The new Jewish Seniors Alliance Snider Foundation Empowerment Series season began on Oct. 19 with a concert. As usual, the program was co-sponsored by JSA and a community organization; in this case, the Kehila Society of Richmond. Because of the pandemic, the event took place on Zoom.
Last year’s Empowerment theme, “Be Inspired,” was carried forward for this year’s season. Fifty participants tuned in to Music in the Afternoon, which featured pianist Lester Soo and vocalist Maria Cristina Fantini. Soo is an accomplished musician who has taught, adjudicated, accompanied and performed in the world of music for many years, while Fantini – a dramatic soprano, at home in both classical and popular styles – teaches and has established her own vocal studio.
Toby Rubin, coordinator of Kehila Society, welcomed everyone and introduced Soo and Fantini.
JSA’s Gyda Chud spoke about the alliance and recalled that Soo and Fantini had performed in a joint program in the past. This time, the musicians performed from Soo’s home, where he was able to make use of his grand piano.
The audience was entertained by a number of old favourites, starting from the 1930s. Songs included “Unforgettable,” “When I Fall in Love” and “Besame Mucho.” These were followed by works by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, k.d. lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and “Tonight” from West Side Story. The duo then switched to the jazz genre, with “Misty.” Lester played a solo of “Over the Rainbow” and he and Fantini ended with an aria by Puccini, “O, My Beloved Father.”
It was a wonderful concert. The only problem was that the musicians couldn’t hear the applause because the audience was muted for the performance. However, Rubin thanked Soo and Fantini on everyone’s behalf.
Byron Schenkman performs in the concert called Chopin Preludes on Aug. 1 at Christ Church Cathedral. (photo from Byron Schenkman)
“I think Chopin was an exceptionally sensitive pianist and composer – more of a poet than most. Sometimes his music is almost painfully beautiful. And, these days, I think we need all the poetry and beauty and sensitivity we can find!” Byron Schenkman told the Independent.
Schenkman returns to the Vancouver Bach Festival this year. Presented by Early Music Vancouver, they will perform preludes by Frédéric Chopin on Early Music’s 19th-century Broadwood fortepiano on Aug. 1, 1 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 12:15 p.m., at Christ Church Cathedral.
The concert is a collaboration with the Vancouver Chopin Society. Describing Chopin as “a central figure of 19th-century Romanticism,” the program summary notes that “his connections to Bach are clear in his own preludes, which were directly inspired by Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.” To place “Chopin’s music in the context of Romantic composers who influenced his work,” Schenkman’s performance will include pieces by Maria Szymanowska, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.
Of playing Chopin, Schenkman said, “I think the biggest challenge – and the greatest joy – is honouring the delicacy of Chopin’s music even when it is intellectually complex and emotionally very deep. Compared with performing most other composers’ work, it’s like creating art out of glass instead of marble or bronze.”
Schenkman performs on piano, harpsichord and fortepiano, which is, simply, a piano made in the 18th and early 19th century. They also have contributed to more than 40 CDs, including some on which they have played on historical instruments from the National Music Museum, in Vermillion, S.D., and from the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. The award-winning musician is a founding member of several ensembles, and teaches music history at Seattle University, as well as being a guest lecturer on the harpsichord and fortepiano at other institutions. In 2013, they launched Byron Schenkman & Friends, a Baroque and classical chamber music series in Seattle.
A graduate of the New England Conservatory and Indiana University, Schenkman said, “I grew up in a home with lots of music. I often heard one of my older sisters practising the piano and it is still a very comforting sound for me, especially the repertoire that she practised most: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.”
In past Bach Festivals, Schenkman has performed Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn and Ignaz Moscheles.
“I am really happy to be returning to Vancouver, one of my favourite cities,” they said. “And I am honoured to be part of the wonderful Vancouver Bach Festival along with so many inspiring colleagues.”
This year’s 14-concert festival, which runs July 30 to Aug. 9, begins with EMV’s ensemble-in-residence, Les Boréades, in a performance over two nights – July 30 and 31 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts – of Bach’s Complete Brandenburg Concertos. It also closes at the Chan Centre – with Henry Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia – but the other concerts take place at Christ Church. For tickets and more information, visit earlymusic.bc.ca or call 604-822-2697.
“Dueling pianists” Lester Soo and Marilyn Glazer entertain at the last Empowerment Series session of the season. (photo from JSA)
Co-sponsored by Jewish Seniors Alliance and the Kehila Society of Richmond, the fifth session of this season’s JSA Snider Foundation Empowerment Series took place at Congregation Beth Tikvah. It more than lived up to the series’ theme this year: “Renewing and Reinventing Ourselves.”
As usual, the program was preceded by a lunch provided by Stacey Kettleman. Beth Tikvah’s Rabbi Adam Rubin did the Hamotzi and Toby Rubin, co-executive director of the Kehila Society, welcomed everyone. Among the 120 or so attendees were members of the Kehila Society and of JSA, as well as a group from L’Chaim Adult Day Care.
The entertainment portion of the program took place in the sanctuary, where Ken Levitt, president of JSA, spoke briefly and Rubin introduced the “dueling pianists”: Marilyn Glazer and Lester Soo, both of whom are accomplished musicians and piano instructors. The two have known each other for 35 years and have been playing duets for much of that time – one piano, four hands. At the Empowerment Series performance, they began with four Hungarian rhapsodies and continued with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. They then played a number of Gershwin tunes and ended with Cole Porter.
Rubin thanked the pianists for their wonderful performance, which was the last event of the 2018/19 Empowerment Series. The series will begin again in the fall, with a new lineup of events presented by JSA with other seniors groups in the community.
Shanie Levinis an executive board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.
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.