This month the Ashkenaz Festival is streaming a series of four concerts—the festival’s first shows with a live audience in way too long for everyone involved.
Both visually and sound-wise, production values are high in the videos, shot north of Toronto in a barn on Bela Farm, a rural home of Shoresh, a Jewish environmental organization. The performers include Sergiu Popa and ROMada, Roma musicians commissioned by Ashkenaz; Josh “Socalled” Dolgin with the Toronto Jazz Orchestra; Aviva Chernick with the La Serena Trio and Hartzedike-Lider with Allan Merovitz, Brian Katz and Jane Bunnett.
The videos document the first in-person live performances by most of these musicians since March 2020, as they played for about 25 spectators.
Ashkenaz artistic director Eric Stein, who scrambled to put the shows together—he scouted for the barn in June 2021 and the videos were shot in July—said the four-day shoot felt like a festival to him. “You can see how much energy the performers derived from being in front of a live audience,” he said. “It’s such a critical part of the equation that’s been missing for so long.”
Aviva Chernick and the band she fronted on her acclaimed album La Serena, hadn’t performed before a live audience since September 2019. La Serena pays tribute to Chernick’s beloved teacher Flory Jagoda, a Sephardic musician who was known as the keeper of the Balkan Ladino song tradition. The album was nominated for a 2021 Canadian Folk Music Award.
At Bela Farm, Chernick—joined by Naghmeh Farahmand on percussion, Justin Gray on bass and bass veena and Joel Schwartz on guitars and Maryem Tollar on vocals and riq—performed songs from the album and three of Jagoda’s songs, to honour Chernick’s “Nona Flory,” who died last January.
Chernick premiered an original song, “Eit Hazamir,” fitting for the pandemic, with lyrics from Song of Songs welcoming the return of wildflowers after autumn and rain. The song has a shift in tempo and it ends with a raucous groove that feels celebratory and joyous. “It’s really what we were all needing,” Chernick said.
She added that she felt deep gratitude to have been part of the Bela Farm concerts and it was a reminder not to take performing for granted.
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Dolgin, who played 200 shows a year pre-pandemic, said his return to performing for a live audience was a relief, scary and fun. “For a year I was wondering what the hell I do and why I do it. I forgot my function,” he said. “It’s actually important to make music and create culture and to entertain and to rock out with other people.”
Although COVID protocols were somewhat looser by July, there were still roadblocks to putting on a concert, Dolgin said. He met the 18 musicians of the Toronto Jazz Orchestra and its bandleader, Josh Grossman, for the first time for a rehearsal the morning of their performance. “Doing any concert is complicated now. To get 18 people in a space together was complicated,” Dolgin said. Things are opening up, but every concert that happens now is a miracle.”
An eclectic musician and producer who is best known for his Jewish hip-hop recordings, Dolgin sang some of his favourite Yiddish tunes, arranged for the jazz orchestra, occasionally joining the band on accordion, in a concert that was a North American premiere.
The songs’ arrangements were written by two Austrian musicians Andreas Pranzl and Roman Britchgi, in association with the Lungau Big Band. They created the arrangements for lesser-known repertoire of some of Dolgin’s favourite artists and composers, with the help of old recordings and piano or choral arrangements from the 1920s and ‘30s.
Initially, the arrangers sent Dolgin mockups of the songs they were working on. “Some of the songs were not really arranged at all. They were just a melody and we decided what kind of style we could inject into the melody,” Dolgin said. After just one rehearsal, Dolgin and the band were able to premiere the tunes at a jazz festival outside of Salzburg with the Lungau Big Band late in 2019.
The songs performed by Dolgin and the orchestra at Bela Farm range from tunes from the repertoire of the renowned cantor Moishe Oysher, “Alevaye” and “Grine Bleter,” to “Kinder Yorn” by Mordechai Gebirtig, the bard of the Krakow Jewish ghetto, and Dolgin’s hip-hop inflected hit, “You Are Never Alone,” featuring a nigun, a Hasidic melody.
Dolgin also performed two songs from the repertoire of Arkady Gendler, “Purim Purim” and “Zingt Oyf Yidish.” Dolgin met Gendler, who was 80 at the time, at a Yiddish festival in St. Petersburg in 2001. Coincidentally, Gendler lived in the Ukrainian town of Zaporozhye, which Dolgin’s grandfather left in 1912. Dolgin said Gendler was the heart and soul of the Yiddish festival because he was part of the living Yiddish world.
“He grew up singing those Yiddish songs and he lived the history of the Jewish people of the 20th century,” Dolgin said. “His whole family was killed in the war, he was a soldier in the Russian army and then he was a scientist for many years, but he was also a collector of culture and a singer. He had a huge repertoire of songs and he was happy to share with everybody.”
In 2008, Dolgin connected with Gendler again when Gendler was one of the musicians who joined a Yiddish culture cruise of the Dneiper River. Footage from the cruise, including Gendler’s performances, can be seen in The Socalled Movie, which can be viewed free on the National Film Board’s website.
Chernick and Dolgin have played Ashkenaz several times since it was founded in 1995. Among the artists making their debuts this year is Sergiu Popa and ROMada. Stein noted that the longstanding cultural connections between the Jewish and Roma communities, and particularly the Roma music community, go back to Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries: “Having the opportunity to bring into existence an ensemble that’s dedicated to sharing and reflecting the Roma musical spirit but refracted through a Canadian lens, there’s never been anything like it before.”
Ashkenaz also introduces jazz saxophonist Jane Bunnett, a five-time Juno Award winner, with the group Hartzedike-Lider. Bunnett joins Yiddish singer Allan Merovitz, one of the original musicians from the 1980s klezmer revival—he was the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band’s first singer—and klezmer guitarist Brian Katz.
“Jane has worked very little in Jewish music, but she’s certainly quite well-known in the jazz world,” Stein said. He added that the concert reflects the festival’s open approach to programming, to present musicians from different traditions and to cross-pollinate styles.
The barn concerts will debut Sundays in October at 8 p.m., starting Oct. 10 with Sergiu Popa and ROMada, followed by Socalled and Toronto Jazz Orchestra, Aviva Chernick and La Serena Trio and Hartzedike-Lider. After the premieres, they continue to stream for free on Ashkenaz’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
A sneak preview of the world premiere performance of Sergiu Popa and ROMada, filmed July 19, 2021, at Bela Farm: