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A Conversation with Sharon Azrieli Perez

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A renowned soprano, Sharon Azrieli Perez has performed in Europe, Israel and throughout Canada and the United States. Her operatic roles cover a broad range, with particular emphasis on Verdi heroines, while her recitals have covered art song to Broadway. As Montreal’s first female cantor, Dr. Azrieli Perez developed a particular interest in Jewish music and its influence on the canon of the western classical tradition. She completed a doctoral thesis on this topic at the Université de Montréal in 2011. Dr. Azrieli Perez sits on the board of directors of the Azrieli Foundation, the Azrieli Group, and is the President of the Board of Directors of the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

Sharon, how do you define “Jewish Music” for the purposes of the Azrieli Music Project? 

Jewish music can comprise any number of elements. It can be in and around – above and about – the Jewish experience. It can have elements of Cantorial modes, which gives it a Jewish sound; it can use fragments of chant from the Torah, which gives it another kind of Jewish sound; it can have the sound of Jewish songs – be they Ladino, Hebrew, Yiddish, Klezmer, folk, or Israeli; it could be from any kind of folk history where the Jews settled, in any of the lands of the diaspora; it could be about the history of the Jewish people; it could tell a biblical story — from the Old Testament. It’s not the focus for this competition, but it could be about the Holocaust too.

Why is it important to create new opportunities for new Jewish orchestral music in particular?

Because there is not enough of that. There is too much Klezmer, there is a lot of beautiful Cantorial music being written. But there is not, that I know of, a lot of great art music out there. There is not a new Bloch, for example, that I know of – so let’s find him or her.

The AMP encourages “risk-taking” by today’s orchestral composers. What does this mean? 

It means that you didn’t know you were Bloch, because your name was Fitzpatrick! I just did the Kaddish [Bernstein Symphony #3 with the Jerusalem Symphony] along with this incredible cellist Michael Fitzpatrick and I said to him, here you are playing Schelomo [by Ernest Bloch] so beautifully and he said, well, my mother was Jewish!  But, I was wrong to judge him — the whole point of the competition is that you don’t have to be Jewish. And also, everyone is Jewish. Find your Jewish soul – anybody can be a kvetch!

What works of Jewish music have particularly inspired you?

What is so funny is that what inspired me is Verdi [sings the soprano theme from the Libera me from the Verdi Requiem] – it is Jewish, right there! It wasn’t a piece of “Jewish music” but it sounded Jewish. Did Verdi know what he was doing? Did he do this on purpose? Some people say that his grandmother was Jewish. I found out that when he was a child – he was brought up in Le Roncole and the nearest school was in Busseto, which was six kilometers away, and in those days you had to walk. So, when he was 10, his parents had to put him up in the town and he lodged in the home of a shoemaker. In that time, being a shoemaker was a Jewish profession, since Jews were not allowed to own land or to hold money.  Verdi would certainly have heard their music on holidays.  And we know from anecdotal reports that if Verdi heard a melody that he liked once, he would use it. He had no compunction at all about borrowing melodies that he liked and transplanting them into his operas.

The AMP is encouraging composers to integrate themes from contemporary Jewish life and experience. Can you give us an example?

Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz. You don’t think about these works as “reflecting contemporary Jewish life” but all of that music was written by Jewish composers. You do not realize it but you hear there a “Jewish ear.”  I think that there are Jewish themes in all of that music. [Sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”] – I could find that it is in Ahava raba mode, I am sure!

What motivated you to create the Azrieli Music Project?

The Foundation has always had support for the arts and music in its mandate. I felt this project was the perfect opportunity to expand on that part of our mandate. It is also my hope and intention that the Azrieli Music Project will be successful enough that it can continue to grow by perhaps adding another prize and increasing our focus on Canadian music. And believe me, Canadian could be much harder to define than Jewish music!