What about Weinberg? Calgary musician puts composer on the radar: March 28 at BTZ

On March 28, Temple B’nai Tikvah and Beth Tzedec Congregations are welcoming Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Concertmaster Diana Cohen accompanied by her husband, world-renowned pianist Roman Rabinovich in featuring the music of Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg OBM.

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Hard on the heels of their January joint program – Under the Radar: 30 Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians with author David Eisenstadt – Temple B’nai Tikvah and Beth Tzedec Congregation are welcoming Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Concertmaster and First Chair Violist Diana Cohen as she puts Polish-born Jewish composer Mieczyslaw (Moishe) Weinberg OBM on the radar on March 28 at Beth Tzedec.

This extraordinary musical event will feature excerpts from Weinberg’s acclaimed Violin Concerto, performed by Cohen, accompanied by her husband, world-renowned pianist Roman Rabinovich. The moderator for the event is Mark Limacher, himself an accomplished pianist and long-serving CKUA host. Limacher, Cohen and Rabinovich will also discuss Weinberg’s music and his life and times.

Why Weinberg? 

“He is one of the great composers of the 20th century,” Diana Cohen told AJNews, adding that Dmitri Shostakovich was Weinberg’s “close friend and colleague and believed wholeheartedly in him.”

“Weinberg’s voice was every bit as important as Shostakovich’s,” Cohen said.

Weinberg faced huge challenges during his lifetime. As a Polish refugee, he felt the sting of xenophobia; as a Jew, he suffered antisemitism. As an artist, he was harshly suppressed during the Stalinist era.

“He was always trying to escape something,” said Cohen.

While Weinberg’s works were performed by some leading musicians in the Soviet Union, they were a well-kept secret throughout most of Europe and North America.

Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919. His father was a composer and conductor, his mother an actress in the Yiddish theatre. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II, Weinberg fled into Russia. Remaining behind, his parents and younger sister were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and perished at the Trawniki concentration camp.

Weinberg studied music in Minsk, but when Germany attacked Russia in 1941, he was forced to move again, this time to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There, Weinberg married his first wife and wrote his first symphony, sending it to Shostakovich, who successfully intervened with Soviet authorities, garnering an invitation for Weinberg to travel to Moscow, where he settled in 1943.

Suppressed and persecuted, Weinberg saw friends and members of his and his wife’s family imprisoned and murdered. Incarcerated in 1953 on trumped-up charges of “plotting to establish a Jewish republic in Crimea,” Weinberg escaped the death penalty when an amnesty was declared following Josef Stalin’s death later that year.

“The story of [Weinberg’s] neglect is a history of the 20th century at its worst, encompassing both the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies,” writes classical music critic Robert L. Reilly on a website devoted to the music and history of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (music-weinberg.net/).

A prolific composer, “Weinberg wrote 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, seven operas, six concertos, three ballets, 30 sonatas, and more than 200 songs as well as 60 film scores and incidental music for theatre and circus,” according to the ORT Music and the Holocaust website.

Weinberg’s Jewish roots are reflected in his music, echoes of which are found in some of Shostakovich’s compositions.

Sadly, Weinberg suffered ill health, including Crohn’s disease. Shortly before his passing in 1996, he converted to Russian Orthodoxy. A controversy ensued as to whether he was coerced to do so or freely chose his path to Christianity.

Either way, Weinberg’s remarkable music was influenced by his lived experience as a Jew; suffering and the ravages of war are frequent themes in his music.

The March 28 performance at Beth Tzedec Synagogue is a prelude to Diana Cohen in Concert, set to take place at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on March 31 and April 1, when Cohen and the CPO will perform Weinberg’s Violin Concerto in G Minor (Opus 67). Conducted by Yue Bao, the concert will also feature Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

According to Cohen, March 31 may well be the Canadian premiere of Weinberg’s Violin Concerto; to date, her research has not yielded evidence of previous performances in this country. The concerto was, according to other sources, performed in the United States for the first time in 2015.

Cohen says that she and Rabinovich, who was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and raised in Israel, are thrilled to bring a preview of Weinberg’s concerto to the Jewish community. Taking music beyond the doors of the concert hall and into the community is a passion for the couple. Cohen is founder and co-artistic director of ChamberFest Cleveland, an acclaimed music festival held annually in her home town. Together, she and Rabinovich – who travels the world as a much-sought-after solo pianist  and is co-artistic director of ChamberFest Cleveland – have given Calgarians a similar gift of music as founders and co-artistic directors of ChamberFest West, established this past July.

When COVID-19 closed doors to concert halls during 2020 and 2021, Cohen and Rabinovich continued to entertain and educate Calgary music lovers by turning the front yard of their home into an open-air venue where they provided a series of free weekly concerts.

Cohen’s music has brought an added dimension to some High Holiday services at Temple B’nai Tikvah.

“Roman and I want to make this city as musical as we can,” says Cohen. “Our lives can feel bigger and richer when we know more about music.”

Those attending the performance at Beth Tzedec can look forward to a rich performance in a more intimate setting than the concert hall.

“It is a wonderful chance to hear incredible music . . . expressed by people who have lived with it for a long time, says Cohen. “Being close to the music is really exciting.”

Following the program, a reception with light refreshments will provide attendees an opportunity to chat further with Cohen, Rabinovich and Limacher. Those who register for the program will receive a discount code that can be used to purchase tickets for the CPO performances on March 31 and April 1.

“The arts provide opportunities for communities to engage with their history, their triumphs and their failures, their greatest joys and their deepest sorrows,” says Temple B’nai Tikvah Adult Education Chair Jennifer Eiserman, who teamed up with Beth Tzedec Congregation Education Director Ari Cohen to organize Why Weinberg!?.

“We are grateful to Diana Cohen, Roman Rabinovich, Mark Limacher and the CPO for bringing the work of this Jewish composer to the Jewish and Calgary communities, Eiserman adds. Engaging with it will provide the Jewish community the opportunity to reflect more deeply on our history and shared experiences. The CPO performance will open new ways for the wider community to understand their Jewish neighbours.”

What about Weinberg!? A Jewish Composer no Longer under the Radar will take place at Beth Tzedec Synagogue on March 28. Doors 6:30 pm. Program 7 pm. Admission is free; recommended donations of $18 will be gratefully accepted. Registration prior to the event is required.

Go to https://bethtzedec.ca/bethtzedec-events/what-about-weinberg/.

 Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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