Wednesday, August 18, 2010

L.A. Jewish Symphony Presents ‘Cinema Judaica’ at the Ford Theatre

Photo Credit: Guy Madmoni

Ford Amphitheater
Los Angeles, California
Sunday, August 8, 2010, 7:30 pm

Review by Rodney Punt

It was a curious tale of two local orchestras. A week ago Saturday at the LA County Arboretum, the Cal Philharmonic’s pops-to-classics program offered something for everyone. Call it "Y'all come!" The following night at the County’s John Anson Ford Theatre, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony's second installment of “Cinema Judaica” for its insider audience was so focused on its subject it had the air of parochial ritual. It was certainly helpful if you knew Yiddish.

Author Neal Gabler’s well-regarded 1988 study, An Empire of Their Own, chronicles how a century ago Jewish retailers from New York City virtually invented the Hollywood film industry - a leadership that remains largely intact today. Less known has been a preeminent line of Jewish film composers from the beginning of sound in film to the present era. Artistic Director and LAJS conductor Noreen Green was thus easily able to cull more gems, many of them Oscar and Emmy winners, from a rich library of Jewish composed, Judaic-themed films.

Most of the Golden Age film composers, unlike film producers, did not hail from New York. They arrived on our shores courtesy of the horrors of European fascism in the middle of the last century. But it was later composers, from the so-called Silver Age of film (1950s-70s) and Bronze Age (from the 1980s), who were responsible for most of the music on Jewish subjects, and it was they who were represented this evening.

Two greats from the Silver Age generation launched the survey. Elmer Bernstein’s suite from The Ten Commandments met the splashy, Technicolor requirements of its mid-1950’s era with notable brass fanfares, but also an unusual theme introduction from the trombones and drum-roll effects on the timpani.

Bernstein’s suite from 1981’s The Chosen reflects the composer’s growth from a talented craftsman to just this side of genius in the quarter decade that separates the two scores. Set in Brooklyn in the 1940’s, the film traces the relationship between an Americanized and a Hassidic Jew, with Bernstein’s music employing a jazz combo for the former and a klezmer ensemble for the latter. The film suite concocted from the score had its world premiere here, arranged by Victor Pesavento and Zinovy Goro, the latter also performing idiomatic klezmer clarinet.

Jerry Goldsmith’s suite from the TV mini-series drama, QB VII, consisted of five shorter pieces corresponding to scenes in Leon Uris’ novel of guilt and accusation in the post-war United Kingdom. The emotional climate was well captured in the variously colored fragments – electronic zither for the “Main Title", hootchy-kootchy belly dance at “A Visit to the Sheik”, melancholy cello and violin dialogue at “The Wailing Wall”, plaintive oboe for “The Holocaust”, and an uplifting “Kaddish for the Six Million” sung by the Ford Festival Choir.

John Williams’ haunting theme from Schindler’s List was sensitively performed by the orchestra’s concertmaster, violinist Mark Kashper, and became the evening’s emotional high point.

After intermission, a younger generation of composers supplemented additional selections by Bernstein and Goldsmith. While the level of craftsmanship remained high, some repetition of musical material and a slackening of originality after the first half’s three musical titans inevitably gave the rest of the evening an anticlimactic feel.

Charles Fox’s Victory at Entebbe Suite for piano solo, performed by the young Israeli pianist, Andy Feldbau, impressed as an extended study in minor-key arpeggioed dissonance. Danny Pelfrey’s suite from Joseph: King of Dreams, lushly scored and with coloristic choral effects on vowel sounds, nods nonetheless to already redundant middle-eastern musical accents on the program.

Bernstein’s wailing clarinets from his Thoroughly Modern Millie score encouraged soprano Ariella Vaccarino's easy bravura in the “Trinkt L’Chayim” (Drink to Life) toast in the Jewish wedding scene.

Stephen Schwartz, composer of the hit musical, Wicked, was here represented with the Oscar winning solo song from his The Prince of Egypt, yet another variant of middle-eastern atmospherics. Hannah Drew, the 13-year-old daughter of conductor Green and LAJS President Dr. Ian Drew, was the soloist. Wearing the most strikingly stylish gown of the evening, Hannah exhibited musical poise and promise, if not the ultimate in articulation and suavity at this tender age.

Yuval Ron’s charming West Bank Story Suite seemed easy-going and a bit derivative to these ears, almost a pan-Mediterranean take on an earlier classic score, Zorba the Greek. Yuval Ron’s oud and Jamie Papish’s drum, however, lent authentic instrumental colorings to the cheerful score. The evening concluded with a stirring suite from Goldsmith’s Masada.

The otherwise savvy placement of musicians on the Ford's stage risers might have showcased various instrumental families with more successful colorings and interpretive shadings were it not for the limitations of the amplification system and undoubtedly a need for more rehearsal time. Given that, sparkling orchestral effects were still often achieved, with more subtle felicities inherent in the scores, however, only occasionally realized.

Green had decided not to screen film clips, so the context of the music was not always apparent. Making up for this lack of visual reference were Green’s pithy commentaries on each of the numbers, allowing more attention for the unadulterated impressions of the music itself.

The more than fair sampling of musical Judaica, while confirming the subject matter as ritual for the audience, on purely musical terms flirted with too much of a good concept. Given the creative range of these hyper-talented composers, the all Jewish music format became repetitious in part. This seemed to limit the potential range of the otherwise singular and vivid musical voices represented.

The program had commenced with a rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, immediately after the Star Spangled Banner. (According to management this is de rigueur at every LAJS concert.) Although the political implications of such an insertion might have surprised a few in attendance, the soulful anthem had deep resonance with the majority present. One is reminded of the effect of Verdi's Va, Pensiero on 19th Century Italian audiences, and how relevant that same piece happens to be today to the Jewish diaspora.

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