Naxos’ Milken Archive: 50 CDs… & more in the pipeline. Available at your local CD emporium or directly from Naxos, online at

It was an audacious idea of businessman/philanthropist Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, to produce (starting in 1990) a comprehensive archive of American Jewish Music, music inspired by or relating to the American Jewish experience. Because of their popularity, some renowned works by Jewish composers – such as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Bernstein’s West Side Story, the great songs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, and others – are not included; the mission of the Milken Archive “is restricted to secular and sacred music of specific, historically Jewish connection, intention, or inspiration that has arisen directly out of – or was expressly conceived to accompany or enhance particular aspects of – Jewish life in America.”

Now, as this essay is being written, the first fifty CDs are available on the Naxos label,; these contain nearly 700 pieces, many of them world premiere recordings, representing the work of more than 200 native and immigrant American composers. After spending a couple of days in my mountain retreat, listening to eight complete recordings, sampling at least a snippet or two of most of the others, and reading press releases and CD insert booklets, all I can say is, “What magnificent audacity!”

The Milken Archive has earned awards from their distribution partner, Naxos, for selling over 200,000 CDs just two years after the first release. Producer David Frost won a GRAMMY for five CDs released in 2004 (more about these later). Artistic Director Dr. Neil W. Levin was recognized for his liner notes of the Joseph Achron CD and others. There is little doubt that other awards and more recognition will be forthcoming.

This collection is so vast and comprehensive it is hard to find a starting place. It is about Jewish Liturgical music, choral and cantoral. It is about the Yiddish vaudeville theater. It is about powerfully creative new music. It includes music sung in colonial synagogues 300 years ago before we became a nation. It is about Jewish operas. It is about klezmer and Ladino, chamber music and dance and theater and great symphonic achievements. It is about music by Leonard Bernstein and Arnold Schoenberg and Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky and Dave Brubeck and Bruce Adolphe and on and on.

At best, I can only leave a couple of impressions. One that I am having trouble shaking out of my head at this moment is a three-CD set celebrating “Second Avenue,” the American Yiddish theatre that bloomed in New York from the 1880s through the 1940s providing diversion, shared joy and often inspiration to thousands of Jewish immigrants. Part Viennese operetta and part folksong in a mixture of Hebrew, Polish, German, Spanish and other languages, there is charm and sauciness about these songs that make them still catchy and endearing.

One example is the song “Mayn Goldele” (“My Goldele”) from the three-act operetta, Di goldene kale (The Golden Bride) by Joseph Rumshinsky (Naxos 8.559455), perhaps the most successful of all Second Avenue composers. (At the height of the Yiddish Theater, there were 15 full-sized theaters in New York City, as well as other permanent theaters in Philadelphia, Chicago and Montreal.) The lyrics of this delightful love duet of separated sweethearts brought back together again are by Louis Gilrod. So entranced was I by this song when I first heard it that I was moved to include it on WCPE’s “Great Sacred Music” program on a Sunday next to Valentine’s Day.* After all, what is more sacred than the joy of love realized so winsomely?

I spent the first six years of my life in Chicago. I recall my mother taking me on shopping trips to Maxwell Street (if memory serves…), which must have been close to what the Second Avenue area was like in New York. I remember a very wide sidewalk crowded with tables and barrels and merchants eager to sell their wares. My mother always believed the produce there was the freshest and best in Chicago, and the chickens, which were taken from their cages and quickly slaughtered, were the plumpest and best tasting. Like most white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of that time (the 1930s), she was bigoted, and she didn’t trust the Jewish merchants. She always said it was important for them to make their first sale on Monday mornings, and she learned from them how to drive a hard bargain. Somehow, as I listen to these CDs, it seems that this music touches something deep within me. Could it be, back in Chicago, there was a Yiddish Theater on Maxwell Street?

Moving up a step or two (perhaps) on the cultural ladder are two CDs of scenes from Jewish Operas (Naxos 8.559424 and 8.559450). I listened to the second of these, with significant scenes from David Schiff’s Gimpel the Fool (1975), with a libretto by Isaac Bashevis Singer, based on one of his stories; Elie Siegmeister’s Lady of the Lake (1985), with a libretto by Edward Mabley, based on a story by Bernard Malamud; and Hugo Weisgall’s Esther (1968/1993), with a libretto by Charles Kondek, based on the Biblical story. As I listened, I read the insert booklet notes, which are encyclopedic in scope – as are all the documentations throughout Milken Archive. All three operas are sung in English, delve into Jewish traditions and faith as well as universal values, and are performed by outstanding casts. The first features the University of Michigan Opera conducted by Kenneth Kiesler; the other two are backed by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. The main effect of listening to these opera extracts was to leave me with a hunger for more. They are each inventive, tuneful, dramatic, and easily accessible to the modern opera lover.

Being also a jazz enthusiast, I was immediately attracted to Dave Brubeck’s The Gates of Justice, a cantata for jazz trio, brass orchestra, chorus and two singers – a tenor cantor and a baritone, preferably a black singer familiar with the sonorities and style of traditional Negro spirituals and blues. The lyrics are by the composer’s wife, Lola Brubeck, with quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr., Negro spirituals, the Jewish sage Hillel, and passages from Biblical and Hebrew liturgical texts, all combined to explore the parallel histories of persecution, enslavement, and liberation common to Jews and American blacks. It sends a powerful message of the brotherhood of man through music to all humans everywhere.

The performance, jointly commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music, is led by Brubeck, features his trio, and was recorded on March 25, 2001. The Gates of Justice was composed in the late 1960s, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 30 years later, its message of unity remains timely and relevant.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony (No. 3), coupled with his “Chichester Psalms” (Naxos 8.559456), is performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, with Willard White as the speaker and soprano Yvonne Kenny, all conducted by Gerard Schwarz. It deserves a thorough review…. I would also like to say much about Darius Milhaud’s Sabbath Morning Service (Naxos 8.559409) and Ernst Toch’s deeply moving “Cantata of the Bitter Herbs,” Op. 65 (Naxos 8.559417). The Grammy Award winning CDs of Yehudi Wyner’s chamber music (Naxos 8.559423) and Bruce Adolphe’s Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering, featuring Eliot Fisk, David Jolley, and Lucy Shelton (Naxos 8.559413), and Joseph Achron’s Violin Concerto and orchestral works (Naxos 8.559408) each deserve a couple of paragraphs at least.

And there is much, much more. Whether you are Jewish or Christian or any faith or no faith, the Milken Archive is a treasure chest of musical gems that will delight, sometimes surprise, often enlighten, but always reward listeners both casual and serious. Le-chaim!

*The author is the producer of WCPE’s “Great Sacred Music,” heard every Saturday at 89.7 FM and online (at at 8:00 a.m. local time.