On July 12, Strings for Peace will have its world première at the Indian Summer Festival, which is described as “a multi-disciplinary arts festival ‘where worlds meet’ in Vancouver.”
Produced by the Indian Summer Arts Society, the festival’s mission “is to offer daring, multi-arts events that bring together diverse artists, audiences and artists in a spirit of global dialogue and citizenship.” Sharing a similar spirit, it is fitting that Strings for Peace – created and performed by sarod masters Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Ayaan and Amaan Ali Bangash, and guitarist Sharon Isbin – will be unveiled at the festival.
“The legendary sarod master Amjad Ali Khan emailed me 10 years ago to invite me to a concert of his in New York and to explore the idea of a collaboration,” said Isbin, a three-time Grammy Award winner whose repertoire includes Baroque, Spanish-Latin music and jazz fusion. “I had long admired Indian classical music, and was bowled over to hear his performances with his sons…. A warm friendship developed and, six years ago, he conceived the idea of composing ragas for us all to perform together. I received the music last December and loved it. They said that’s good because we have already booked a tour with you in India in February 2019! I had little time with my schedule, but was motivated because the music was exquisitely beautiful, as is their artistry. It was a magnificent experience to perform together in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. I cherish our friendship and the opportunity this has given me to explore an inspiring new genre and collaboration.”
The four performers have made a recording for release in 2020, said Isbin, “and I am excited that Strings for Peace will be touring in the U.S. during summer and fall 2020.”
In an article earlier this year in the Hindustan Times, Isbin speaks about the difference between the Indian classical, mainly oral, tradition and the written Western classical music tradition. “Indian classical music has long pieces. You are taken on a journey,” she notes. “It is a very expansive state of consciousness, whereas a Bach or a Beethoven piece has a clear and defined sense of enclosure.”
“Performing together in India last February,” she told the Independent, “I was amazed to hear similarities between improvised embellishments in Indian classical music and melismatic nuances in Spanish, flamenco and Sephardic music.”
Born and raised in Minneapolis until age 18, Isbin lives in New York City. She is the founding director of the Juilliard School guitar department and director of the guitar department of the Aspen Music Festival. She performs around the world and has appeared as a soloist with almost 200 orchestras.
“When I was 9, my family moved to Italy for my father’s sabbatical year as a scientist and professor of chemical engineering,” she said of her beginnings as an artist. “My older brother Ira asked for guitar lessons, hoping to be the next Elvis. My parents found a great teacher who had studied with [Andrés] Segovia, but when my brother learned it was classical, he bowed out and I volunteered to take his place. I loved that an instrument was built for me, and that you held and caressed it to make music.”
Of the role, if any, Judaism or Jewish culture plays in her life, Isbin said, “My grandparents came to the U.S. as refugees from Russia and Poland to escape deadly pogroms, and I have many relatives who live in Israel. I have always felt a cultural connection to Judaism and to Israel. In fact, I was a teenager when the first work ever composed for me was a concerto by the late Israeli composer Ami Maayani, which I premièred with the Jerusalem Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra. Since then, I’ve premièred more than 80 works written and arranged for me.”
Her experience with the Khans highlights how she views music’s potential to bring together different cultures. “There is only one human race, and we all need to appreciate and celebrate that commonality,” she said. “Music, because it transcends language, can be wonderfully uniting.”
Strings for Peace premières July 12, 8 p.m., at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. For tickets and the full schedule of the Indian Summer Festival, which opened July 4 and runs to July 14, visit indiansummerfest.ca.
Itamar Erez’s new CD, Mi Alegria, is being launched with a concert at the Annex. (photo by Wolfgang Vogt)
Composer, performer and teacher Itamar Erez releases his new CD in a concert June 20 at the Annex. The title, Mi Alegria, or My Happiness, is a play on words: his daughter’s name is Mia.
Originally from Tel Aviv, Erez teaches guitar at Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music and collaborates with renowned musicians from numerous cultures and musical traditions. His music is infused with the melodies, instruments and rhythms from across the Middle East and beyond.
Erez traces his love of music to his childhood home. His father was a pilot who brought many stories and gifts home from overseas trips – food, clothes, shoes and the music.
“You couldn’t get a lot of records. My father would always bring music with him,” said Erez in an interview with the Independent. “Really interesting music: Bartok, Stravinsky, Coltrane and Bach. I absorbed a lot of it.”
There was also live music in his home, he said. He tells these stories with ease, which is reflected in his style of composition, with its shifting, fluid themes and nuanced moods.
“At 6, I asked to play the piano, so we got one and my older sister and both parents took lessons. We’re all musical,” he said.
Added to all the different traditions in Israel, Erez got a well-rounded education in music, which shows in his eclectic repertoire.
“I remember the first piece I wrote that was performed in a theatre: a piano and upright bass duo. I was 16 or 17,” he said. “It was a magical experience to come out with my own music.”
The relationship between father and son, through music, is mirrored in his relationship with his own son, Yahli. The new album features a song written for his son, “Yahli’s Lullaby.”
“It came about when I was improvising in my room and my son was playing,” said Erez. “He was really listening and asked me what it was.”
Erez derives inspiration from a wealth of other sources: literature, history and myriad musical traditions. “My muse is constantly changing,” he said. “It alternates between world music and jazz, with a lot of classical music.” About Mi Alegria, he said, “this release is definitely going towards jazz.”
“I focused on classical composition at one time, and I felt limited,” he explained. “At some point, I just decided to let go of figuring it out. Something wants to come out, influenced by different traditions, meeting musicians from all over the world, like the Turkish musician I met.”
These influences can be heard on his new album.
“‘Samai’ is based on a Middle Eastern melody that I’m ‘quoting’ – a very traditional piece. The original is a folk tune based on a metre of 10/8; classical Arabic or Turkish tradition,” he said by way of example.
“In my daily practice, I play Bach. It’s really important to me, but not in concert because it’s not my tradition.”
Instead, he prefers to perform his own compositions. “I love the freedom of playing my own music because it doesn’t have to fit a standard of performance,” he said.
