Mexican-Canadian singer Gustavo Herrera helped finish off the 2021/22 season of the Jewish Seniors Alliance Snider Foundation Empowerment Series. The classically trained operatic tenor, who has a powerful and melodic voice, entertained the audience with a mixture of classical and popular songs.
A Summer Afternoon of Music, the final event of this year’s Empowerment Series, was co-sponsored by JSA, the Kehila Society and Congregation Beth Tikvah. It took place in the synagogue’s sanctuary on June 27 and began with a catered BBQ lunch for the approximately 55 seniors who attended the event in-person. The program was also available via Zoom, making the total audience about 70 people. Herrera’s 94-year-old mother and his sister were among those who joined the concert virtually.
Toby Rubin, coordinator of the Kehila Society, welcomed everyone and introduced the guest. Herrera sang many songs, including “Somewhere,” “Could I Have This Dance,” “Granada,” “O Sole Mio,” “La Donna è Mobile,” “My Way” and “Only You.” He encouraged everyone to join in and to clap to some of the songs.
He pointed out that, although “My Way” is generally associated with Frank Sinatra, it was written by Canadian Paul Anka. A member of the audience requested “Hallelujah,” which Herrera sang in Spanish. Another request was “Boléro.” For the finale, Herrera asked everyone to join him in ending with “Hava Nagila.”
Gyda Chud, co-president of JSA, thanked Herrera, saying that the concert had been very uplifting and that his mother must be very proud.
Shanie Levin is program coordinator for Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Linemagazine.
British-Israeli composer Loretta Kay Feld. (photo by Michal Sela)
Loretta Kay Feld was asked by someone close to Queen Elizabeth II to compose three tributes, which, said Kay Feld, “were gifted to Her Majesty to honour her 70 years on the throne, a life filled with grace, fortitude and dedication to her country.”
One work is a personal song, called “The Queen’s Soliloquy,” that premièred last February. The second is “A Symphonic Medley of Music for Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee,” which includes four instrumental segments – from “Soliloquy,” the pieces “We Never Felt So Glorious” and “The Lord Chamberlain’s Processional March and Song,” and the third tribute Kay Feld composed for the Queen, which premièred last month, called “70 Years a Queen.”
Kay Feld was born in London and trained in music composition and drama at the Royal College and Guildhall School of Music. She toured with plays and musicals in the West End of London and has published several books. She is a prolific, award-winning composer, lyricist and author, who now lives in Ra’anana, Israel. She made aliyah 11 years ago and is in her final year of a master’s at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
“I wanted to come here [Israel] since I was a child in Hebrew school but life has a way of changing your plans,” she said. “I got married and lived in America. I gave concerts all over New York, from 1973 into the ’80s.”
Kay Feld wrote for a children’s television network and composed music in many genres. She has written about 900 songs and musical compositions. One of those is the song “Hymn for Israel.”
“I wrote it after the Yom Kippur War [in 1973] and I received letters from Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin thanking me. The ‘Shabbat Song’ I wrote is also on YouTube and is sung in communities all over the world. ‘I’m Going to Keep America Singing,’” she said, “was performed at the inaugurations of presidents Obama and Biden, played by the Marine band.”
Making aliyah was one dream come true. Composing for the Queen was another.
When Kay Feld was 19, she performed for the royal family at the Variety Club for Great Britain at Victoria Palace and, after the show, was escorted to the box where the royals were seated. She remembers speaking with Princess Margaret and shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II.
The opening lyrics of “The Queen’s Soliloquy” are: “You may ask me what I’m thinking on my Platinum Jubilee / And of all these celebrations, what they really mean to me / Well, my mind keeps drifting backwards, to a life yet unforeseen / Trembling at my coronation, unprepared to become a queen.”
“If we make it to threescore and 10,” said Kay Feld, “we’re considered by Judaism to be filled with wisdom, and the Queen is definitely filled with wisdom. They say the Queen learned five languages when she was young, and one of them was Hebrew.”
Kay Feld said she was offered a singer from the Royal National Opera House for “The Queen’s Soliloquy” but instead chose classical and contemporary singer Shlomit Leah Kovalski, who was born in Jerusalem to parents who made aliyah – her father from Montreal, her mother from New York.
Jamie Clarkston Collins and Eli Schurder of SoundSuiteStudio in Jerusalem do post-production of Kay Feld’s music and the videos are directed and edited by Jason Figgis.
Describing her creative process, Kay Feld said, “I compose when I’m out walking along the sea or in nature, and I think about what I’m composing and usually it just comes to me as if from the air. I write all the music in my head and the lyrics usually come at the same time and I go home and write out the manuscript.”
For her third royal tribute, “70 Years a Queen,” Kay Feld said, “I tried to write a song that I felt everybody throughout the world would be able to sing if they desired to. The melody is simple and the lyrics memorable with a tinge of humour.” Such lyrics as “… 70 years a queen / Four children in between / The Grandmama of future kings / Elizabeth, our Queen.”
The music is accompanied by the singing of renowned baritone Noah Brieger, who, Kay Feld said, “Has an outstanding voice with a great tone. He sang the lyrics with meaning and emotion.”
Brieger, like Kovalski, was born in Israel. He graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and continued his training in the United States. An award-winning performer, he has sung in dozens of productions at the Israeli Opera, including lead roles in Don Pasquale (Donizetti), La Cenerentola (Rossini), La Bohème(Puccini), Romeo et Juliette (Gounod), Schitz (Rechter) and more. He also has performed in Germany, the United States, France, Italy and China.
