland in the 1930s, returned in 2000 to oversee the recording of his Avodat Shabbat prayer service in Berlin performed by a German orchestra. "He never imagined [such a thing would occur]" Sandler recalls. "It made his entire life worthwhile."

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