Ashkenaz Festival Marks Anniversary Online (Starts Tonight!)

Ashkenaz Festival

Sept. 1, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The Ashkenaz Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary online. Live daily pop-up performances and a nightly archive series, will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube from Sept. 1 to 7.

Founded in 1995 as a biennial showcase for klezmer and Yiddish music and culture, the festival grew to embrace global Jewish art and culture, including dance, theatre and film. Ashkenaz has attracted audiences of more than 60,000 to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Due to restrictions imposed by the ongoing COVID pandemic, Ashkenaz is offering a pared-down virtual edition for 2020, featuring a musical sampling.

It’s a jolt to be unable to present the festival in person, said artistic director Eric Stein.

“But being able to mark that milestone in the way that we’re doing, with a look back and also a look at the present, I think is a nice opportunity,” he added.

Twenty-minute live pop-up performances by some of the festival’s Toronto-based alumni will be streamed daily at 4 p.m. from various outdoor locations in the city. The series showcases Sephardic singer Aviva Chernick; the Toronto Klezmer Society; pianist Marilyn Lerner with singer David Wall; Lemon Bucket Orkestra co-founders Mark and Marichka Marcyk; Moneka Arabic Jazz and klezmer/Balkan-style band Beyond the Pale.

Ashkenaz’s founding artistic director, trumpeter David Buchbinder, shot a video for the festival in New Orleans, where he’s based part-time, to be streamed during the festival.

Delivery of music has been completely transformed at this point, with venues not functioning the way they used to, said Stein, who also plays mandolin for Beyond the Pale. But, he added, there are amazing opportunities to hear music in unexpected places, such as living rooms, backyards, porches and parks.

The band “Beyond the Pale,” with Ashkenaz artistic director Eric Stein at far left.

“There’s such a hunger for music out there and there’s a hunger by musicians to get out and play, aside from the fact that they really need to work and earn something because all of their income has been so incredibly constricted,” Stein said.

The festival’s archival series, daily at 8 p.m., presents concerts from festivals from 1999 to 2018. “I would say the further back we go in time with the archival shows, fewer and fewer people would have seen these shows,” Stein said. “It’s like you’re seeing new content.”

Included in the evening series are 1999 performances by the Flying Bulgar Band, a legendary Toronto group that was part of the klezmer revival, and Hasidic New Wave, a band that fuses Hasidic musical styles, such as freylekhs and horas, with jazz, funk and experimental rock.

The archival series will revive a 2014 performance by Zion80, a 10-piece, improvisational horn-heavy band that combines the heartfelt melodies of Jewish music with the polyrhythmic intensity of Afrobeat.

Other highlights of the nightly series include a 2008 concert headlined by Joshua Nelson, an African-American singer who blends Hebrew texts with gospel melodies, and a 2018 performance by YID!, an Australian group that performs Yiddish music mixed with jazz, funk, electronica and indie folk.

The 2016 concert by the Israeli group, Baladino, whose repertoire consists of fresh yet authentic interpretations of Sephardic and Ladino melodies, is also being streamed for the nightly series. 

The finale of the 2006 Ashkenaz Festival rounds out the virtual festival. Featuring an all-star band, the concert is a tribute to the Moldavian clarinetist German Goldenshteyn, an important figure in the klezmer world who died months before he was to perform at Ashkenaz. Goldenshteyn brought his native region’s klezmer tradition to the United States in 1994, when he arrived there with hundreds of klezmer tunes he had transcribed over the years.

“This was a particularly spirited finale because there was an emotional resonance around the loss of German and how significant he and his repertoire had been to the klezmer scene at that time and still to the present,” Stein said. 

“It’s an amazing performance of a complete all-star cast of just about anyone you can imagine who is an important figure in the klezmer scene and it ends with about 40 musicians on stage.”

A virtual exhibition, 25 years of the Ashkenaz Festival, tells the festival’s story, from its launch in 1995 through to the 2018 event. Presented by the Ashkenaz Festival and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the exhibit is online until Sept. 30. 

The exhibit includes a narrative written by Stein, videos, photographs and digitized memorabilia – press clippings, excerpts from program books, festival T-shirts and the colourful, whimsical posters created for each past festival.

Stein said he put the exhibit together to give people a sense of what the festival has been throughout its life, how important it’s been to the artistic community, and to the community at large. It was also an opportunity for him to honour the people who created the festival and who have along the way been critical to its success and functioning.

Stein reflected that watching this year’s virtual edition is a way for people to remember the amazing times they had at previous festivals, surrounded by thousands of people at Harbourfront Centre and feeling the community and the vitality of the artists and the art forms. 

“That’s what we’re missing so much. We all hope we can back to where we can experience that live again,” he said. “But for now, this is the next best thing.”

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