Kay Feld is excited about a new project she has been working on for a number of years – 1897, The Musical. There are 27 original songs and the choreography is by her daughter, Dorothy Eisdorfer.
“The story is about the degrading things they did in Victorian times, but I want to tell the story with dignity,” said Kay Feld. “It expresses the desires of two women, one in the lower and one in the higher class.”
Her plan is to hire an all Israeli cast and crew, “to showcase all the wonderful talent we have here in Israel,” she said. “I’d like to find enough funding so I can pay all the performers fairly.”
She wants to film the musical and livestream it globally “for all the world to see. It will be a most splendid performance.”
For someone whose music has been performed for presidents and queens, Kay Feld remains humble. “I just believe everyone has a gift,” she said. “And if one can use the gift to make the world a better place, that’s what matters.”
Toby Klein Greenwaldis an award-winning journalist, educational theatre director, teacher and the editor-in-chief of wholefamily.com. Anyone interested in supporting 1897, The Musical can write to Loretta Kay Feld at [email protected].
Michelle Demers Shaevitz, artistic director of Mission Folk Music Festival, which runs July 22-24. (photo from Mission Folk Music Festival)
“Mission Folk Music Festival is a wonderful combination of the familiar and the magical,” artistic director Michelle Demers Shaevitz told the Jewish Independent of how the festival has thrived for 35 years. “We’ve had the great privilege of presenting interesting and engaging music and art in a stunning setting. Imagine this creativity set among the trees, overlooking the river. We are very lucky.”
The annual festival takes place in Fraser River Heritage Park in Mission. This year, it runs over the weekend of July 22-24.
Demers Shaevitz’s history with the Mission Folk Music Festival goes back to 1991, the year she graduated from high school.
“I started by handing out volunteer tags, graduated to driving performers, moved into performer services and, from there on, to assisting our founder, Francis Xavier, with general management. When he departed in 2016, the board asked me to step into this role as the festival’s second artistic director. Adjacent to all of this, I spent 10 years working in student affairs for Simon Fraser University and the University of the Fraser Valley, as well as moving to Seattle, getting married, and having a kid.”
She credits the festival for that move and her marriage. People come to Mission from Seattle every year to volunteer and Demers Shaevitz said she has made many friends as a result.
“I was headed down there to stay with some of them and see a festival band, the Duhks, from Winnipeg,” she said. “These friends own a wine shop, West Seattle Cellars, and the night after the show, I met my future husband in the Riesling section. I’m so lucky for this festival for giving me the life I have.”
And part of that life is the Jewish community into which she married. She described herself as blessed to have it. “From the start of our relationship, Ben and I decided to incorporate Jewish traditions and holidays into our relationship,” she said. “We’re involved in the JCC here and our son attended Jewish day school for preschool and pre-K. We are members of Kol HaNeshamah in West Seattle and our son has just started Hebrew classes. I am grateful for the acceptance I’ve found in the community, as well as their amazing willingness to share knowledge, traditions and culture with me.”
In addition to the Mission Folk Music Festival, Demers Shaevitz works with Festival du Bois in Maillardville, an historic francophone neighbourhood in Coquitlam, and the Subdued Stringband Jamboree in Bellingham, Wash. She has also volunteered and served as a board member with Northwest Folklife in Seattle.
“I am lucky to have a supportive partner and a good internet connection,” she said of working remotely, notably on the folk festival. “The pandemic really demonstrated the capacity to produce and manage an event from outside of Mission. I’m generally up to Mission two to three times a month, which increases as we get closer to the festival.”
The organizing process for the music festival – which involves more than 300 volunteers – revolves around storytelling.
“If I can focus on the artistic side, I start with a story or an idea that I would like to explore,” she explained. “This year, I am digging into the idea of homecoming. I focus on artists who tell a great story through their music. Artists who are grounded in a culture and/or tradition. Artists who represent a diverse window through which to experience the world around us. It’s important to me that we highlight and celebrate diverse voices and communities. I take this responsibility very seriously.”
Another responsibility she and the festival as a whole take seriously is reconciliation – the event takes place in a park where a residential school once stood.
“We have planned our festival to respectfully acknowledge the footprint of the original site,” said Demers Shaevitz. “We are deepening relationships with the local Sto:lo community as we remain committed to the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We continue to work towards a deeper understanding of what role we can play in the healing of this space.
“We recognize the privilege we have in presenting music and dance on these grounds and will continue to work with affected communities to prioritize their experiences,” she added.
“It’s a thrill for us to return in person to Fraser River Heritage Park for our 35th anniversary festival,” said Demers Shaevitz in the press release. “I’m excited to welcome folks back to the park to share some amazing global music with them. This year’s lineup offers festival-goers everything from singer-songwriter folk to Celtic, blues, bluegrass and soul to the uniquely amazing nu-folk of Estonia’s Puuluup, the electrifying sound of Chile’s Golosa La Orquesta and, for our Saturday night main stage final act, the dynamic Québécois zydeco of Le Winston Band…. From the heart of B.C.’s Rockies, Shred Kelly will help kick off the festival Friday night, and a true Canadian treasure, William Prince, will close the show on Sunday. And in between – there’s an incredible range of tunes to enjoy.”
Leading the festival through the worst of COVID had its challenges, but also its silver linings.
“I am so grateful to have been able to work with a talented bunch of dedicated folks to produce our two online festivals,” said Demers Shaevitz. “The highlight of this for me was all the ways in which people demonstrated their willingness to support us in any way that they could. The resilience of the artists, the community to continue was so heartening. It truly fed my heart and soul. I think that I’ve continued to draw upon that resilience to get through this return to music, this return to ‘live.’”
In addition to the concerts, the three-day live event includes music workshops, Wee Folks programming “so kids and their families can enjoy listening to the music while they play,” food and artisan markets and a licensed bistro on site. For evening, day or weekend passes, including an option to camp at the site, visit missionfolkmusicfestival.ca.
Artist-in-residence David Greenberg has multiple performances at this year’s Vancouver Bach Festival: Scottish Baroque and Other Traditions. (photo by J.B. Millot)
Violinist David Greenberg teaches a course called Cape Breton-Baroque Integration, which is “devoted to creating living moments on the violin through the art of ‘keeping it swirly.’” He keeps it swirly by a range of techniques, but the intangible part derives from his love of Baroque and Cape Breton music.
Greenberg is co-artist-in-residence at Early Music Vancouver this year along with David McGuinness, and the pair will play in a few performances as part of this summer’s Vancouver Bach Festival: Scottish Baroque and Other Traditions, which takes place July 26 to Aug. 6 at various venues in Vancouver.
Early Music Vancouver’s artists-in-residence program started last summer, with Cree-Métis Two-Spirit baritone Jonathon Adams. The program was initiated by EMV artistic and executive director Suzie LeBlanc “to honour Canada’s diverse heritages while at the same time exploring the convergences between ‘world music’ and early music.” Greenberg came to be an artist-in-residence through his connection to LeBlanc, who is an interdisciplinary artist – he has performed with her many times over the years.
“Many of those collaborations involved a degree of integration between folk and Baroque music,” Greenberg told the Independent. “Often, those collaborations included David McGuinness, who is also a close friend and colleague from Glasgow, a scholar of 18th-century Scottish music, a brilliant musician on various keyboard instruments and the founder and director of Concerto Caledonia.
“David and I have worked together for over 20 years,” said Greenberg, “mostly on projects that involve some degree of Baroque-traditional stylistic integration. Suzie asked David and me to be co-artists-in-residence for the 2022 festival since this year’s theme is the integration of Baroque and Scottish traditional music.
“Over the two-week festival … David and I will perform solo, chamber and orchestral concerts. We will also coach young musicians and perform with BOMP (Baroque Orchestra Mentorship Program) as part of our activities.”
Greenberg was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Maryland. He lived in Canada for 30 years, but is currently living in Corvallis, Ore.
A graduate of Indiana University’s Early Music Institute, he has performed, taught and recorded in multiple places around the world, but mainly in North America and Western Europe. In addition to LeBlanc, he has performed with more than a dozen groups and performers, and been a guest soloist and/or director with several orchestras. Between these collaborations and his own ensemble Puirt a Baroque (pronounced poorsht-a-baroque, and meaning tunes from the Baroque), he has recorded more than 80 CDs. As well, he is a composer and arranger, and he co-authored Traditional Celtic Violin Music of Cape Breton: The DunGreen Collection with Kate Dunlay.
“I started playing at age 4, dabbled in both classical music and traditional folk fiddle as a kid, went to conservatory and got depressed, switched over to Early Music performance, which suited my temperament better, and joined Tafelmusik (Toronto-based Baroque orchestra) for a decade in the ’90s,” said Greenberg.
“Alongside my Baroque playing, I dove into learning the Cape Breton fiddle style, started a few bands, worked with many colleagues around the world…. The combination of the Baroque and Cape Breton musical languages is where my sense of 18th-century Scottish violin music comes from. Italian and Scottish composers are connected by way of some Italians living and working in Scotland in the 18th century, resulting in an inevitable mixing of the styles, though to what degree is a matter of opinion.”
He said the fun thing about the Baroque and Cape Breton styles “is how their esthetic hierarchies are totally different. So that means they work as effective comic relief for each other! Cape Breton music is basically the continued, naturally evolving, living tradition of 18th-century Scottish Highland fiddling. A strange fact is that Baroque music was popular in Scotland about 50 years beyond when it died out in continental Europe. That means that the Scottish traditional music and Scottish Baroque music coexisted side-by-side in 18th-century Scotland, including many examples of music that lie somewhere between the two styles.”
Greenberg plays a Baroque-style violin made in 2000 by Masa Inokuchi in Toronto. He said, “Cape Breton music is played on a modern fiddle these days, but it works on a Baroque fiddle within the appropriate context.”
And as for a little more context on Greenberg and his musical range, he shared, “My mom has always loved singing Yiddish songs and accompanying herself on the piano. I enjoy backing her up on fiddle when I visit her.”
Spring forum? What spring? Heavy rain and cold weather welcomed Jewish Senior Alliance’s spring forum that took place at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture May 15. But the forum’s title, With a Song in My Heart, was more than fitting and filled the audience with warmth and, I would add to it, “And a Smile on My Face.”
The first hybrid program of JSA attracted 40 people attending in-person, as well as another 40 people by streaming links. Gyda Chud, co-president of JSA, welcomed the audience and reminded them of the work JSA does in outreach, advocacy and, especially, peer support.
The program featured Wendy Bross Stuart, ethnomusicologist, music director, composer and piano accompanist, and was dedicated to the memory of two musicians of exceptional talent: Claire Klein Osipov z”l and Joan Beckow z”l. Bross Stuart said she was pleased to have been able to engage three superb singers for the performance – Erin Aberle-Palm, Kat Palmer and Chris Adams, who delighted the audience with not only their beautiful voices but also with their charming stage presence.
The program started with the beautiful title song, “With a Song in My Heart,” which is a show tune from the 1929 Rodgers and Hart musical Spring is Here.
Bross Stuart spoke about the Joan Beckow Legacy Project, started by Bross Stuart’s daughter, musician and composer Jessica Stuart, which spotlights works of the brilliant, prolific and totally under-celebrated composer, who died in January 2021. Beckow had been Michael Bublé’s vocal coach, as well as Carol Burnett’s music director. She wrote “Pretending” to capture the sense of wonder provided by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Burnett learned it in a day and it became part of their production.
The forum performance included the Hebrew song “Tov L’Hodot,” as well as George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which was most famously sung by Ella Fitzgerald. It continued with my all-time favourite Yiddish song, “Oyfn Pripetshik,” which made me think of my mother, followed by “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen,” which prompted many in the audience to sing along.
“Guided by the Stars” was a conversation between husband (Captain Cook) and wife, who pleaded him to be careful upon his forthcoming voyage. Alas, Captain Cook’s life came to a fatal end on that last journey.
While almost all of us are familiar with the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” how many of us know that it was written by sons of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who escaped the pogroms to “a land they only imagined in their dreams”? Edgar Yispel (Yip) and Harold Alan wrote the song for The Wizard of Oz, which came out on New Year’s Day 1939, less than two months after Kristallnacht. The music is deeply embedded in the Jewish experience, and the lyrics become more about Jewish survival than wizards.
A medley from Fiddler on the Roof further entertained listeners, followed by Beckow’s “On the Other Side of Nowhere.” Her son, David Beckow, selected his mother’s lyrics to inscribe on her gravestone: “When this life is over, we will meet somehow, on the other side of nowhere, on the far side of now.”
The performance ended with a singalong of “Tum Balalaika” and an encore of “Dona Dona.”
Shanie Levin thanked the performers and spoke of the importance of remembering and honouring Beckow and Klein Osipov.
The next JSA event takes place on June 27, 1 p.m., at Congregation Beth Tikvah, and features tenor Gustavo Herrera. The hybrid event is co-sponsored by Kehila Society and the synagogue; if attending the lunch portion, the cost is $12. Register by June 24 with Toby Rubin, [email protected], or via jsalliance.org.
Tamara Frankelis a member of the board of Jewish Seniors Alliance and of the editorial committee of Senior Line magazine.
Left to right are Joan Beckow, Claire Klein Osipov, Wendy Bross Stuart and Jessica Stuart, in 2010. (photo by Ron Stuart)
Canceled more than two years ago because of COVID, With a Song in My Heart, a special concert for Jewish Senior Alliance’s spring forum, is back. And it’s even more special.
The May 15, 2 p.m., performance at the Peretz Centre, led by Wendy Bross Stuart, is dedicated to Claire Klein Osipov and Joan Beckow.
“We were originally scheduled to present this program in March 2020. We were well-prepared. Even Claire came over to rehearsal on March 16, 2020 – so she could shep naches from her daughter Lisa’s singing, and she gave us some ‘notes’ to include. Lisa [Osipov Milton] and I were using the very musical arrangements I had created for Claire. Then, COVID happened and the program was ‘postponed.’ In August 2020, Claire passed away.
“Fast-forward to 2022. Two of the singers [David Urist and Osipov Milton] were unavailable. Erin Aberle-Palm was available, and I was thrilled to have her on board. Kat Palmer and Chris Adams had been involved in the recording sessions for the Joan Beckow Legacy Project, completed in February. Chris agreed to join us for a Beckow duet – with Kat.”
Beckow passed away in January 2021.
“About 18 months before,” said Bross Stuart, “my daughter Jessica had come with me to the Louis Brier Home to visit Joan. She asked Joan for her blessing for us (mother and daughter) to record and orchestrate many of Joan’s songs. Joan was visibly touched. She gave us her blessing to proceed. And proceed we did. The Joan Beckow Legacy Project, funded generously by the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, has included the recording and orchestration of 22 of Joan’s pieces, by 30 musicians, in Toronto and Vancouver. Plus a documentary on Joan’s life (directed by my husband, Ron Stuart) and much more. Assistance and support also came from Joan’s son, David.”
Most of the project has taken place during COVID. About the pandemic’s effects, Bross Stuart said, “To make an effort to be positive, I would say, having more time has allowed Jessica and I to create the Joan Beckow Legacy Project and collaborate in every way. The music and the mutual respect have been well beyond my expectations and – as [fellow community member] Sharon Kates added – a mitzvah for everyone. Especially for people who do not yet know the breadth of Joan’s musical output, it will be a stunning discovery.”
With the developments of the past two years, the musical program for the JSA forum has changed from what it was in 2020.
“It includes Yiddish songs – for example, ‘Tum Balalaika,’ ‘Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen’ – in Claire’s memory, and many Joan Beckow songs, recently recorded in studio, including ‘On the Other Side of Nowhere’ and ‘Tov L’Hodot,’” said Bross Stuart, noting that every composer of every song in the program is Jewish.
The Yiddish songs are from the repertoire that Klein Osipov and Bross Stuart presented over the many years they worked together.
“We have a piece of music which says, ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed … for good,’” said Bross Stuart, referring to the song “For Good,” written by Stephen Schwartz. She added, “David Beckow chose his mother’s own lyrics to inscribe on her gravestone: ‘When this life is over, we will meet somehow, on the other side of nowhere, on the far side of now.’ Kat will sing it.”
The Stuarts and Beckows are longtime friends.
“We met Joan about 50 years ago, when her husband, Jack, was Ron’s anthropology student at UBC. Joan’s music was absolutely magic. When she asked me to assist her with the music direction of a show she was working on, I said yes as soon as I saw/heard one of the lead singers – Claire Klein Osipov!
“Joan and I worked together on choral pieces, on musical theatre pieces, on Jewish liturgical pieces and on classical pieces. I organized the publication of a number of her works, and public performances as well. Her music and her friendship enhanced our lives – and inspired my daughter, Jessica, to become a composer and musician. Joan was a mentor.”
Bross Stuart explained her interest in Yiddish music.
“Growing up in a New York City suburb (Yonkers),” she said, “my grandmother lived with us while I was growing up. Although her most comfortable language was Yiddish (Galitzianer variety), she spoke accented English to me. Yiddish was not what my parents wanted me to speak. This, of course, made Yiddish so much more interesting to me. Years later, in Vancouver, working with Claire and creating musical arrangements for all those songs – four CDs’ worth – required a detailed understanding of the Yiddish. The German I had studied in high school and at McGill was helpful, but working with Claire was even more helpful. We did a lot of concert work together, and I would say that our daughter Fiona grew to love Yiddish as a result. Another mentor for us!”
With a Song in My Heart is JSA’s first hybrid event, taking place live at the Peretz Centre, with streaming links available for YouTube, Vimeo or Zoom. Registration is required in both instances. If attending in-person, proof of vaccination is also required. Visit jsalliance.org, email [email protected] or call 604-732-1555.
Dancers Alvin Erasga Tolentino, left, and Gabriel Dharmoo in Passages of Rhythms, in which Jonathan Bernard (below) is a percussionist. (photo by Yasuhiro Okada)
“Passages of Rhythms is inspired by a shared fascination with interculturalism, interdisciplinary activity, flamenco and collaborations between cultures,” percussionist Jonathan Bernard told the Independent about the Co.ERASGA production, which is being remounted May 19 and 20 at PAL Studio Theatre, in recognition of Asian Heritage Month. May is also Jewish Heritage Month.
“Canada is becoming well-known as an international centre of intercultural arts,” said Bernard, a member of the Jewish community. “I very much look forward to the remount and a bright future for the show on Canadian and international stages.”
In Passages of Rhythms, Co.ERASGA’s Alvin Erasga Tolentino highlights flamenco, Bharatanatyam and voices for the body, in a collaboration with local Chinese-Canadian flamenco artist Kasandra “La China,” Indo-Canadian Bharatanatyam dancer Sujit Vaidya and Montreal voice artist Gabriel Dharmoo. Ronald Stelting joins Bernard on the percussion music, and Jonathan Kim provides the lighting.
Bernard was in the original production, which took place at the Firehall Theatre as part of the Dancing on the Edge festival in 2018.
“The creation process of Passages was very smooth, full of joy and dedication, and the result brought a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience,” he said. “Alvin is a director with a warm heart, an open mind, and is a passionate artist, so I’m overjoyed to be part of the remount.
“This is a dream gig for me,” he continued, “as I caught the flamenco bug back around 2005, I’ve traveled to the birthplace of flamenco in southern Spain to study and I’ve happily spent countless hours collaborating with flamenco dancers at local flamenco venues and on the concert stage. Kasandra was my first flamenco teacher, and we have had an artistic relationship going back to the mid-2000s. One of our groups, Orchid Ensemble, collaborated with Kasandra’s and Oscar Nieto’s Al Mozaico Flamenco Theatre to create a show named after the famous Café de Chinitas in Malaga, where Frederico Garcia Lorca penned some of his most famous works.”
Another reason this is a dream gig for Bernard, he said, “is that I have the pleasure of surrounding myself with many of my favourite instruments, collected from 25 years of travel and study around the world, scouring through ancient temple and traditional markets for the best sounding instruments. For example, you will see/hear temple bells and opera cymbals from Beijing and Sichuan province; tuned gongs found in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos; the riqq (Arabic frame drum), handmade in Cairo’s old city; bells from India; and, of course, the cajon, a box drum adapted into the flamenco tradition in the 1960s.
“My compositional ideas that form the soundscape for Passages are not only inspired by the dancers’ movement,” he said, “but by the instruments themselves and the ancient styles traditions they represent. Further, as most often I am busy interpreting the work of composers, Passages gave me a chance to compose my own original music.”
Since the mid-1990s, Bernard and his wife and artistic partner Lan Tung have been creating intercultural ensembles, mixing instruments and instrumentalists from traditions ranging from Chinese, South Asian, Persian, Arabic, North African and Western traditions, creating original Canadian music, and touring internationally. “We looked to ancient centres of interculturalism such as the Silk Road and El Andalus for inspiration, and as reflections of our own unique cultural environment,” he said. “Andalusia was a golden age of interculturalism, where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace and shared knowledge and cultural traditions, from architecture to music to the culinary arts.