Erez writes down his compositions, but only when he needs to share them. When he is composing in the moment, improvising on the piano, “I rarely play a piece the same twice,” he said. “When you’re learning to compose and improvise, it’s important to try things out for hours, transcribing, figuring out what other musicians are doing … just getting lost in the sound.”
Of his new release, Erez said, “I’m super-excited. It’s been awhile since my last release and this is a really fresh new sound.”
For Mi Alegria, Erez worked with percussionist Hamin Honari, with whom he has been collaborating for several years, as well as musicians François Houle, Dani Benedikt, Celsa Machado, James Meger, Kevin Romain and Ilan Salem.
The piece “Tides” evokes the ocean so clearly, with eddies of rapid notes below the slower, tidal shifts in the music, with the cymbal taking the role of the surf, crashing on the shore. “Requinto” is a mischievous piece that moves quickly, with many rapid changes, including the sudden arrival of a sweeping clarinet solo – it calls to mind the swift footsteps of children chasing butterflies. “Shesh” is syncopated, laden with whirling rhythms and pregnant pauses. The intense, mesmerizing repetitions and rising tensions evoke the intelligence of Dave Brubeck or Moe Koffmann, while the wind section takes the listener to the Middle East and China.
The new album is fueled by Flamenco-sized passion but also the playfulness of Bach. The result is a work of both tremendous discipline and unbridled freedom. All in all, the mood of the album suggests so much of human experience and emotion, from joyous to the pensive, from comical to introspective and brooding, and beyond.
In addition to the concert June 20 at the Annex, with opening band the Giving Shapes, Erez also performs on July 11 at Hermann’s in Victoria and July 28 at Frankie’s in Vancouver, with his quartet.
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
The June 12 performance of Moshe Denburg’s The Longing Sky features Yuji Nakagawa on sarangi, left, and Harrie Starreveld on shakuhachi. (photos from VICO)
This year’s Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra (VICO) Global Soundscapes Festival highlights the instruments and traditions of Japan. It features a concerto by Moshe Denburg, and percussionists Jonathan Bernard and Niel Golden, both members of the Jewish community, are among the performers.
“As an organization committed to bringing forward and collaborating with all cultures of the world, we have had a connection with Japanese musical culture since our inception in 2001,” explained Denburg, VICO founding artistic director, of the festival’s focus. “Our present artistic director, Mark Armanini, studied composition with the late Elliot Weisgarber, who was my mentor and friend as well, and was, in a real sense, a progenitor of interculturalism in Vancouver. His own studies and musical explorations took him to Japan and into Japanese music. This is one longstanding Japanese influence in our midst.
“The VICO has collaborated with Japanese musicians on many occasions in the past,” he continued. “The first major encounter was in 2010, at a concert production called Imagined Worlds: Japanese Interventions, at which concert we had two visiting Japanese musical virtuosos. In 2013, we produced a mini-festival, together with the Japanese consulate and the Japanese community here, called Chrysanthemums and Maple Leaves. One of the main soloists of this festival, Naomi Sato, has been with us for further iterations of this festival concept, in 2014 and again this year. She plays a traditional Japanese mouth organ called the sho. This year, in addition to Ms. Sato, we have Miyama McQueen-Tokita on koto and Harrie Starreveld on shakuhachi.”
The festival’s opening concert on June 5 at the Waterfront Theatre features Debris, a new mini-opera by Rita Ueda, “inspired by the 2011 tsunami and the debris that washed up along the West Coast of North America,” works by Weisgarber, as well as traditional Japanese music. Denburg’s The Longing Sky is part of Raga-tala-Malika! A Garland of Ragas and Talas with VICO and Friends, at the Rothstein Theatre on June 12.
About The Longing Sky, Denburg said, “After my tours of musical study in India and Japan, which took place in the mid-’80s, I returned to Canada to begin realizing some of my global fusion ideas. Around 1994, I sketched a work which brought together the two traditions I had previously been exposed to, and conceived of a double concerto for shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and sarangi (Indian bowed string), instruments that, in their own unique ways, spoke to me of longing.
“The Longing Sky originally came to me as part of a two-movement work that I conceived of then, called Between the Source and the Longing Sky. The source represents our life here on earth, while the longing sky represents the possibility of reaching out to a new life in space. This was and still is our global situation today: we have the means to explore other worlds, but the early promise of moving into space has hardly been realized. The sky is within each of us, and represents our longing for a better world, a larger creative palette, a future vast and free.”
The work premièred in November 2013, with featured soloists Dhruba Ghosh on sarangi and Starreveld on shakuhachi. “In 2017, at the young age of 59, Dhruba-ji passed away suddenly of a heart attack,” said Denburg. “This remount of The Longing Sky is a tribute to him, our dear colleague, mentor and friend. Appropriately enough, his student and disciple, Yuji Nakagawa, will be the featured sarangi player, and Harrie will reprise his role on shakuhachi. May Dhruba’s memory always be a blessing.”
Learning the techniques involved with playing an unfamiliar instrument, in order to compose for it, begins with one-on-one sessions with the performer, said Denburg.
“I did this with several shakuhachi performers over the years, studied many materials and listened to many recordings,” he said. “Regarding sarangi, I found, in the early ’90s, a very well-known Canadian ethnomusicologist, cellist and sarangi player, Regula Qureshi, who taught, until her recent retirement, at the University of Alberta. My first learning sessions were with her, and I supplemented these with certain materials that I found in ethnomusicological treatises. Of course, one can never really ‘know’ how to write for an instrument until one has tried to transmit the composition to a performer and listened to the result. In my case, I am still learning how to write for sarangi – actually, the process never ends.
“Another aspect of composing for such an instrument, and indeed for many instruments of the world, is that as they are part of the great ‘aural traditions’ of the world,” he added. “One prime example of this is the music of India – the composer needs to supplement written materials with aural aids; audio materials that are sung, or played on synthesizer or another instrument. But, most importantly, the composer has to sit down with the performer and work on the musical lines he has composed, and sincerely take advice from the performer as to what works and what does not work. This is one aspect of intercultural work that cannot be emphasized enough – the written composition is not the only way, nor even the best way to create great music. This is humble pie for most Western composers, and one might say an added benefit of intercultural exploration.”
