Musical world mourns composer

Helen Medwedeff Greenberg – composer of secular and liturgical works using Hebrew, Yiddish and English texts – died May 17 at Toronto’s Baycrest Hospital, of cancer. She was 71.

After being diagnosed nine years ago, Greenberg chose to open the door on life “wider than ever,” continuing to compose and to tutor students, Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah Synagogue said in a eulogy.

A native of Baltimore, she studied English and secondary education at Oberlin College in Ohio, and at Goucher College in her hometown, completing her BA in 1961. In the 1980s, she freelanced for The CJN.

Greenberg, whose father was a lawyer and whose mother was a talented amateur pianist, had studied piano and voice, and sang in Oberlin’s summer stock program in Falmouth, Mass.

She and her husband Charles (Chuck), whose family was originally from Montreal, moved to Canada in 1961. They settled in Montreal, and in 1967 moved to Toronto.

A longtime member of Beth Tikvah’s choir, Greenberg also sang with other choirs, including the Lachan Chamber Choir.

Cantor Beny Maissner – conductor and music director of Lachan, and the cantor and musical director of Holy Blossom Temple – told The CJN in an e-mail that Greenberg, whom he’d known for 30 years, was “a special human being who was able  to translate her kind and soft character into the language of music.

“Her… unique deep and profound understanding of the connection between poetry and music allowed her to create a perfect synthesis of the arts. Her gentle soul is reflected in her sensitive compositions. Helen will be missed  by the musical world.”

Greenberg was a student of Canadian composers Oskar Morawetz, Edward Laufer and Srul Irving Glick, who was composer-in-residence and choir director at Beth Tikvah for 32 years until his death in 2002. The late Canadian opera star Maureen Forrester premiered one of Greenberg’s compositions.

Greenberg’s work has been performed in Canada, the United States, Europe and Israel, and has been featured on several CDs, including one recorded by the New York-based Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, and her own 1994 CD, Magic Breath.

As well, her music is part of the repertoire for cantorial students at Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Gratz College. Tribute was paid to her at last week’s Cantors’ Assembly convention, held in Toronto.

On both a professional and personal level, Greenberg garnered the respect of everyone she met, Rabbi Grover told The CJN.

She had “a generous spirit, tremendous loyalty, and not an ounce of pretention,” he said in his eulogy.

Greenberg leaves her husband Chuck, daughter Susan Berger of Olney, Md., son Mark, of Tampa, and three grandchildren.