Pacific Chamber Symphony offers century of Jewish music

Imagine hearing how Jewish composers like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland defined a new style of American music, as well as where Jewish music is going today, plus a few things in between — all in one concert.

It’s possible with “Tradition!,” a musical program now being performed by the Pacific Chamber Symphony.

The concert was already performed in Pleasanton, and will take place next week in Lafayette, San Francisco and Napa.

The Pacific Chamber Symphony is an 18- to 36-member mid-sized orchestra directed by Bay Area almost-native Lawrence Kohl.

Kohl, who lives in Orinda, moved with his family from New York to the Bay Area as a child and grew up attending Oakland’s Temple Sinai.

While his father played violin as a hobby, Kohl grew up playing clarinet. After graduating from San Jose State University, he obtained his doctorate in music at UCLA, and helped found the symphony 17 years ago in San Leandro.

The idea for this particular concert came about several years ago, when Kohl was involved with a concert at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, in honor of Jess Shenson’s 80th birthday. Shenson, who has since died, was a prominent community member and a great supporter of the arts, particularly music. He was also a supporter of the Pacific Chamber Symphony.

At that concert Kohl heard Emanu-El’s cantor, Roslyn Barak, perform for the first time.

“It’s been in the back of my mind since then, that I’d like to work with her in some way,” said Kohl.

The cantor will sing three songs in Yiddish to open the concert. Following that will be selections from George Gershwin and Aaron Copland.

These two composers “were part of American society, but they were trying to define American style, anake it different than European,” said Kohl. The pieces chosen will highlight their differences, as “Gershwin was more jazz, and Copland had a way of talking about country and urban life.”

Even though the two are very different, “what they’re trying to get across is distinctly American,” he said.

While the pre-war composers were trying to assimilate into mainstream culture, those composing music after the Holocaust often found they could not ignore the calamity that had just taken place.

“Every composer really needed to take the Holocaust into account,” said Kohl. “Some dealt with it directly, some indirectly.”

Lukas Foss is one who dealt with it directly in “The Elegy of Anne Frank.”

Los Angeles film composer Michael Isaacson dealt with it more indirectly.

Isaacson composed the music that accompanies the permanent exhibit at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, overlooking the Statue of Liberty. “Remembrance for Strings” deals with the emptiness felt after the murders of 6 million Jews, while “Fanfare and Belief” is characterized by a new optimism and hope for the future. These two works are also included.

A work newly commissioned by U.C. Berkeley professor Jorge Liderman concludes the concert.

Kohl said the Argentinian-born composer was chosen to give a good example of where Jewish music is going today.

Calling Liderman’s piece “jazzy, exciting and rhythmically driven,” Kohl said “Wholetone Freilach” is based upon the tonal modes heard in Hebraic music.

On the whole, Kohl said, “this program is a beautiful celebration of Jewish culture and offers, for those who do not know of it, an understanding of the continuing Jewish contribution to American music.”

The Pacific Chamber Symphony’s “Tradition!” will be performed 3 p.m. Sunday, March 5 at the Bentley School Performing Arts Center, 1000 Upper Happy Valley Road, Lafayette, tickets (510) 352-3945; 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 7 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F., tickets (415) 292-1233; and 8 p.m. Thursday, March 9 at the Napa Valley Opera House, 1030 Main St., Napa, tickets (707) 226-7372. Information: