LOS ANGELES, Aug. 28 (JTA) — The first of 80 projected compact discs spanning more than three centuries of Jewish music in America will be released on Sept. 23. The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, by far the most comprehensive compilation of its kind, has been 13 years in the making, at a cost of $17 million so far. Fifty of the CDs will be released over the next two years by Naxos American Classics, featuring 600 works — more than 500 of which have never before been recorded or released commercially. The compositions range from Sephardic chants sung by the first Jews to settle in America in the 17th century to current jazz-inspired liturgical music. Also included are operas, symphonies, klezmer, chamber music, ballets, hits of the Yiddish theater, and songs of Zionism and social action. For instance, the first five CDs coming out in September feature highlights from Kurt Weill’s “The Eternal Road,” klezmer concertos, Sabbath and memorial services by Italian-Jewish composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and songs from the American Yiddish stage. Among October and November releases are Jewish-themed compositions by Leonard Bernstein, some never heard before, and Darius Milhaud’s “Service Sacre.” Performers include Jewish and non-Jewish musicians, including the BBC Singers, the Barcelona Symphony, the Vienna Boys Choir and jazz legend Dave Brubeck in his “Gates of Justice” cantata. The collection will be complemented by the first definitive textbook on American Jewish music. At a later date, the archive will release a 20-volume box set of some 80 CDs, arranged according to historical, liturgical and social themes, and musical genres. The set will also include oral histories of living and recently deceased artists, extensive liner notes and essays by leading scholars. The artistic director of the project is Neil Levin, an assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He said the collection of the first 50 discs represents the works of more than 200 American-born and emigre composers, performed by more than 250 artists, including 36 conductors, 26 choral groups, 23 cantors, 15 chamber ensembles and 10 orchestras. The ambitious project was initiated and underwritten by the Milken Family Foundation, which since its founding in 1982 has given away some $500 million, primarily for public school education and medical research. Lowell Milken is chairman of the Santa Monica, Calif- based foundation, which he co-founded with his brother, former junk-bond king Michael Milken. “I think the impact of this archive will be felt a hundred years from now,” Lowell Milken said. “I see it as the most long-lasting effort that the Milken Foundation has ever undertaken.” The Milken Archive and the Jewish Theological Seminary are co-sponsoring a five-day international conference and festival in New York this fall called “Only in America: Jewish Music in a Land of Freedom.” The Nov. 7-11 event will also mark the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews to what would later be called the United States.
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.