Interviews

Heritage, Freedom and Universal Experience

Composer David Amram shares his Milken Archive recording memories


Amram 30th quote FB
Composer David Amram

To help celebrate our 30th anniversary, we reached out to several artists who contributed to our recordings. We asked them about how their lives, careers, and views on the Jewish music world had grown since their initial participation. Enjoy this interview with composer David Amram.

How did you get involved with the Milken Archive to begin with?

Well to my astonishment, I was called by someone at the [Milken Family] Foundation who was working to record music of American composers of the Jewish faith. And I had written a sacred service for the Park Avenue Synagogue, Shir l’erev shabbat. And I had written the Holocaust opera The Final Ingredient, which was shown on ABC Television nationally in 1965. And I had also written a setting of the Yizkor with a libretto by Langston Hughes, who updated some of the material that he used for a cantata on American persecution of African American people, similar to the persecution that we had gone through for so many centuries.

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David Amram with members of the University of Michigan Opera Theater. 2001.

They mentioned to me that they were not only doing people from way back, but also the composers from the Yiddish theater and operas like The Golem. They weren't just doing what was considered to be fashionable but rather inclusive.

And I thought, this is amazing that they are actually doing something where they are including all this variety of music. And then of course I saw, when I got to visit the Milken Family Foundation office in Santa Monica and saw the other things that the Foundation was supporting, that this was really a major step in what any foundation could do. It made me even prouder to be Jewish than ever because I saw that here was an enormous amount of effort being put out to spread a little light in the world and without saying it specifically, showing the true values of what I was brought up to believe are the basis of our culture.

What stands out when you reflect on your experience recording for the Milken Archive?

I went to the University in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They had a fantastic conductor named Kenneth Kiesler. He called me on the phone several times about the piece and I was so impressed that he actually cared that much about the music and was just thrilled speaking to him. He seemed to have such an understanding of it. Then, at the recording session he said, well I just want to you to sit in the control room and listen.


Highlights from the Milken Archive's recording of David Amram's The Final Ingredient

And I sat there listening, and I heard them doing a part of my Passover opera, The Final Ingredient. I was just astounded. I said, “Boy! I felt like I was hearing one of the greatest operas played by the greatest orchestras.” And then I went out there in the break. I suddenly looked at all these kids who were playing in the orchestra and the young people who were singing and it looked more like a Future Farmers of America or 4-H Club meeting than it did anything I could imagine from hearing the opera in the control room.

I realized that they were very, very talented young people and Kenneth Kiesler was one of those rare individuals. They were able to embody that feeling in what they played and also were really gifted as classical players that could play what was written on the paper and bring out the feelings. I was just astounded.

Many, many years later I went back there. The same conductor, Ken Kiesler was there, with a different group of musicians and they gave a world premiere of my Partners, a double concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra and again, doing a whole different piece of a different genre, just played magnificently.

Did working on the Milken Archive change your connection to or conception of Jewish music?

It just made me appreciate it more than ever. And it made me appreciate the Jewish heritage more than ever. It reminded me first of all, that all people of the Jewish faith are united and somehow a huge family.

I think the Milken Archive’s recordings opened up the door that this amazing variety of people all had something enormously valuable to contribute. And also, the fact that this showed that this was done in America and that we celebrated the freedom that we have here to be yourself and be anybody you wanted to be, and that you also had the right to want to be who your families have been for the last 5,000 years and try to celebrate and honor that.

Listen: David Amram on Jewish Music

Do you have a favorite recording (audio or video) from the Archive's collection? What is it and why?

I loved hearing Abraham Ellstein’s The Golem, because that was such an interesting opera and that got completely trashed and ignored [by critics at the time].

Update us on your career since working with the Milken Archive. What are you working on today? What are some of the highlights or accomplishments you're particularly proud of?

Well, I was certainly honored to get a lifetime achievement award for the International Folk Alliance and the reason being that these were musicians from all over the world, all of whom shared an appreciation for the music of all people.


David Amram receiving the 2017 Folk Alliance International Living Lifetime Achievement Award

Also, I was given a lifetime achievement award by the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame because of my work with Oscar Pettiford. He was a great bass player and I was in his band in 1956 through '59. He was African American and Native American. He introduced me to a lot of Oklahoma Native musics that he grew up with.

Anything you would like to add?

I just hope that I can do some honor, not only to what I tried to do in the arts but as a person. And also, perhaps make other people with a Jewish background feel proud of what we are given. Because we're often told that—I think everyone in America is told—if it looks like they just came off the boat, they're worthless. But everybody has a heritage. And that gift of our heritage is not worthless. It's priceless.


Explore Further 

David Amram's Artist Profile 

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