On the topic of cultural appropriation, Denburg said, “We have been aware of these issues and, in fact, we may be convening, in 2020 or 2021, a cross-Canada series of discussions exploring best intercultural practices.
“One thing that we have done over the years,” he said of VICO, “which we believe has been acceptable practice, is that we have always emphasized the collaborative aspect of the work. We are not expressing someone else’s narrative, but rather our own, new intercultural narrative. And, when we present other cultures, this is precisely what we do – we present those cultures in performances by accepted exponents of them. So, in a VICO concert, you will often find some demonstration pieces of the collaborating cultures themselves. For example, in Raga-Tala-Malika, we will have a traditional raga presentation, probably featuring our guest sarangi player together with our guest tabla player; and a shakuhachi solo may also be presented. These are the undiluted presentations of ‘other’ cultures. Then, in pieces like The Longing Sky, and others on the program, a truly intercultural piece will be performed.”
Golden will be playing tabla on Denburg’s piece on June 12, and likely accompanying the sarangi player on tabla for a traditional Indian piece in that show. He is also scheduled to play with Starreveld and Nakagawa at the closing concert of the festival, June 13, at the Annex.
According to his bio, when Golden moved to Victoria from Toronto in 1986, “he helped form the world, folk fusion trio, New Earth. Their self-titled CD took them to Seville, Spain, where they represented Canada for six weeks at Expo ’92.… Blending African, Indian, Western and other world music, their first CD, Indiscretion, earned them a Juno nomination as best global recording of 1995.”
Throughout the years, Golden has continued to study tabla and has collaborated with many artists, including Denburg for the past 18 years – Golden is a member of the VICO. He is also a member of the new world music quartet Saffron, performs in the trio DNA, as well as the trio Three Worlds, which recently released a self-titled CD.
Bernard – principal percussionist with the Vancouver Island Symphony – will be playing in the Global Soundscapes Festival on June 8, in Zen and Now, and in Raga-Tala-Malika. His bio notes: “His interest in world music has led him to perform Chinese, Javanese, Balinese and Korean music and study traditional and contemporary Chinese percussion in Beijing, Arabic percussion in Cairo and Carnatic rhythm in South India.” He has premièred more than 70 chamber works with various ensembles, and has toured throughout Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan.
For Global Soundscapes concert tickets ($20-$35), more information on the artists and the full performance schedule, visit vi-co.org.
Vancouver composer Itamar Erez will have a world première of his work at the Sound of Dragon Ensemble (Vancouver) and Melody of China (San Francisco) concert May 30, 7 p.m., at the Western Front. Erez will be playing guitar with Sound of Dragon, as well. His composition, Migrant Voices, was inspired by Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, which Erez read when he was younger. It is an imagined set of conversations between Marco Polo and the emperor of the 13th-century Mongolian empire, Kublai Khan. Each chapter of the book is a prose poem, describing an imaginary city that Marco Polo “discovered” in his travels. “I remember being deeply inspired by it as a young person,” said Erez. “In a similar way, perhaps, the music of Migrant Voices is a kind of a ‘discovered’ folk song, from an imaginary city, country or culture. Based on a 9/8 and 7/8 time signature, it definitely has elements taken from certain Balkan/Greek music, Turkish or Armenian. Not sure, to tell you the truth, exactly why and how – it just came to me one day as if a voice whispered it in my ear.”
The May 30 concert – in celebration of Asian Heritage Month – is the first collaboration of two professional music ensembles with Chinese roots from across the border between Canada and the United States. For tickets and more information, visit soundofdragon.com.
The Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in a performance last fall at the Peretz Centre, led by conductor David Millard, with pianist Danielle Lee. (photo from VJFC)
As they say, nothing comes from nothing and so it is with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Officially, our birth date was 1979 – and that’s what we’re celebrating in the June 9 spring concert unironically called Freylekhe Lider: Yiddish Party Songs – but, when you come right down to it, we were in labour for around 25 years before finally coming into the world.
An early predecessor to the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir was a group called the UJPO’s Vancouver Jewish Folk Singers. UJPO was the United Jewish People’s Order and it was a decidedly political organization that positioned itself somewhere left of Lenin. Its eight-member choir, though keen on socially progressive issues as well, was somewhat less political and more focused on bringing Yiddish and international music to the Vancouver community. Yiddish singer Claire Osipov, the choir’s founder and director, formed the group in 1956 and kept it going for six years. In that time, the choir performed at Peretz Centre events, as well as reaching out to the community beyond. On two occasions, the choir performed at the CBC studio and was broadcast over CBC Radio.
Everyone familiar with Claire knows she seems to have boundless energy when it comes to her love of music and so, to no one’s surprise, she took on additional musical duties and began a children’s choir at Peretz in 1959. The Peretz Centre had an active children’s education program under principal Leibl Basman and Claire’s choir drew on this group, bringing in children who ranged in age from 7 to 11. Noteworthy in this choir was part-time piano accompanist Gyda Chud, current president of the Peretz Centre.
Time and circumstance brought both those choirs to an end some time in the 1960s and, for a time, the halls of the Peretz Centre were chorally silent.
Then, a Peretz choir formed under the direction of Morrie Backun, an employee of Ward’s music. Little is remembered about this choir because Morrie discontinued the group after just one year. Tammy Jackson sang in this choir and one of her main recollections is not so much the repertoire and performances as the brilliant discount they got on sheet music.
* * *
Searle Friedman arrived on the Vancouver scene 1978. He had been out of the country for a number of years studying music in East Germany. After his studies, he and his family – wife Sylvia and sons Michael, Robert and David – settled in Toronto, where Searle became conductor of the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir.
After a time, the family decided to move to Vancouver and Searle came here on his own initially to pave the way. At first, he taught at an alternative education program (called Relevant High School) that was based at what was then called the Vancouver Peretz Institute but, after a year, he parted company with that organization. Since his Ontario teaching credentials were not immediately transferable to British Columbia, Searle spent much of his time at Peretz and it was there that he had a conversation with Tammy, who suggested that he form a choir to occupy his time.
The beginnings of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir were rather humble, comprising just a few members and a Russian pianist named Wolfgang. The roster at that time is only vaguely remembered but it certainly included Tammy (Searle’s niece) and Sylvia (his wife). It likely also included David Friedman (Searle’s son), Goldie Shore, Betty Ewing, Davie Cramer, Carl Lehan and Margie Goldhar. When there were no-shows at rehearsals, the standing joke was that the choir could at least consider the possibility of becoming a barbershop quartet.
In those early years, the choir performed informally at various Peretz Centre festival occasions and cultural gatherings. The repertoire was a potpourri of traditional Jewish folk songs sung in Yiddish, as well as some non-Jewish selections that piqued Searle’s interest – “Roosters Crowing on Sourwood Mountain” and “Martian Love Song,” to name two. Incidentally, Searle could never figure out why the “Roosters” song never sounded quite right, until one day he discovered somebody in the bass section was singing “roosters growing on the side of the mountain.”
But the choir grew rapidly. Searle was not just a brilliant conductor and arranger. He was very much a people person and had a charisma and affability that drew others to him. He had a knack for making his singers believe in themselves. Maurie Jackson, an early recruit, recalls Searle often saying to struggling singers: “If you can talk, you can sing!” In a short time, the choir grew to around 30 members, including me.
I had seen Searle’s choir perform and I thought about joining but my interest was kind of a passing thing. I was determined to do something Jew-ish but my real hope was to join a folk dancing class at the Jewish Community Centre. My job kept me glued to a desk most days. I figured folk dancing would be a good way to get some exercise, lose some weight and meet new people. As fate would have it, the folk dancing class was canceled, so I had to begrudgingly fall back on my second choice – the choir. It was a choice that I stuck with for almost 36 years and a choice that introduced me to Tammy – the remarkable lady I’ve been married to for 31 years and counting.
Tammy’s uncle, Searle, was inordinately pleased to know he had played matchmaker to two of his choir members. As often as Searle gave me pointers on singing, he also asked for updates on the state of my relationship with his niece: “Are you seeing each other after choir?” “Are you engaged yet?” “Do you have a wedding date?”
Rehearsals were a lot of fun. Searle liked to laugh and humour was always a part of our repertoire. I recall one day when Searle was working hard at getting us to blend our voices more closely. He wanted to hear the choir singing as one voice. After puzzling over how to make us understand this, he said, “I want all of you to try really hard to feel each other’s parts!” That did us in for most of the rest of that rehearsal, and even Searle had to take time to get back his concentration.
Searle’s one nemesis in rehearsals was his wife, Sylvia. While the rest of us were in awe of his talents and put Searle on a pedestal, Sylvia felt no such compunction. She freely advised Searle of proper pronunciations of Yiddish words and even was vocal about the pace of various songs when she thought Searle had got it wrong. The expression we often heard from Sylvia was, “In my village….” The expression we often heard from Searle was “Sylvia, who’s running this choir?” For fear of hurting his feelings, no one ever answered that question. Many a rehearsal degenerated into heated debates regarding Yiddish linguistics and the proper treatment of traditional songs.
As well as increasing the size of the choir, Searle wanted to increase our presence in the community and give us a focal point for our efforts. With that in mind, we performed our first annual spring concert in the spring of 1984. Our guest artists were the Shalom Dancers. In addition to the choir fans who attended, the Shalom Dancers brought to the performance their own appreciative followers. The result was a very large and lively audience. The pervasive feeling in the choir was, “We’ve got to do this again!” And so, we have, every spring.
* * *
Searle’s energy and love of music had always made him seem like an unstoppable force of nature. We thought and hoped he would last forever. We were wrong. Due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, his robust exterior masked the effects of a damaged heart. When he was still a young man, his doctors basically told him not to take on any long-term magazine subscriptions. They said that, with the damage to his heart valves, he would not survive past the age of 40. Searle’s response was to get married, raise three sons, travel to East Germany to study music, get his Canadian teaching certificate and start a choir. When it came to living his life, Searle was not about to call it a day.
In September 1974, Searle had a heart valve replacement and got on with his life. After he founded the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in 1979, he was spending repeated stints in the hospital. Nevertheless, he pushed through his medical setbacks and always came back to us ready to lead the choir without a backward glance.
I had a conversation with Searle that pretty much says it all. I was visiting him in the hospital.
Me: How are you doing, Searle?
Searle: Fantastic! I’ve gotten some very good news from my cardiologist.
Me: (greatly relieved) Wonderful! What did he tell you?
Searle: Well, it turns out he sings in a choir and he’s not happy with it. He’s thinking of joining ours! And he’s a tenor!
Searle returned to us from that hospital stay and all of that seemed behind him. But tragedy struck on Dec. 31, 1990. Searle’s heart just stopped. He was only 64.
Just over a week later, we had our first choir rehearsal without Searle. We stood in a large circle and began our warm-up exercises, led by our accompanist, Susan James. No one’s mind was on what we were doing. After a few minutes, I suggested we stop so I could say a few things about Searle. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I spoke about Searle and how much the choir meant to him, and about keeping it going as a tribute to his memory. The floodgates opened. Every choir member spoke of how much Searle had meant to them personally. When it ended, we got down to the business of carrying on what he had begun. If we doubted ourselves, we only had to look at one of the choir members who stood in that same circle to warm up and sing with the rest of us – Searle’s wife, Sylvia.
* * *
After Searle’s passing, Susan stepped up and became our conductor. She was a more reserved individual than Searle but a skilled conductor and her attention to detail was legendary. Nothing got by her and every note sung that was not to her satisfaction was drilled again and again until we got it right. And, sometimes, when the notes were right, we were still stopped dead in our tracks because the page turns were too loud. We worked harder during rehearsals, and we were better singers for it.
Susan’s tenure was five years. She was a devout Christian and the choir was composed mostly of a bunch of godless secularists. In her farewell letter to the choir, she expressed her sadness at not being able to share her beliefs with the rest of us. She left in 1995, after our annual June concert and our season had ended.
Again, a member from our ranks stepped up and helped us carry on. In fall 1996, David Millard – who for a few years had been a paid professional singer in our tenor section – became our conductor and, much to our good fortune, is still at it today.
Over the years, David has conducted, served as our resident Yiddishist, sung as a soloist, filled in on occasion as our pianist, written choral arrangements for many of our songs and led audience sing-alongs at festival celebrations. As we declared in one of our concert narrations, David is the Swiss Army knife of conductors.
In recent times, he composed an original six-part cantata based on a Yiddish translation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky” – “Yomervokhets,” in Yiddish. David’s interest was piqued when he read a Yiddish translation of “Jabberwocky” by Raphael Finkel. Finkel had apparently found a Yiddish-English dictionary that no one knew existed. In this dictionary, the “Jabberwock” translates as the “Yomervokh” and the “frumious Bandersnatch” is noted as the “froymdikn Bandershnits.” The hero’s blade that went “snicker-snack” as it sliced into the Jabberwock made a different sound held by a Jewish hero – “shnoker-shnik.” Who knew?
Translation issues aside, “Yomervokhets” is a brilliant original composition and an audience favourite. No history of the choir would be complete without it and it is to be featured at the choir’s 40th anniversary concert in June.
* * *
Helping us sound our best over the years have been our piano accompanists. Some choirs sing a cappella (without accompaniment). Some choirs, such as ours, are community choirs that welcome enthusiasts of all abilities. For that reason, many of us welcome the guidance of an accompanist to help keep us on pitch. (Some of the choir still think a cappella is an Italian dish involving meatballs.)
Good accompanists are not easy to come by. They need to work closely in tandem with the conductor, often to the point of reading his or her mind.
Over the years, we have relied on many pianists to keep us in tune. Currently, we are accompanied by Danielle Lee, who joined us at the start of this season. But, Elliott Dainow stands out as our longest-serving accompanist – almost 20 years! Beyond contributing his talents at the piano, Elliott was a choral arranger and his version of “Oseh Shalom” has been performed by the choir many times. Though he grew to be a member of the family, to everything there is a season, and Elliott left us in June of 2017, in order to give more time to the renovation of his home on Hornby Island.
* * *
Over the years, the choir has performed at countless venues, including the Peretz Centre, South Granville Lodge, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Cityfest Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library, VanDusen Gardens, Cavell Gardens, Orpheum Theatre’s Parade of Choirs, the Vancouver Planetarium, the Israeli Street Festival and Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El.
Sadly, one of our more recent choir performances was at a memorial service for our beloved Sylvia. Shortly after our June concert in 2016, she became ill and passed away that December. She was our last original choir member still active with the choir. In the program notes of our June 2017 concert, we wrote: “The choir dedicates this concert to the memory of our beloved Sylvia Friedman, who sang with us for all but one of the 38 years of our existence. Sylvia wanted to sing this one last concert before retiring. Her death in December 2016 prevented that, but, in our hearts, she is always right there beside us, singing as beautifully as ever.”
Under David’s able baton – figuratively speaking, since he really just waves his arms and hopes somebody notices – and inspired by the devotion to Jewish music of Searle and Sylvia Friedman, the choir is looking forward to its next 40 years.
For tickets ($18) to Freylekhe Lider June 9, 2 p.m., at the Peretz Centre, visit eventbrite.ca.
Yoni Rechter will be in Vancouver to perform for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
“I love to know the world through music, and music has brought me to many places …. When I come and play and then I also make connection with the place, I prefer it to being the usual tourist. So, I’m glad I have the opportunity to come back to Canada after so many years … especially to Vancouver, that I heard so much about it,” Yoni Rechter told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview.
Rechter headlines the community Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration May 8 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. While he has toured around the world, he hasn’t ever performed outside of Israel on Israel’s Independence Day. So, why now?
“There are two artists,” he said, “who were previously in this concert – Nurit Galron  and Shlomi Shaban  – they are both friends of mine, I work with them. Each one of them told me how nice it was to be there at the Yom Ha’atzmaut event, so I got good recommendations.”
Since he wrote his first song more than 50 years ago, Rechter has become a virtual icon of Israeli music. The composer, pianist, singer and arranger has created music for solo performances, bands, theatre, film, symphony, dance and opera. He has more than a dozen albums and has collaborated with a large portion of the who’s who of the Israeli cultural arts scene. Yet, he remains humble.
“I worked with the right people. I mean, people that I had the opportunity to learn from them, from the beginning of my musical career,” he said of his success. “I was first in the group Kaveret – you know, Poogy? By the way, we performed in Canada in ’76. We were in Montreal and Toronto and Winnipeg, and I still remember the temperature in Winnipeg. I think it was in winter; it really was the lowest temperature I ever felt. Anyway, then I worked with Arik Einstein, then I worked with Yossi Banai … and then I had the opportunity to work with very important theatre directors, like Hanoch Levin, Nissim Aloni and Miki Gurevich, and, also in movies. Because this is a small country, if you are willing to work, you can do various musical activities…. I had a lot of people to learn from, and really great, great artists.”
He said Israel is different than the United States or Canada with regard to the concept of celebrity. In Israel, he said, “We grew up very simply, and I go every day to swim. It’s not that I live in a protected house and I have bodyguards. It’s not this type of culture in Israel, first of all, but still there are people in Israel who might use their publicity for power or this kind of thing, but my character, I feel that I’m a musician, it’s the music and not me…. I feel that I have what to say in my music, but I never speak about myself; nobody knows about my wife, about my children, my private life. I’m really not into doing something with it, and it’s many years like this, but, I must confess, that I’m also not required by people or by journalists to speak about my personal life. Really, people accept me as I am.”
Rechter almost didn’t become a musician. When he was about to go into the army, at age 18, his father had what was probably the biggest architecture firm in Israel at the time. Even though his parents separated when Rechter was very young and he didn’t live with his father, he said it was a big decision as to whether to follow in his father’s footsteps. But, also, he said, music came easily to him.
