WHEN WE SET OUT TO CREATE THE MILKEN ARCHIVE IN 1990, the vision was to record, preserve, and disseminate the music born of, and inspired by, Jewish life in America. Integral to this vision was the need to document the lives of those who created and performed that music. Since then, more than 800 hours of interviews have been carefully videotaped in an effort to preserve for posterity the historical documentation concerning American Jewish music, its performance traditions, the contexts in which it originated, and the social, religious, intellectual, and political forces that inspired its development.
The philosopher Mordecai Kaplan described art as “a civilization’s individual interpretation of the world in color, sound and image—an interpretation which is familiar and profoundly interesting to the people of that civilization”.
The music reflecting the Jewish experience in America has been shaped by the influx of Jews from every corner of the globe. Each group of Jewish immigrants was already well-versed in adapting to and borrowing from a variety of host cultures, while always maintaining precious strands of common memory and melody. The distinguishing characteristics that spark the collect memory result in large measure from shared spiritual values and an underlying cultural unity. Included in these shared values and cultural oneness are common observances of Jewish holidays; familiar folktales, literature and poetry; the migration of musicians from one community to another; and, in the first half of the 20th century, events that profoundly affected Jews—the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel.
Thus the videotaped oral histories and interviews stand as an essential component of the Milken Archive, unearthing a wealth of recollections and first-person accounts of various fields of Jewish music. They will become a unique resource for students, scholars, documentary filmmakers, and cultural historians, and will eventually be integrated into an American Jewish music curriculum. By understanding the personalities of those involved, the listening experience can be more fulfilling for people of all faiths and cultures.
The Milken Archive encompasses composers and artists of all ages. And while attempting to capture the impressions of numerous contemporary talents through video and interviews, the older generation deserves our most urgent attention in order to preserve the sounds, gestures, feelings, and insights, in sum, the life experiences of those who came before. Today, we are most thankful to have spent this time with so many individuals of blessed memory, from the "cantor's cantor" Moshe Ganchoff who reflected at 90 on the art of hazzanut in the synagogue, to Yiddish theater star Miriam Kressyn, who expressed the conflicts between assimilating and maintaining cultural identity.
The late Amsterdam-born Abraham Lopes Cardozo retired as hazzan of America's oldest synagogue, still in continuous operation—New York's Spanish and Portuguese synagogue founded in the 17th century. Hazzan Cardozo's recorded knowledge of Western Sephardi observances will help to preserve these unique traditions dating back to Colonial America and even 16th-century Amsterdam.
In Paris, we sat down with Mme. Madeleine Milhaud at age 98. The widow of composer Darius Milhaud illuminated his masterwork Le Service Sacré, which the Milken Archive recorded for the first time in its entirety. The woman who knew Milhaud best explained for posterity, "It is a work of love, you know. It is absolutely the relationship of a creature with his God, and I feel that when I hear the Service Sacré."
In 1997, we recorded a tour of Chicago's old Jewish neighborhoods with five of the city's distinguished retired cantors, led by Sholom Kalib who, at age 14, became choirmaster of a major synagogue on his path to becoming a cantor and Jewish music scholar. Chicago was also where composer Ralph Shapey, a fixture in American contemporary music from the 1960s until his death, in 2002, spent so many creative years composing, conducting, and teaching at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Contemporary Chamber Players. In his interview, Shapey considered the obligations of Jews as a minority. "But that minority will always be there, and will always demand of the others to stop and listen. And think. And as long as we, as humans, are forced to think, we will transcend."
American baritone Robert Merrill set the gold standard for the role of Germond in La Traviata. He performed 31 consecutive seasons with the Metropolitan Opera. He was also beloved at Yankee Stadium, where he sang the national anthem for three decades. But less well-known was Merrill's love for the popular Yiddish songs he performed early in his career, and reprised for us on video in 1999.
Hugo Weisgall achieved renown as one of America's most celebrated composers of opera and large-scale song cycles, but he always championed Jewish musical tradition. In his oral history, Weisgall told of his highly cultured family with its lineage of central European cantors. An advisor to such important composers as Herman Berlinski and Miriam Gideon (both represented in Milken Archive recordings), Weisgall also advised Milken Archive artistic director Neil Levin on his doctoral dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Levin credits the composer and teacher as his mentor, indeed, one of his most profound influences culturally and intellectually.
One of today's best-known cantors, Alberto Mizrahi described his artistic motivation in an on-camera conversation during an Archive recording session. "When I sing Jewish music and hazzanut, whether from the pulpit or on the stage, not only am I preserving but I am affirming the existence of the Jewish people, and of the culture that was nearly doomed."
The Milken Archive of Jewish Music, which began in 1990 with a dream and a vision, has grown exponentially during the past 16 years. With the spiritual and worldly experiences of so many extraordinary and diverse talents, the project continues to provide new insights and meaning. These remarkable contributions will ensure that the Milken Archive will outlive my own generation and be very much alive for my children's children and on into the future, in the true spirit of L'Dor Vador.
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