Introducing the world of American Jewish Music
Rare, New, and Rediscovered American Classics—Excerpts from works by Brubeck, Bernstein, Milhaud, Schoenfield, Toch, Wyner, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Weill, and others.
Various orchestras and performers.
Naxos 8.559406 (B) {DDD} TT: 79:13

A sampler. When you think about it, the United States has produced or nurtured remarkable number of composers with Jewish backgrounds. There's Bernstein and Copland, of course, but also Foss, Diamond, Reich, Glass, Shapero, Lees, Irving Fine, Gershwin, Schiff, Kernis, and so on, only some of whom found their way to this disc. Michael Milken founded the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music to document, save, and promote this work. The Archive doesn't confine itself to classical composers or composers who intend their music for the concert hall. There's Yiddish musical and vaudeville, traditional liturgical music arranged for worship or for recording, and new music intended for worship services. Of course, one soon encounters these two vexing questions: what is American music, and what is Jewish music? I have little idea of Dave Brubeck's family background, but I do know he converted to Roman Catholicism. Toch, Milhaud, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Weill all come from Jewish families, but (with the exception of Weill) their American music doesn't differ all that much from the music they wrote in Europe. Is Britten an American composer because he wrote his Paul Bunyan in the United States? Pursuing the answers to such questions doesn't normally take up much of my time, but then again I'm not the Milken Archive, which (in the case of Brubeck especially) seems to keep its definitions loose. On the other hand, can one really think of Jewish composers living in America and not come up with Ernest Bloch or Aaron Copland? Neither of the two show up on the sampler.

At any rate, this is a glorious project. So much of this music is too good to lose, written by Americans or Jews or anybody else, for that matter. Already the Archive has validated its worth by staging Kurt Weill's most ambitious piece, The Eternal Road. And now we have a recording, and this is just one of the Archive's many good deeds. Allied with Naxos's "American Classics" series, they've opened up a new area of musical exploration for the rest of us, not just scholars and those people lucky enough to live in the cities where these performances have taken place. Naxos has released about a dozen of these CDs so far. In the weeks to come, I'll be reporting on at least some of them. At any rate, this sampler provides a number of "heads-up" to a listener inclined to wander off well-worn paths.

S.G.S. (January 2004)