Radio personality Isaiah Sheffer died today in New York at age 76. Sheffer was co-founder and artistic director of the performing art center Symphony Space on the upper west side of Manhattan, and was known nationally as the long time host of the public radio series “Selected Shorts,” which began in 1985. Sheffer started Symphony Space in 1978 with the conductor Alan Miller, and turned a run down theater into one of the most active cultural centers in New York. Sheffer stepped down from the post in 2009.
Isaiah Sheffer was born in the Bronx and was a child actor in the Yiddish theater. He had a lifelong connection to both Yiddish and English radio. His uncle was the noted actor and Yiddish radio personality Zvi Scooler. Starting as a young man in the 1960s, Sheffer’s sonorous voice could be heard on radio station WEVD, the station of the Jewish Daily Forward, where he was the English language host and newscaster. Sheffer was also the author of numerous plays and musicals including “Yiddle with a Fiddle,” “The Rise of David Levinsky” and “Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer.”
“There isn’t an after party because I know pretty much everyone here,” composer David Amram announced at the end of his 80th birthday celebration at Symphony Space on November 11. “I figured that with 500 of you, plus your dates, plus the 60-piece orchestra, the rest of the performers and our families, we’d need Madison Square Garden. And it was booked.” He was exaggerating, but not much: The hall was packed with fans and well-wishers, and the concert program listed more musicians than could comfortably fit backstage at any one time — they were told to arrive in shifts.
The sprawling evening of music was a fitting tribute to Amram, a musical polymath who, during the course of an almost unimaginably prolific career, has collaborated with artists as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Joseph Papp, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Elia Kazan and Tito Puente. He is the author of countless jazz, symphonic, and chamber music pieces; the Holocaust opera “The Final Ingredient”; the film scores for “Splendor in the Grass,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and “Pull My Daisy”; and dozens of works that incorporate musical elements from the world’s great folkloric traditions.