Sidebar Article: ‘Miraculous’ wife
Orli Shaham is a world-class pianist accustomed to performing in the world’s most illustrious concert halls. Recently, however, she played for about 60 enthusiastic fans of fine music at a home in Morristown to celebrate the 90th birthday of the man who first introduced many of those in attendance to the glories of classical music.
Forty-nine years ago, Jerry Ben-Asher himself an amateur musician, musical scholar, and critic (a role he has filled with NJ Jewish News for close to 40 years with his “Music Notes” column) was working as a consultant for a chemical company. Motivated by his love for music, he sought out friends and neighbors to gather together to share its pleasures.
It was Jerry, longtime Livingston Music Group members acknowledge, who was the leader. He planned programs, did research, and encouraged their interest, overseeing the members’ growing knowledge and appreciation. Initially, they listened to recordings of the works of great composers, soloists, orchestras, and conductors for the monthly meetings. Later, members traveled together to New York and elsewhere to attend performances. And finally, in later years, musicians came to the group as American-Israeli pianist Orli Shaham did at the birthday party musicale at the home of Robert and Ilene Cowen.
Many original members of the group, who regard Ben-Asher as a teacher, mentor, and friend, were present in the Cowen living room to hear masterful playing and celebrate his milestone.
Curious about the man whose magnetism first drew and then kept together a growing and fairly disparate group of people for so many years, I visited the Ben-Ashers Jerry and Nessa in their comfortable Short Hills home. I found a slight, bespectacled man, articulate but not garrulous, sincere and reserved.
We spoke in his handsome study amid music-themed collections and decorations, the result of wide traveling and grateful friends. Under a wire mobile of a quartet of musical praying mantises and next to shelves of one-of-a-kind small ceramic musicians, Ben-Asher spoke of the early years. “I had a liking for people interested in music,” he said, and he found them, “many from Livingston then others. Everyone wanted to come.”
Nessa Ben-Asher, an elegant, animated woman whose commanding presence reflects her pre-Holocaust years as a child star of the Polish stage, added and expanded on what her husband said, in the way of long-married couples. “Money he didn’t make from music but he was always interested in music music was always in his head,” she said.
Jerry Ben-Asher explained that the group first met to listen to chamber music. “Many of our members would do their own program or they would speak about the music of specific composers,” he explained. “These people became our friends our personal and best friends. I chaired meetings and worked on the committees who planned the meetings.” Today, he said, with 57 members, “it’s hard to find a house big enough to hold everyone.”
Nessa Ben-Asher described the kind of activities her husband planned for the group. “We went twice to the annual celebration at Manhattan’s St. John the Divine, a memorial for Jews who died in the Holocaust.” Other highlights, she said, included trips to hear music played on a river barge, a recent concert by violinist Gil Shaham (Orli’s sister) at Lincoln Center, and visits to the Tanglewood music festival in the Berkshire Hills.
Nessa, who had “three different lives” (see below), met and married Jerry, a second marriage for both, and made her own contributions to the group. Drawing on her international contacts, she introduced her husband to violinist Isaac Stern and ballerina Margot Fonteyn, and arranged for performers like Orli Shaham, whose mother is a close friend to play for the group.
Interested in the early days of the group, I interviewed Sylvia Silverberg, a retired nurse who calls herself the group’s “midwife,” in her apartment in the Lester Senior Housing Community in Whippany. Recalling the genesis of the group, when her late husband, Ben, and Jerry Ben-Asher sat on Sunday afternoons listening to music “We were among the first to have a stereo 49 years ago” she noted that she was “in charge of hospitality. I didn’t do programs. I got hostesses and people to help out. We always had a theme for the year Mozart concerti” or, as a departure, a year of jazz.
“Jerry guided us in our programming,” said Silverberg. “He’s totally guileless. I never heard him say a negative thing about another human being. I’m still learning from him not just about music, but about life. He has nourished our soul.”
Consulting the thick stack of handwritten notes she assembled to make sure she doesn’t forget the details, Silverberg said, “Jerry knew everyone. He took us to see The Threepenny Opera at an Off-Off-Broadway theater in our first year, to Avery Fisher Hall, probably newly opened. He introduced us to a whole world that most of us were unfamiliar with. Our lives have been so intertwined with greatness, and we were just a little group of nebbishes, believe me. Now we listen to Juilliard teachers, master-class people who play, members of the New Jersey Symphony. We have become like 19th-century chamber music groups.”
The Ben-Ashers have also noted changes, as Nessa Ben-Asher observed: “Now there are so many new people in the group another generation it will go on. I was certain someone else should take the reins. Many times I thought enough, who has the energy? But they said no, and they were right. For so many years, everything was Jerry his enthusiasm he is able to work with others.”
The group continues to hold its meetings. Jerry Ben-Asher said he will remain active in the group while Robert Cowen takes over as chair.
And members new and old those not in Florida for all or part of the year will continue to gather in local living rooms to share their passion for music.
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