Jewish composers big and small on Jerusalem Symphony bill

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Asked to name that tunesmith, most people could conjure up the names of a several famous Jewish composers — Schoenberg, Gershwin and Bernstein come easily to mind.

Leon Botstein prefers to cite the not-so-famous names. Does Ernst Toch ring a bell?

As conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Botstein routinely champions the music of Israeli and Jewish composers, even the more obscure ones. He’ll do it again when he and his orchestra perform at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on Oct. 26.

Along with works by well-known Jewish composers, such as Miklos Rozsa’s violin concerto (with soloist Robert McDuffie) and Aaron Copland’s towering Symphony No. 3, Botstein and the orchestra will include Toch’s Big Ben Variations.

“It’s a kind of hopeful piece,” Botstein says, “using variations on a theme so everyone can follow it. [Toch] steps into a very large tradition — everything from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven. He blends sophistication with accessibility.”

Toch fled his native Austria as the Nazis came to power, ultimately settling in Los Angeles and teaching at USC. Though highly respected in music circles, Toch has largely disappeared from the concert repertoire. Botstein has tried to change that, recording several of his pieces, including the Big Ben Variations.

The late Hungarian-born Rosza is best known as a film composer (“Double Indemnity,” “Spellbound”). But he produced serious classical pieces as well, including the violin concerto, which was written for Jascha Heifetz.

“Rosza was much more successful than Toch in Hollywood,” Botstein says, “but has much less a reputation in the concert hall. He suffered from being a conservative at the height of modernism, and was looked down on by Shoenberg.”

Copland, of course, is one of the most celebrated American composers. His third symphony, which includes the famous “Fanfare for the Common Man,” is considered a popular masterpiece.

Botstein is a big fan. He calls the piece “the greatest symphony written by an American, the peak of Copland’s achievement. It’s deeply American in its shift of moods. For a homosexual Jewish guy from Brooklyn, Copland did a lot to create the identity of an American through music. He was able to invent something that was absolutely lasting in our culture.”

Botstein, too, has had an impact. Not only is he conductor of both the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the American Symphony Orchestra, he has also served as president of New York’s Bard College for the past three decades. He founded and co-directs the annual Bard Music Festival.

Some have marveled at the way Botstein juggles multiple careers, but Botstein says it’s really just one career.

“I am not a professional administrator,” he says. “I do the dual career because there are colleagues actually running the institution in a way I would not be able to do. The trustees of Bard realize it’s very important that the leadership represent the values of the institution. Why can’t musicians have an opinion abut our body politic?”

Botstein grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants. He lost relatives in the Holocaust, and says he grew up with “an unwavering and firmly proud identity as a Jew.”

In 1970 he became the youngest college president in the country when he took the helm at New Hampshire’s Franconia College. Five years later he took over at Bard.

Now in his sixth season as conductor with the Jerusalem Symphony, Botstein fiercely champions the orchestra and its mission.

“From the beginning we have been in the business of supporting new Israeli music and new Israeli artists,” he says of the orchestra, which was founded in pre-state Israel. “So we are very eager to make a statement.”

Part of his fire might be due to his orchestra’s friendly rivalry with the bigger and older Israel Philharmonic. For Botstein it recalls another famous rivalry in which the underdog had to try harder.

“The Israel Philharmonic is Hertz,” he says. “We’re Avis.”

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra plays 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Tickets: $38-$80. Information: (510) 642-9988 or www.calperformances.org.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.