The project was conceived by Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation that operates in the fields of education and medical research. It is designed to mark the anniversary next year of the arrival in New Amsterdam, now New York, of Jews seeking religious freedom in the new world. The CD series called The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music will be released over a period of several years.
More than 600 musical works ranging from liturgical music for the synagogue to art music for the concert hall have been newly recorded for the series, representing 80 hours of listening time. They were composed by more than 200 native-born and immigrant composers, almost half of them living. Fewer than 100 of the compositions have been previously recorded for commercial release.
"I got the idea through discussions I had with contemporary Jewish composers and performers during the 1980s that made me realize that much music of specifically Jewish content has been lost to current and future generations," Milken, an international real estate developer, said in an interview.
"Believing that there was an opportunity to rediscover and preserve the collective memory contained within this music, we founded the archive in 1990. This project would unite the Jewish people's eternal love of music with its commitment to education, a commitment shared by the Milken Family Foundation."
Milken said the archive, which covers three centuries of music, will be complemented by an oral history video collection, a volume of essays by leading scholars, and a comprehensive curriculum for use of teachers and students. After the original release of CDs this month, two CDs will be issued each month thereafter. They represent hundreds of hours of recording sessions over the past 13 years in 15 American and European cities.
The original five discs consist of highlights of Kurt Weill's 1937 musical epic for the stage, "The Eternal Road," a group of contemporary concert numbers influenced by the Jewish klezmer style of music, Sephardic-inspired works by Mario Castelnujovo-Tedesco, a 20th century Italian-Jewish composer, great songs of the American Yiddish theater composed by Abraham Ellstein, and a sampler of works in the Milken Archive.
Future releases will feature the music of Leonard Bernstein, Darius Milhaud, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Marvin David Levy, Philip Glass, and Lukas Foss and such non-Jewish composers who used Judaic themes as Thomas Beveridge and Dave Brubeck. Of particular interest will be the discs devoted to Jewish operas including Hugo Weisgall's "Esther" and David Tamkin's "The Dybbuk," and masterpieces of cantorial art including works by such Golden Age virtuosos as Yossele Rosenblatt and David Kusevitsky.
After all the individual CDs have been released, probably in 2005, a comprehensive deluxe box set will be issued with 35 percent more recorded material than is being released on the individual CDs. The 20-volume set will represent the largest collection of American Jewish music ever assembled.
Initiation of the project will be followed up Nov. 7-11 with an international conference-festival of American Jewish Music in New York sponsored by the Milken Foundation and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Titled "Only in America -- Jewish Music in the Land of Freedom," it will feature scholarly programs, workshops, and music performances in several major concert halls.
Neil W. Levin, professor of music at the seminary, is the director of the Milken archives and was aided by a panel of leading musicologists, cantors, performers, and leading Jewish scholars in selecting works to be recorded for the Milken Archive.