“You know, I was just sitting at the piano and I composed, everything flowed, so I thought maybe life should be more difficult, and I should go to places that are more requiring of effort,” he said. “And this feeling I had, I was sure I was going to be an architect, but, in the army, I played in a military group of the artillery … and, when I finished the army, I thought to go to study architecture but then I got a telephone call from the members of what was going to be Kaveret group (Poogy group), and they called me for an audition. I heard the music and I fell in love. In the end, it came out to be [that I became] pianist of this group and a member of this group that changed … my career…. I have a brother who continues my father’s legacy.”
As to music and the projects he takes on, Rechter said there are a couple of factors he considers, notably the seriousness of the request and whether he has something to contribute musically. He gave the example of the Israeli Opera, who asked him to create a work for them, which will play again next year. He based the opera, Schitz, on the play by Levin.
“To write an opera,” he said, “it’s a year of 12-hours-a-day work; it’s really very [intensive]. It was an 80-minute opera, symphonic – I made all the arrangements and orchestration and I worked with the singers; it’s a huge work. It takes one year to do it, so, the first condition is that I know the project is serious.
“I have to find the right text,” he added, “because I really connect it to lyrics, to text, and I feel I have something to say in this. It’s a process. So, I start to improvise on this and I see if I have something to say musically. And, when I feel it’s all connected, I start to work on it. For example, the other [opera] … it was by David Grossman. Itamar Pogesh Arnav, it’s called, Itamar Meets a Rabbit. It’s a for-children opera, we made it with the Israeli Philharmonic. Of course, David Grossman, I knew he’s a very interesting man and I can find a way to connect with him, to communicate.”
Rechter said it is hard to define “Israeli music.” From the state’s inception through the 1970s, he said, “before the great internet and … we became one global ‘forum’ … [Israel] developed its own voice, which was, I would say, influenced by Russian music, from the immigrants that came, and also by music from the east, from Sinai, from Jordan, from all our neighbours. I think I grew up with influences of this spirit – sometimes I liked it, sometimes I didn’t like it. It depends on the people; for example, there was Sasha Argov, who was a very famous composer, and I really liked his music, which was very rich harmonically. Today, I think, after this explosion of communication, I don’t think it’s different from other places.”
That said, Rechter singled out some Israeli jazz performers, like Avishai Cohen, who is now based in New York, and others. “So, there is something here,” he said. “I think that living under pressure all the time [has something to do with it] … your life, all the time, is in danger because you don’t know when the next missile will fall in Tel Aviv. In my life, it has happened already two or three times…. Last week, there was one missile or two that fell near Tel Aviv. So, our life is, all the time, not protected, in a way. I believe it influences in a positive way our art, because we make art – all the Israeli artists – like you must survive. It gives us some very different energy than Europe, that used to be very calm.” He said, “The good artists that are serious become very known in the world [outside of] Israel.”
Music is important, said Rechter, “because it, especially in this time, I think that music should be a messenger. It has a task, and the task is to bring people back to real feeling, to themselves, to touch their souls, their energy, their spirit. Music is a force of nature, something that comes out of real creativity, at its best. Sometimes, I go to a concert and I cry from the music, it touches me so deeply. And that’s what I want to make. I don’t want to be somebody who’s going there to make lots of money; it doesn’t interest me. I want to touch people and, when it happens, for me, it’s the best prize.”
Rechter is coming to Vancouver with a band, “all of them Israeli, who live in New York” – singer Tammy Scheffer, saxophonist and player of multiple woodwinds Eitan Goffman, guitarist Shahar Mintz, bassist Uri Kleinman and drummer Shay Wetzler. “I sent them all the notes and the recordings of what I plan to play in Vancouver,” he said. “They’ll practise and we’ll meet at the beginning of May for two rehearsals n Manhattan.”
The audience at the Chan Centre can expect some of their favourites, said Rechter.
“I started to write songs when I was like 14, because of the Beatles,” he said. “I fell in love with the Beatles…. The first songs [of mine] were written in this age. I think the most famous song was – there is a song called ‘Dma’ot Shel Mal’achim,’ ‘Angels’ Tears.’ It became a song of memorial, and I wrote it in high school … with my friend who was sitting near me, his name is Danny Minster, he wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music. I tell this to you because I will sing it in Vancouver at the Yom Hazikaron memorial.”
Rechter will perform just the one song at the memorial May 7, 7:30 p.m., at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, May 8, 7:30 p.m., at the Chan Centre, he will perform more than 20.
Presented by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, Yom Ha’atzmaut is supported by 46 community partners, with the Jewish Independent as the media sponsor and Georgian Court Hotel as the hotel sponsor. For the first time, there will be a party after the concert, though there is limited space available and only guests who attend the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration may purchase tickets to the party. Visit jewishvancouver.com/yh2019.
Turning Point Ensemble performs The Old Man and the Sea, directed by Idan Cohen, March 9 and 10. (photo by Tim Matheson)
“There’s something that I really love about these kinds of projects and the agenda that Turning Point holds – creating an operatic experience that is contemporary and designed to communicate music in a truly creative way. I hope this will attract not just the core of new music and opera lovers, but also those of us who are passionate for the arts and want to experience something different. This is what opera is truly about,” said Idan Cohen about Turning Point Ensemble’s Words & Music, which is at the Annex March 9-10.
The collaborative endeavour features the theatrical mini-opera The Old Man and the Sea by Rita Ueda, and Bee Studies, created by poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar and composer and musician Owen Underhill. Choreographer and opera director Cohen is directing The Old Man and the Sea.
“This past summer, I was invited by Rita Ueda and Mark Armanini, who run the AU Ensemble, to stage their concert at the Podium Mozaiek in Amsterdam,” Cohen told the Independent about how he met Ueda. “I had a wonderful time working with the ensemble and found the work they do highly inspiring. Rita’s work is very immersive and, in her scores, the musicians play a significant role as characters, fully engaged and active on stage. We found a deep foundation of understanding, and so Rita introduced me to Turning Point. It’s an honour to be working on such a beautiful piece alongside such an exquisite group of artists and musicians.”
The Old Man and the Sea, composed by Ueda with a libretto by Rod Robertson, is based on the short novel by Ernest Hemingway. The story centres around Santiago, an aging fisherman, who battles with a marlin. In the concert, baritone Willy Miles-Grenzberg sings the part of the Old Man (Santiago) and Turning Point co-founder and trombone soloist Jeremy Berkman musically plays the marlin.
