Jewish Island Music


Joel Mandelbaum admits that he is not consciously a Jewish composer. That statement might sound odd coming from a member of the governing board of the American Society for Jewish Music, but Mandelbaum does qualify it a bit.

“I’m not consciously an ‘anything composer,” says Mandelbaum, an emeritus professor of music at Queens College. “But unconsciously I’m more a Jewish composer than anything else.”

Whether by genetics or geography, but certainly on musical merit, Mandelbaum is one of the contributors to a fascinating program, “Songs by Long Island Jewish Composers,” on April 1.

Programmed to coincide with an artful, intimate exhibition paying tribute to the great Jewish songwriters of Broadway and Hollywood, “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, 1910-1965” currently on display at Long Island University-Post Campus, the recital includes the work of 13 American Jewish composers who have ties to Long Island.

Asked if he can see himself, a composer who wrote a dissertation on micro-tonality in modern music, as part of the same line as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, Mandelbaum chuckles and replies, “I would if I could. I did write a couple of musicals”

He had more success with his two operas, an adaptation of S. Ansky’s Yiddish classic “The Dybbuk,” and a Holocaust-themed work, “The Village,” based on real events.

Leonard J. Lehrman, on the other hand, has written six musicals, as well as 10 operas. The concert manager for the event, a job that is equal parts producer, artists-and-repertoire man and fundraiser, Lehrman actually wrote an explicitly Jewish work for his first opus actually performed, “Bar Mitzvah Cantata.” The piece had its premiere in September 1962.

At his bar mitzvah.

However, his bona fide Opus No. 1, a musical satire about nuclear testing, wasn’t performed until the following year. Such are the exigencies of the theater when you are in sixth grade.

At the time, the precocious Lehrman was already studying with the great American Jewish composer Elie Siegmeister, whose biographer and musical champion he would become. Siegmeister, who died in 1991, is also represented on the program, along with Herbert A. Deutsch, co-inventor of the Moog synthesizer and, Tom Lehrer, probably the best-known of the composers and songwriters represented on the bill.

Mandelbaum, whose parents were “totally non-observant,” was a small boy at the Little Red Schoolhouse, a private school in Manhattan, when he was asked his religion. He replied timidly, “I think I might be a little bit Jewish.” But, he notes, both of his operas are strongly Jewish-themed. When he was asked to join the ASJM board, he was “concerned that they might have reservations about me,” but he was relieved to find that their primary interest in him was musical (and maybe organizational).

Some of the other participants are more strongly Jewish-identified. Avraham Sternklahr is a Sabra, whose contribution to the event is a “Four Israeli Children’s Songs;” Herbert Rothgarber’s “I Remember Brownsville,” (one of two world premieres on the program) is a meditation on growing up in what was once a Jewish ghetto in Brooklyn.

A key unifying element in the program is the presence of soprano Helene Williams who pairs delightfully with Lehrman, her husband on 11 of the pieces. A jaunty duo, they come across as a Jewish version of Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris, especially on Lerhman’s songs.

Perhaps it is inevitable that a cultural reporter from the city — even one who grew up on the Island — would ask why composers would base themselves on Long Island.

Asked about the pros and cons of their location, Lehrman, the first president of the Long Island Composers Alliance and founder of the Long Island Composers Archive, has a quick and simple answer.

“There are some pockets of Long Island that still have fundraising,” he says with a broad smile. “There are place where they give you a little bit of money. In Manhattan it’s a struggle.”

Mandelbaum adds, “In Manhattan they have the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic and they don’t think anybody else matters.”

Lehrman adds, cheerfully, “Besides, the air is better out here.”

“Songs by Long Island Jewish Composers,” will be presented on Sunday, April 1 at 3 p.m. at Hillwood Lecture Hall, LIU Post Campus, Brookville, and will include world premieres by Herbert A. Deutsch and Herbert Rothgarber. The concert is free. “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, 1910-1965” is on display at the Hutchins Gallery of the Library, LIU Post Campus, through April 12. For information, contact the university’s Instructional Media Center, (516) 299-2895.