“Since the birthplace of flamenco – approximately one hour by train to the ancient Mediterranean port city of Cadiz – was located in the heart of Andalusia, I believe flamenco was certainly shaped by the liberal sharing and mixing of traditions,” he said. “For example, the 12-beat time cycles that are of central importance to West and North African traditions are also deeply embedded in flamenco forms; the castanets and palmas (interlocking handclaps) can be found in the carcabas and rhythms of the Gnawa and Berber people of Africa; the Ashkenazi cantorial traditions must have influenced the passionate flamenco vocal style. It might be said that flamenco borrowed rhythmic elements from North Africa, melodic elements from the pre-inquisition Ashkenazi Ladino song, and with simple harmonic structures and the guitar from Europe.”
Passages of Rhythms’ May 19 and 20 performances start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 ($20 for students and seniors) and can be purchased at eventbrite.ca.
The creation of Songs for a Lost Pod helped singer/songwriter Leah Abramson explore her family’s Holocaust history. (photo by Angela Fama)
The world première of Leah Abramson’s Songs for a Lost Pod was supposed to be part of this year’s PuSh Festival three months ago. Delayed because of COVID restrictions at the time, it now will debut May 28-29, 7:30 p.m., at Studio T, SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.
Songs for a Lost Pod is a “nine-song cycle [that] makes spectacular use of orca vocalizations, transforming them into rhythmic beats in a musical exploration of historical trauma, environmental crisis and communication between species.” The theatrical production is the most recent development in a process that includes an album by the same name, released in 2017.
“It was just an outward spiral, really. The project started with dreams I had about whales, which turned into researching whales for fun, which then turned into a master of fine arts thesis, an album, a comic book, and now a stage show!” said Abramson when the Independent interviewed her in anticipation of the PuSh festival. “When I made the album, I knew there was so much research and information behind the lyrics and music of each song, and I felt like I wanted people to understand that context, so I made the comic book to highlight some of the research and stories. Then, as I was arranging the music to be performed live, I realized that I wanted people to have that context, too, so I’ve turned the research and background into a script. Then we decided that adding visuals would really help immerse the audience in the material. The project has just been expanding from the beginning.”
Abramson, who grew up in Burnaby, said she has been interested in music from a young age. “My grandma sang in her synagogue’s choir and my dad played the piano, so they tell me it runs in the family,” she said. “But I was also told that music was only for fun, and not a real career, unless you were a concert pianist or something like that. So, I tried to do other things, but I was miserable unless I was making music.
“Over the years, I’ve done lots of touring and playing in bands and teaching, but writing and composing has always been what I love the most. I have pretty varied interests – I’m fascinated by marine biology and I love learning about the environment, as well as human history. The great thing about writing songs is that you can research anything and put it into your work. Right now, I’m really excited about writing music for the stage, as well as choral music.”
Along with her MFA in creative writing (with a focus on lyrics) from the University of British Columbia, Abramson studied classical music at Capilano University, and also has studied traditional Appalachian balladry.
In addition to the song-cycle, Songs for a Lost Pod features the narrative script that Abramson mentioned, which “juxtaposes the whale histories with Leah’s own family and their experience surviving the Holocaust and its aftermath,” according to the program description. “Mind of a Snail’s handmade projections create an impressionistic and largely non-representational visual world to support the songs and narration, guiding the audience into a space of contemplation.”
“When I first started looking into whale histories, the parallels presented themselves pretty quickly,” Abramson told the Independent. “It was not my intention to delve into my family’s past, but, while learning about captures and commercial whaling practices, it was hard not to look at the bigger picture of human behaviour throughout history – aspects of cruelty and destruction that manifest in heartbreaking ways. But also, whales are similar to humans – whale intelligence is extremely high, and whale families are extremely tight knit.”
It was difficult for Abramson to explore her family’s Holocaust history – “the loss and pain are pretty overwhelming,” she said, “and it’s not always easy to find a way forward when that intensity is present. Whale families became a mirror for me, a way to understand and experience intergenerational trauma at a greater distance. The project allowed me to deal with my feelings in a more manageable way, through empathy for another species. And it provided a space for my grief, but also helped me find a way through it. Trauma is so common in families of all different backgrounds. Our ancestors may have lived through wars or other calamities and there are so many people living through these things right now. I think learning others’ stories can help people start to process their own family’s pain, even if the details are different. I felt like whale stories did that for me.”
Credit for Songs of a Lost Pod’s music and lyrics go to Abramson in collaboration with Antoine Bédard, J.J. Ipsen, Andrew Lee (Holy Hum), Aidan O’Rourke (Lau), Sandro Perri, Arliss Renwick and Marten Timan. The program notes that credit also could be given to the A5 whale pod, as the musicians “were given selected A5 pod orca vocalizations, along with Abramson’s other field recordings, to turn into beats and tracks, which formed the backbone of Abramson’s songwriting process, and the rhythms behind much of the music.”
Fellow Jewish community member Barbara Adler also has contributed to the project, and is the show’s narrator.
“Barbara and I have known each other for so long that we can’t remember when or how we officially met,” said Abramson. “It’s like that with people in creative community sometimes – you grow up making art alongside each other. We have shared some special experiences and projects over the years, and continue to work together and in parallel. We have some shared Czech-Jewish roots, which makes Barbara a really good fit for this project in particular. She’s working on a lot of interesting projects of her own, and I’m also happy to be one of her composer-collaborators for Mermaid Spring, which is a musical she’s making with Kyla Gardiner (who also happens to be our lighting designer).
