First Gathering of Helfman Institute Fellows a Huge Success

Twenty recently chosen fellows for the new Max Helfman Institute for New Jewish Music gathered for their inaugural meeting on April 12 - 13.

The conference took place at Brandeis-Bardin on Monday and Tuesday. The musicians came away excited about their continued engagement with Jewish learning the the new musical compositions that will emerge.

About 6 months ago, Cantor Baron of Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino, CA, approached me as Chairman of the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles about the possibility of the Jewish Music Commission providing funds for a program to help educate a group of experienced Jewish composers who do not write music for the synagogue to write new synagogue music.

The program would be called the Max Helfman Institute for New Jewish Music, in honor of the person who had such a powerful influence on so many people, musicians and others, 50 years ago here in Los Angeles at Brandeis-Bardin.
Cantor Baron feels that there is a real dearth of new, quality music for the synagogue, and that this might address that problem. As a former songwriter for Disney, he knows a number of such composers.

The Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles and Cantor Baron applied to the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles for a grant and were pleased to receive $5000, which covers a part of the costs of the program. The remainder is being funded by the Jewish Music Commission.
It was initially intended to have about 12 – 15 participants, but as the word got out, there was a virtual deluge of applicants. So, on Monday, April 12th and Tuesday, April 13th, organized and led by Cantor Phil Baron, a carefully selected group of 20 experienced Jewish composers, from many parts of the country, met for 26 hours of stimulation and study at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University in Simi, California.

The weather was gorgeous and everything fell together beautifully. Cantor Baron planned a very effective team of presenters. Leading off the program, Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, set the tone with an inspirational message as only he can do, and Dr. Michael Isaacson, renowned composer and educator, introduced the attendees to a beautifully crafted consideration of "Music as Midrash,” demonstrating the unlimited opportunity for artistic expression through music inspired for the liturgy.

Stephanie Valadez, noted proponent of the Ladino tradition in Jewish worship, performed various melodies used by the different Sephardic communities.

Charles Feldman, music director at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for almost half a century and one of the first to come under the influence of Max Helfman, recounted the early days of the Brandeis Arts Institute and its prominence for many years in the 1950's and 1960's.

Following a late afternoon nature hike led by Dr. Gabe Goldman, pre-eminent Jewish naturalist, we gathered for the evening service led by Cantor Baron, using much of the music from the "Rimonim" service for Friday nights at Valley Beth Shalom. The Rimonim musicians were joined by Stephanie Valadez.

After dinner, Yuval Ron, the Oscar-winning world musician, demonstrated the ancient musical modes common to all the peoples of the Middle East and used by all the religions of the region – Oriental music. Following this, he ran the film “West Bank Story” for which he won the Oscar for its musical score. He fielded many questions and comments about the music of the Orient and about writing scores for films.
To end the evening, and running past midnight, the composers played CDs of their own music and shared experiences.

On Tuesday morning, Cantor Jay Frailich, cantor emeritus at University Synagogue, used the opportunity of the morning Shacharit service to demonstrate the various melodic systems (nusachot) for the different services of the day of the holidays, as well as the different cantillations (trope) for reading the various parts of the Bible.

To complete the conference, there was a panel to discuss the many opportunities available to composers who write Jewish music. Those on the panel were Cantor Frailich, Dr. Noreen Green, artistic director and conductor of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and music director at Valley Beth Shalom, Cantor Baron, Cantor Stephen Richards, composer, former director of Transcontinental Music Publishing, Dr. Isaacson and myself.

The retreat was the initial meeting in a year-long process of education and inspiration. The Fellows of the Max Helfman Institute for New Jewish Music, as they are now known, were obviously excited and moved by their experience, and in addition, they had many opportunities to network.

Over the coming weeks and months, this group of talented musicians will meet at with selected faculty at regular intervals and will be empowered to create a body of new music for the synagogue. The music that they create will be featured over the weekend of Shabbat Shira in January of 2011.
There is nothing like this program anywhere, and Cantor Baron is to be congratulated for all the work and planning he has done to get it on the way.