“Rita and the librettist Rod Robertson have created a highly poetic rendition of Hemingway’s novel,” explained Cohen. “It’s quite condensed and, at the same time, leaves a lot of room to reflect on its different topics and themes. It creates a rendition of the story that is almost abstract – I love this quality in opera, when the poetic aspects of a story are drawn out through the layered richness of the written word, music and live performance. I connected to it on a very deep level.”
The work is so expressive, said Cohen, “and focuses on the journey of Santiago … and his connection to the sea. There are beautiful moments that ‘paint’ that through the language of music. Unlike my other work, there won’t be any dance in this production, but I do focus on body language and sensitivities that are dance-related. Santiago is a humble man, full of wisdom, close to the end of his days, and Willy Miles Grenzberg, portraying him, embodies the part beautifully.”
Cohen hopes that this staged concert will appeal to a wide audience – “whether you’re a new music lover, a literature, theatre or poetry enthusiast, there’s going to be something there for each and every one of us,” he said.
This type of production can be somewhat complex to direct.
“My role is often to bring different elements together in order to create the operatic experience,” said Cohen. “By nature, music is abstract and, since the musicians are so valuable in this opera and play a significant role, I wanted to come up with creative ways to support this special vision. Drawing that vision from the mind of the composer and librettist to the experience of the viewers can be quite a challenge at times, but the musicians of Turning Point are truly exceptional, best in their field, and they do wonders.”
In addition to the power of the music, The Old Man and the Sea has many powerful – and universal – themes. Cohen described it as “a story about human determination, strength and faith but, most of all, it is about fragility and humbleness. It reflects on our connection to nature, and that is very valuable in our times, when there is so much denial and violence in the way the human race treats its surroundings. Robertson relates to this in a rich way and creates a very relevant testimony. The opera reflects on these important topics through the drama of the music, to expose an extreme human condition. It is powerful in a way that I find not just poetic, but also very emotional.”
Following the performance of The Old Man and the Sea is the première of Bee Studies, which includes texts from Sarojini Saklikar’s Listening to the Bees, a book of science and poetry, and features soprano Dorothea Hayley.
According to the press material for Words & Music, a “special bonus of the evening is a performance of some witty and rarely heard songs from the 1930s, Duet for Duck and Canary and Frogs by the great unheralded Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, plus his most-heralded work, Ocho por Radio.”
Tickets for Words & Music, March 9-10, 7:30 p.m., at the Annex are $33 ($20 for seniors and students) and can be purchased at turningpointensemble.ca.
Yefim Bronfman performs Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum Dec. 6 and 8. (photo from VSO)
“I don’t think it can be overstated, the significance of having an artist like Yefim Bronfman, like Yitzhak Perlman, who’s coming later in the season, as well. These are living legends in our field,” said Misha Aster, vice-president, artistic planning and production, at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, in a phone interview with the Independent.
“It’s a testament to the city and to the orchestra that artists of this stature take the time to visit with us,” he said. “But it’s also an occasion for us to celebrate their presence here because it’s unusual – it’s a rare opportunity to hear artists of this calibre and of this experience perform works that are landmarks of the repertoire.”
On Dec. 6 and 8 at the Orpheum, Bronfman and the orchestra will perform Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The concert also features Richard Strauss’s Don Juan and Franz Liszt’s Les preludes.
Initial discussions for the December performances took place about two-and-a-half years ago. That’s a long time, said Aster, “but, for an artist of his calibre, that’s generally what’s required to get a date fixed in his calendar.”
While Bronfman is in tremendous demand, Aster said, “He loves Vancouver, which helps. Every visit he has made here in the past, he has reiterated his affection for the city, and for the orchestra.”
The upcoming concerts are not just a musical highlight of the VSO season, said Aster, “but one of the flagship statements of our season.”
He added, “The program he’s coming with, as well – the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 – is considered one of the Everests of the repertoire. It’s not frequently performed. It’s a very large piece, a very demanding piece for the soloist and for the orchestra, as well; it has a major solo cello part.”
The choice of music for a program with a visiting artist is “a discussion,” said Aster. “It’s a dynamic process between soloist, conductor and orchestra. There’s a need for balance between those elements.”
Bronfman has performed the Brahms before. “The combination [of Bronfman] together with Jun Märkl, who is a much-beloved conductor here with the orchestra, made Brahms a possibility,” Aster said.
The other compositions in the December program – Strauss’s Don Juan and Liszt’s Les preludes – will be played by the orchestra on its own. “They all fit within a certain genre,” noted Aster of the works. “It’s not coincidental programming, by any means.”
Brahms and Liszt were contemporaries, he explained, “but at opposite poles of the spectrum when it came to musical development of the later 19th century and the debate over what was considered ‘program music,’ that was music meant to tell a story, that was reflective of a certain kind of dramatic narrative, as opposed to purely abstract music or symphonic music that had its roots in the more classical esthetic.”
The latter was Brahms’ approach, said Aster, whereas Liszt was a champion of “this new kind of programmatic approach to music.” And Strauss “was considered an heir to Liszt with respect to that, so both of those tone poems – Les preludes and Don Juan – are narrative works of program music, and they’re juxtaposed with this massive concerto by Brahms, which is Brahms’ reiteration of his musical principles.”
Aster arrived in Vancouver for his position at the VSO in mid-August. Born in Hamilton, Ont., he had been in Berlin almost 13 years. Prior to that, he was in Austria for a couple of years.
Aster trained as a violinist at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and studied political science, history and dramaturgy at McGill University, the London School of Economics and Harvard University. In his career, he’s been based in Europe largely, but he has always kept in touch with Canada, he said, as his grandmother is in Toronto and his parents divide their time between Ontario and a base in Europe. Aster’s wife, Kinneret Sieradzki, is Israeli and the couple has a 2-year-old daughter, Laila.
In Germany, Aster was working as an executive producer at Deutsche Grammophon, the recording label Universal Music, and he maintains a role at the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation, where he was director of programs. His move to Vancouver marks the first time he has lived in Canada since he was a teenager.