“Barbara has been sending me song lyrics over the last few years, which I have been setting to music. I love working with the characters she has created, and it has truly been a joy to work on those songs. I also really admire Barbara’s artistic process. When she writes, she really digs into all the nuances of a situation or character. She welcomes complexity and the messy underside of creation. I think Barbara balances my impulsivity, and helps me step out from the shadows in my shyest moments. She’s also a great performer!”
Joan Beckow, left, Wendy Bross Stuart, centre, and Jessica Stuart, during a visit a few years ago. (photo from Jessica Stuart)
Acknowledging that the music world is “a fickle one in which skill, talent and ingenuity do not necessarily result in widespread acknowledgement or musical reach,” Jessica Stuart said Joan Beckow’s “music deserves to be heard. It deserves to be performed and played for many generations to come, and it is more than good enough to stand next to the work of Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim.”
Stuart and her mother, Wendy Bross Stuart – accomplished musicians in their own right – are co-directors of the Joan Beckow Project. Stuart is also project manager and producer of the project. Arts administrator Rosie Callaghan handles many of the behind-the-scenes details.
Beckow passed away on Jan. 13, 2021, at age 88. She was a close family friend of the Stuarts, and she and Bross Stuart collaborated professionally for more than 40 years. Jessica Stuart grew up surrounded by Beckow’s music, both because her mother and Beckow had worked together and because Stuart has performed a large body of Beckow’s work. The seeds of the Joan Beckow Project were planted in 2015, when Stuart discovered that none of Beckow’s music was available online and almost none of her choral or musical theatre music had ever been professionally recorded or transcribed. Beckow gave Stuart her blessing for the project.
Beckow started her career with a music degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. At UCLA, she composed six original musicals for the theatre department, where she collaborated with her friend, Carol Burnett. Beckow was resident composer and music director for the Stumptown Players, out of San Francisco, and, when she graduated, she started composing for Holiday Theatre L.A.
Eventually, Beckow found her way to Vancouver, where she worked with many theatres as a composer and music director, including the Playhouse, Carousel and Belfry theatres, as well as with the Shaw Festival. With Bross Stuart, she composed several musicals and, in 2002, It’s All in the Song, a summary of Beckow’s work, premièred at the Chutzpah! Festival.
Beckow’s resumé also includes a degree in music therapy from Capilano College, where she was faculty for 10 years. And, over a 25-year period, she wrote original material for the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! theatre program for youth.
“Part of the reason I think it’s so important to record Joan’s work for the first time, is that, although her pieces have a natural beauty and intuitive sound, on paper (literally, the musical scores), her pieces look very complicated,” Stuart told the Independent. “Many of her songs cycle through multiple musical keys and several time signatures in one piece and I strongly believe that, if we want choral directors, vocalists and instrumentalists to choose this music to perform, they need the chance to listen and fall in love with it first.”
Beckow wrote hundreds of compositions, and Stuart and her mother started talking about song selection long before the project officially started.
“How does one sum up a composer’s career in one album? Well, we decided that we couldn’t, so we made it a double disc,” said Stuart. “One disc will focus on Joan’s musical theatre material, and the other will focus on her classical and sacred music, including many pieces set to text from the Jewish liturgy. There will be 22 pieces in total.”
Also part of the project is a 25-minute documentary, directed by Stuart’s father, Ron Stuart, in collaboration with editor Carlos Coronado.
“We applied to the Canada Council for the Arts, to the Concept to Realization program, in which we were able to define the scope of our project activities to include more than just an album recording,” said Jessica Stuart. “We wanted to tell the story of Joan’s life, culminating in the present-day recording of her debut album, albeit posthumous.”
In addition to the Canada Council support, the project has received support from the Ontario Arts Council and from Beckow’s son, David Beckow. But such undertakings are expensive. This one involves 30 musicians, and recording sessions in both Vancouver, where Bross Stuart lives, and Toronto, where Stuart is based.
“Even with the arts councils’ generous contributions, this massive undertaking still requires more financial support and, with some of this music having waited 70 years to be recorded for the first time, cutting corners is not an option we’re willing to consider,” writes Stuart on the Indiegogo fundraiser page.
As part of the project, Beckow’s songs have been “lush[ed] out.”
“Joan wrote most of her pieces for piano and voices, and the piano accompaniment always felt very orchestral, so adding strings, woodwinds and percussion felt completely natural and somehow brought even more emotional levity to the pieces,” explained Stuart. “The arrangements were done by Wendy and I, separately, but then requiring approval from each other before signing off. We agreed that these arrangements needed to keep a focus on Joan’s actual writing, instead of letting our imaginations run too wild, and we stuck to that. The results are quite wonderful!”
As for the vocal contributors to the project, Stuart said, “The main consideration here was about getting the right voices for the right pieces. Wendy hired the personnel involved in the musical theatre portion of the album, which took place in Vancouver at Bryan Adam’s recording studio, the Warehouse.
“When I first conceived of this project,” she said, “I recognized that Joan’s classical and sacred music somehow had a kinship with jazz in terms of harmony, so I was eager to get the material into the hands of some of my favourite jazz musicians and improvisers based in Toronto. When choosing the personnel in Toronto, I went for both classical and jazz musicians, and even arranged a few pieces with sections earmarked for improvised solos. As suspected, not only did the music lend itself exceptionally well to improvisation, but Joan’s music had the Toronto jazz scene completely enamoured, and kind of in a tizzy, which was a real pleasure to watch.”
One of Stuart’s longtime favourite Beckow pieces is “Dwelling Places.”
