By DAVID EISENSTADT
BEN STEINBERG – Composer, Conductor, Organist, Music Educator (Jan. 22, 1930 –
Years ago, my wife Rhoda and I chose Leo Baeck Day School to register our eldest son into a junior kindergarten program. During a meeting, Principal, Steve Garten asked, “of course you belong to a synagogue or temple.” Raised in Orthodox and Conservative congregations in Calgary and Ottawa, we hadn’t yet joined a Toronto shul, so our son could not be admitted to this Reform Jewish day school. It was time to join, somewhere.
We audited services at various congregations over a half-dozen Friday nights and Shabbat mornings, hoping to find a comfortable sanctuary. We enjoyed the Temple Sinai vibe and have been members there since November 1978. And yes, our son was then admitted to Leo Baeck.
What sealed the deal was Sinai’s perfect trifecta: Cantor Severin Weingort’s voice; founding Rabbi Jordan Pearlson’s oratory; and the music of composer Ben Steinberg. Today at 90, he has been a central figure for four decades and was named the temple’s composer-in-residence in 1996.
While I admired his craft as a composer who found his musical niche, and as a longtime Temple Sinai congregant, I never really came to know the quiet and soft-spoken Steinberg, as I did Rabbi Pearlson and Cantor Weingort. As a lay leader and a member of the temple’s pulpit and services committee, I do remember an evening shiva I was asked to lead, and where he was in attendance. Leaders had the option of singing the service, which was never my choice. I proceeded without singing, and wondered if I was being judged by Steinberg, who was in attendance. After davening, he was gracious, as is his manner, and wished me yacher koach.
Steinberg’s illustrious career is well remembered by temples and synagogues in the United States. Between 1980 and 1991, he was commissioned by various U.S. congregations to write 18 compositions. His approach to his craft is deep and complex. When beginning a composition based on a Jewish text, employing rhythm, harmony and melody, his “Jewish sound” permeates everything he creates.
This Winnipeg-born son of cantor/conductor Alexander Steinberg was a soloist at eight and conducted his first choir at 12 at his father’s synagogue.
Ben then studied piano, singing and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music from 1948 to 1951 and 1957 to 1960, graduating with a bachelor of music degree from the University of Toronto.
Beginning in 1950, he served 10 years as Holy Blossom Temple’s music program director, and in 1960, became its music director until moving to Temple Sinai as music director in 1970. Teaching in various public schools from 1953 to 1958, Steinberg became head of music at Winston Churchill Collegiate in 1961 and then Forest Hill Collegiate until 1986. He served Canadian Jewish Congress as music chairman for 27 years.
His compositions include five sacred services; The Vision of Isaiah (1970) for tenor, choir and organ or instrumental ensemble; Yerushalayim (1973) for soprano, choir and opera; and Echoes of Children (1979), a cantata for soloist, narrator, chorus and orchestra, which won an International Gabriel Award and was twice performed on PBS.
A recipient of numerous awards and honours, he was named artist in-residence for the city of Jerusalem in 1978 and 1980. A highlight in 2001 was his Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, bestowed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The University of Calgary (my undergrad alma mater) recognized his contribution to Canadian and Jewish music worldwide and established a Ben Steinberg Archive to house his original manuscripts, scores and papers.
David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.