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Concert helps start High Holidays season, UWM’s ‘Year of the Arts’

By Leon Cohen

August 31st, 2012

About two years ago, Jody Hirsh, Judaic educator at the Harry & Rose Samson Jewish Community Center and himself a musician, attended a musical event in the apartment of a friend in New York City.

Daniel Asia

Daniel Asia

He heard there American Jewish composer Daniel Asia of the University of Arizona talking about the links between Judaism and music, performing some of his own music, and engaging the audience in discussion of these topics.

And as Asia recalled in a telephone interview on Aug. 20, “Jody said this would be cool to do” in Milwaukee.

But during the planning, the project grew. Hirsh’s initial idea was to bring Asia to the JCC; and Asia normally does this sort of thing with music recorded on compact discs.

But Hirsh said in a recent telephone conversation that he happened to speak about the idea with Ellen Friebert Schupper, director of marketing and community relations for the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

And UWM was planning to mark the school’s 50th anniversary by making the whole season of 2012-2013 a “Year of the Arts,” that would involve university faculty artists, and that would reach out to and involve many different campus and community groups and organizations.

The result will be a pre-Rosh HaShanah combined concert-discussion – with discussion all the way through, not just at the end — that will take place on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 8:30 p.m., at UWM’s Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts. Admission is free.

The program is called “Breath in a Ram’s Horn: The Jewish Spirit in Classical Music.” This collaboration of the JCC, UWM, UWM’s Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies, and Chamber Music Milwaukee will feature Asia and eight performers in four of Asia’s Jewish-themed works.

Indeed, the name of the program is also the name of the largest featured work, a High Holidays song cycle that Asia said will be given its U.S. premier in a version for tenor, flute, violin, cello, and piano. (An earlier version is for voice and just piano.)

“It will be the first time” that he has done this kind of program “with this many performers,” Asia told The Chronicle. “It is very exciting to be able to do it this way.”

Moreover, this concert will not just help start the High Holidays season. It will one of the first “Year of the Arts” events and one of the first of the 14 of those events that involve Jewish artists or Jewish subject matter. Some of those are:

• “Jewish Artists and the Book,” an exhibit at UWM’s Golda Meir Library of materials from the Middle Ages to modern times, drawn primarily from the library’s Special Collections, running Sept. 14-Dec. 28.

• “Jews and Photography in Great Britain” with Michael Berkowitz, professor of modern Jewish history at University College London, on Thursday, Oct. 11.

• A concert by the renowned klezmer revival and fusion band The Klezmatics on Sunday, Nov. 4; followed on Monday, Nov. 5, by a band-members’ presentation “Behind the Music” at Hillel Milwaukee.

Watch The Chronicle for announcements of these and other “Year of the Arts” events.

Asia, 59, is a native of Seattle, Wash., who started as a trombone player in school band. But getting braces on his teeth made playing difficult, so his high school band director suggested he conduct the brass choir.

“That was my introduction to looking into a score,” he said; and that led him to music theory and to starting to write his own music. His works have been performed throughout the U.S., including by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and in Europe.

In addition, he is as much “a committed Jew as a committed composer.” He grew up Reform, is now Conservative, and has written many works on Jewish texts and subjects, alternating them with more abstract works.

“That’s just what composers have done since the beginning of time,” he said, pointing out how Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others wrote both sacred and abstract music.

Asia stands in a long tradition in another way as well. Though a modern and university-based composer, his musical style is melodic-thematic without a lot of dissonant harmonies.

“I happen to still like tunes,” he said. Yet he does not go in for folk or klezmer influence in his music; and he said that will be one of the subjects he’ll talk about at the concert.

“My approach to music is partly mind, partly emotion, soul,” he said. “The best music has always had both.”

For more information about this concert and other “Year of the Arts” events, visit arts.uwm.edu/yoa.