“Joan once told me that she never wanted a harmony to simply exist as an ornament to a melody – that a harmony should be able to stand alone even if the melody were removed,” explained Stuart. “That, to me, is a profound idea, and I’ve always admired the myriad moving lines Joan was able to work into one piece concurrently within the accompaniment and vocal parts of her work. These lines lead you emotionally from one place to another, seamlessly, and all of sudden you have goosebumps and don’t even know why.
“Also, whether Joan was setting her own lyrics, or else poetry by Dorothy Parker, or else Jewish liturgical text, like ‘Dwelling Places,’ to music, she had an incredible gift for being able to mirror spoken cadence and intonation within her melodies.”
Stuart continued, “A new favourite of mine, though, discovered through the process of working on the Joan Beckow Legacy Project, is what I refer to as her ‘instant Christmas classic,’ called ‘A Christmas Wish.’ This is a song that stands up next to ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (The Christmas Song),’ and you can’t help but to imagine Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra’s voice all over it. And I’m sure we’re all aware of the long-standing tradition of Jewish songwriters creating the best Christmas music, so it’s time we added a female composer’s take to the mix!”
For anyone wanting to know more about the Joan Beckow Legacy Project, there are regular posts on Facebook and Instagram. To contribute to the project via Indiegogo and watch a short video about it, visit igg.me/at/joanbeckowlegacy. There is a six-level range of incentives for donors, from a personal social media shoutout for a $25 gift, to a personal thank you in the liner notes of the album – and all the goodies of the prior levels – for a $1,000 contribution.
Reverend Hazan Daniel Benlolo (photo from Kolot Mayim)
“To repair the often-shattered world, I cannot think of a better way than to give a voice to those less heard,” said Reverend Hazan Daniel Benlolo, leader of the Montreal Shira Choir, a vocal ensemble comprised exclusively of people with physical and intellectual challenges.
Benlolo was speaking at a Feb. 13 lecture co-hosted by Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and Victoria’s Kolot Mayim Reform Temple during Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, or JDAIM.
Born in Morocco, Benlolo settled with his family in Canada in the 1970s and became the cantor of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue at the age of 17. He is also a rabbi and an artist who, among other things, designs ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts). Despite his many hats, Benlolo’s true passion, as evidenced throughout his talk, is to provide a stage for those who have seldom been listened to, accepted or appreciated in the community.
While working in Ottawa in 2002, he helped lead the Tamir Neshama Choir, which toured throughout Canada, the United States and Israel.
“It really inspired me and opened my eyes to a new life that I never explored before. To be able to spend time with people of special abilities made my life that much better in so many different ways,” Benlolo said of his Ottawa experience, for which he received a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award in 2013.
The move back to Montreal came a few years ago. There, Benlolo and his wife Muriel Suissa founded the Shira Choir in 2019, with the assistance of Federation CJA and the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal. The choir, made up of singers from many cultural backgrounds, performs a wide range of music, from liturgical to Broadway and pop.
Not long after the choir’s formation, the pandemic struck in early 2020. Nevertheless, Benlolo has managed to keep the music playing through Zoom rehearsals and socially distanced visits with choir members.
Benlolo stressed that, too often, people with special needs come in and out of our lives, without our taking the time to engage with them. His simple request to the Zoom audience was “to take the time,” as “it could make a world of difference.”
“They teach me more than I could ever teach them,” is the view Benlolo expresses regularly, saying there is no way to place a value on these relationships.
He emphasized the importance of not patronizing anyone in the choir. That is, audiences should give them a standing ovation only because members of the choir deserved one for the quality of their singing, not for the act of performing itself.
“They have hopes and aspirations. Some are going to fulfil them, some are not,” asserted Benlolo.
The future for the choir, he declared, is to continue to spread love, positivity, inclusion and the sense of community, but not tolerance, a word to which he has a particular aversion. “I don’t want to tolerate you, I want to love you. I want to count you in the community as a full member,” he said.
“We want to continue building from here,” he added. “It can only come to fruition if everyone puts in some effort. Just a little bit of an effort, the results will be so satisfactory, both for the individual and the community, [and] we will learn some new things, we will learn a way of life, that for so long has been hidden.”
Benlolo’s talk covered the recently premièred documentary Just As I Am, which can be viewed on CBC Gem (gem.cbc.ca/media/absolutely-canadian/s21e26). The film, a profile of the adults with special needs in the choir, explores the universal language of music and its ability to transform lives.
Benlolo also presented two short videos, both available on YouTube, showing members of the Shira Choir singing Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
In his concluding remarks, Benlolo urged the audience to not look upon those who are differently abled as “different” in a pejorative sense. “Different is great,” he said. “Different is beautiful. There is so much untapped talent out there that I am always in search of these people who are hidden gems.”
The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal is the oldest in Canada, tracing its history back to 1760, when the first Jewish settlers arrived in Quebec, making it as old as the province itself.
Now in its 14th year, JDAIM is a unified effort among Jewish organizations and communities throughout the world to build awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and those who love them.
Benlolo’s presentation was the fifth in Kolot Mayim’s six-part series on the theme of Building Bridges: Celebrating Diversity in Jewish Life. The final session in the series features Indigenous artist Patricia June Vickers and Rabbi Adam Cutler of Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto, which is co-sponsoring the event. The topic on March 20, 11 a.m., is An Indigenous and Jewish Dialogue on Truth and Reconciliation. To register, visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.