“It’s a major orchestra in this country,” Aster said about what attracted him to the job with the VSO. “It’s a very important cultural player, certainly in Western Canada, and I remember, even growing up in Toronto, having a sense that important things were happening in musical life in Vancouver and that the VSO was a formidable force in Canadian music.”
Recently, the whole organization has undergone a significant transition, with longtime musical director Bramwell Tovey retiring. “It was the ending of an era and the beginning of something new,” said Aster. “I hadn’t met Otto Tausk, the new music director, before we began the process of discussing the possibility of my joining the team here but I was immediately impressed by him, by the integrity of his musicianship, by his vision for the orchestra.”
Aster also had a sense, he said, of Tausk “being very European in outlook, in disposition, in artistic values, in his connections and contacts.” This was a world with which Aster had been familiar for a long time, so he felt that “it would be an interesting opportunity” and that he “could be a helpful fit in that sense,” of being originally from Canada and having roots here, “but also, in a professional sense, of being very familiar with the environment from which Maestro Tausk comes. That chemistry was really the key.” Adding to that was the organization’s “ambition with respect to an artistic agenda but also what the orchestra intends to mean for the community.”
The VSO is “an incredibly busy organization,” said Aster. “We produce 150 concerts a year, which is a lot, in relative terms, compared to many other orchestras in the country. And it has to do with the fact that the orchestra has always had the mandate to address itself to a range of different communities and a range of different musical tastes in the city. Unlike many other major orchestras in the country, we perform in 15 different venues around Greater Vancouver through the season in various configurations, based out of our home in the Orpheum, where we have our major subscription series.”
Part of Aster’s job is to ensure that it’s “not just a functional run-out that we do to North Van or to Surrey with a program, but that what we’re trying to program for those communities and for venues in those communities reflects a point of access for them into the world of music that we represent.”
Tickets for Bronfman’s performance at the Orpheum range from $16.25 to $125 and can be purchased from vancouversymphony.ca.
Anyone who buys a first-time subscription to the Jewish Independent as a gift for themselves or for a friend, family member or colleague by Nov. 28 will be entered into a draw to win two free tickets to hear Yefim Bronfman, one of the greatest pianists of our time, at the Orpheum Theatre on Dec. 6, 8 p.m.
With the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bronfman will play Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in a concert that also features one of Richard Strauss’s great tone poems, Don Juan, and Franz Liszt’s Les preludes.
Not only will new subscribers be entered in the draw, but they will be able to purchase their subscription at a discount: only $20 for a one-year e-sub (40% off) and only $70 for a mailed sub (10% off).
The deadline to enter the draw is Wednesday, Nov. 28, 5 p.m. Email [email protected] or call 604-689-1520 for your chance to win.
Geoff Berner will help open this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival on Oct. 24. (photo by Genevieve Buechner)
Recently back from Ontario, where he joined Orkestar Kriminal for a few shows, singer-songwriter and accordionist Geoff Berner will help launch the 15th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival on Oct. 24.
Berner will be part of Songs of Justice, Songs of Hope, an evening of activist songs, led by musician, composer and conductor Earle Peach and featuring Solidarity Notes Labour Choir, among others. Berner will perform a solo set, but, he told the Independent, “I’m open to some collaboration with the choir, if that’s something they’d like to do.”
Berner has worked with Peach before.
“We’ve both lived in Vancouver for decades. We’ve both been active in left-wing politics and stuff in Vancouver for a long time,” said Berner. “I’ve played events with the Solidarity Notes Choir over the years. We have a lot of ideas in common.”
Heart of the City comprises more than 100 events at 40-plus locations around the Downtown Eastside over 12 days. Presented by Vancouver Moving Theatre with Carnegie Community Centre, the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians and many community partners, this year’s theme is “Seeds of Justice, Seeds of Hope,” celebrating the community’s “history of advocacy for human rights and social justice.” The website notes there will be “music, stories, songs, poetry, cultural celebrations, films, theatre, dance, spoken word, workshops, discussions, gallery exhibitions, mixed media, art talks, history talks and history walks.”
About his decision to participate in festivals like Heart of the City, Berner said, “You can feel it when an event or a music venue is not about money, but about building community and getting strength from music and culture. This is one of those.”
Berner has had a busy year. In September 2017, he released a new album, Canadiana Grotesquica, and his second novel, The Fiddler is a Good Woman, came out in October 2017. In addition to performances throughout British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada, a European tour took him to many cities over several months. This coming November, he’s headed to Seattle and Los Angeles, with other dates no doubt in the planning.
In the latest news post on his website (Sept. 14), Berner welcomes everyone back to the September routine, “whether it’s a New Year for you, or not.”
While he makes “resolutions all the time, not only at Rosh Hashanah,” Berner said, “My routine is that I write songs, make an album about once every two years, and then tour around North America and Europe trying to spread the album as far and wide as I can. Then I do it all again. It’s a good job.”
True to form, Berner will head into the studio in January to get a new album ready for October 2019. It will be produced by Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, with whom Berner has worked since 2010.
“He is a valuable editor and idea generator,” said Berner of Dolgin. “He knows more about the recording studio, more about musical arrangement and more about Jewish music, especially klezmer music, than I do. So that all comes in pretty handy. And if he tells me, ‘no, you shouldn’t do that,’ he’s almost always right.”
People curious about what the album might sound like should mark their calendars for the Heart of the City opening. “There will be some brand new material from me at this festival,” Berner told the Independent. “See you at the show, I hope!”
The free Oct. 24 launch event takes place at Carnegie Theatre, 401 Main St., at 7 p.m.
Also participating in the festival is Vetta Chamber Music, with Seasons of the Sea, which melds contemporary classical music by local composer Jeffrey Ryan with a narrative written by Rosemary Georgeson. The original work, performed by Vetta Chamber Music and Georgeson, “describes the seasons on and by the sea, and is inspired by the 13 moon season of the Coast Salish peoples who used the tides and seasons of the sea as their calendar.” The show takes place Oct. 28, 3 p.m., at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, 578 Carrall St., and is admission by donation to the garden.