Alan Menken, the composer known for the music for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and other films, was honored for his contributions to contemporary music at a gala benefit marking the 50th anniversary of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music, the professional training center for Reform cantors. Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, HUC-JIR President, presented Menken with the School's highest award in music, the Kol Zimrah (Voice of Song) award, at the May 18 benefit. Almost 500 guests attended the benefit at Manhattan's Hotel Pierre, and HUC-JIR raised $500,000 for scholarships for cantorial students.
In presenting the award, Rabbi Zimmerman cited Menken's success as a composer: eight Academy Awards and Grammy and Golden Globe awards for film and musical theater composition. Menken has also written an oratorio, King David, which draws on his Jewish heritage. Menken is the descendent of two distinguished Reform rabbis, his great-grandfather, Rabbi Irving F. Reichert (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1921) and his great-uncle, Rabbi Victor E. Reichert (HUC-JIR, 1926).
Menken cited the importance of his Jewish upbringing and home on his musical journey and noted "When I compose, I often feel that another force is guiding my hand."
The gala dinner included musical performances by the School of Sacred Music Ensemble. The Ensemble sang a medley of songs from Menken's oeuvre, including some of his playful film songs and selections from the majestic and stately King David oratorio. The student cantors also sang Jewish songs drawn from the renowned Eduard Birnbaum collection, located at HUC-JIR's Klau Library in Cincinnati. The Birnbaum collection is the world's largest (90,000 items) and most important collection of 18th and 19th century European Jewish music and archival material.
The evening of cocktails, dinner, and dancing benefitted the scholarship fund for cantorial students. Benefit co-chairs were Laura and Lewis Kruger, Claire and Seymour Miller, and Elinor and Harold Oertell. The benefit is part of Jubilee celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the School, which includes an academic conference, "Music, Spirit, and Scholarship: The Legacy of Eduard Birnbuam" (Nov. 22-23, 1998), a traveling exhibition of rare vocal scores and manuscripts from the Birnbaum collection, concerts featuring commissioned works by alumni, and the inauguration of a new honorary degree, Doctor of Music, for distinguished cantorial alumni.