Checking In On Azrieli Music Prize Laureates Rita Ueda And Iman Habibi

Rita Ueda (Photo: Alistair Eagle); Iman Habibi (Photo: Darko Sikman)

The Azrieli Music Prize offers composers the highest prize among Canadian competitions, and a gala showcase with one of Canada’s premier orchestras.

  • The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music awards a prize of $50,000 CAD for a composer’s proposal to write a piece that answers the question “What is Jewish music?”
  • The Azrieli Commision for Canadian Music awards a prize of $50,000 CAD for a composer’s proposal to write a piece of music of uniquely Canadian concert music.

Iman Habibi, who was awarded the commission for Jewish Music, and Rita Ueda, awarded the commission for Canadian concert music, were busy in the final stages of preparing their works for the gala concert in October when we caught up with them for a few questions and answers.

The Q&A

LV: What led you to apply for the Azrieli competition? How did it come about?

IH: The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music is among the largest commissions of its kind in the world, and open internationally to composers of all backgrounds. Naturally, it has been on my radar for years. It particularly interested me this year, because it provides the opportunity to write for one of Canada’s finest orchestras, Orchestre Métropolitain; opportunities to write large-scale works for orchestras, and to have freedom over the forces involved and the subject matter, can be rare for us composers.

RU: I saw an ad in the Canadian Music Centre newsletter, and I thought it might be interesting.

LV: Did you have an idea in mind for a composition already when you applied? Did the theme you chose inspire you in particular? What do you hope audiences will experience when they hear your piece?

IH: The general idea for such a piece had existed in my mind for years. As part of the application for this prize, the applicants were asked to submit a proposal. The more specific theme and ideas for my piece were stated in this proposal, and as such, they were formed before I applied.

I decided to propose a piece for a Persian soloist and orchestra, on the poetry of celebrated Judeo-Persian poet, Shahin Shirazi, who remains largely unknown to Iranians today. I hope that this piece can highlight the millennia-long shared history that exists between the Persians and the Jews.

It is my hope that the music touches them, evokes powerful emotions, and thought.

RU: I wanted to write a new Canadian orchestral works that accomplished three things. One: an orchestral piece that reflected the Canadian bird song soundscape. As a student, I studied many works by European masters like Beethoven, Vivaldi, Respighi, and Messiaen that focused on birds in their environment. I thought it might be interesting to create a piece that reflected the most iconic birds of Canada. This was much harder than I thought — Canada is a big country with 450+ bird species living in thousands of different sound environments! Plus, many of the iconic Canadian birds are not songbirds. I decided to accept the diversity of our bird species and to include birds that squawk, screech, hoot, drum, and squeal as well as those that sing and chirp.

Two: I wanted to create an intercultural concerto featuring the sho (Japanese mouth organ), sheng (Chinese mouth organ), and the suona (Chinese shawm). The sheng was introduced to Japan from China in the 7th century, and it developed into the sho. They are still written in both Japanese and Chinese with the same character (笙). Both the sho and the sheng represent the phoenix, the mythical bird of rebirth and renewal. As a 7-year old immigrant in 1971, the orange CP Air jet that brought me to Canada seemed like the phoenix flying me over the ocean to a new country. Young suona players are trained to imitate real birds when they first learn their instrument. I thought this commission would be an ideal way to incorporate this fascinating instrument to the Western orchestra.

Three: as mandated in the Azrieli prize, I wanted to answer the question, ‘What is Canadian music?’ I originally wanted to compose a celebratory piece about Canada. However, the past year has seen many events that shook our Canadian identity to the core: the discovery of unmarked graves outside of residential schools, the truckers’ convoy, hospital workers being harassed by protesters, the rise of hate-crimes across the country.

What I discovered through this past year of research, reflection, and composing is that I really wanted to create a piece that gives the listeners an opportunity to reflect on who we are as a country. The title of my piece is Birds Calling… from the Canada in You. Which bird sings to you from the Canada (home) in your heart? In which direction would you like this bird to fly?

LV: What’s it like to get the opportunity to create something you know will receive a gala premiere with a full orchestra?

IH: It is always a joy to write music for a full orchestra. The experience of hearing the realization of complex and layered bodies of sound that, until that point, had only existed in its truest form in the composer’s mind, is thrilling.

RU: It has been an enormous honour as well as a pleasure. It has been so wonderful working with the Azrieli foundation, the soloists, and the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal . This is a rare opportunity.

LV: How do you approach the given theme for the composition? How is it incorporated into your piece?

IH: The main challenge in my piece is to bring together two completely different musical traditions I associate with (Persian and Western classical) into the same piece. One is deeply rooted in notation, the other more improvisatory. One uses a 12-tone equal temperament, the other has more of an intervallic understanding of tuning, resulting in tones that do not exist, or are rarely experienced, by Western classical musicians. I try to pay respect to both traditions, while bringing them together to form a cohesive whole.

RU: The birds in my piece are placed in the musical-environmental context. All woodwinds are seated in the audience seating area in the upper balcony levels (bird sounds should come from above, right?), and the soloists are directed to walk in the aisles of the theatre as they play. In addition to the birds, I hope to create the environmental sounds that house them as well: beaches, oceans, winds, thunder, storms, rain, et cetera. I hope to create an immersive 3D surround experience with the orchestra. The exact experience of the audience will be different depending on where they sit.

LV: The Azrieli Prize is obviously a milestone in your career so far. What do you hope for next?

IH: The career of a classical musician is full of interesting surprises. It can have numerous highs and lows, and take sudden turns in unexpected directions. I have learned that it is futile to anticipate how it might evolve. Beyond anything, I hope to be able to continue doing what I love, full-time, for the remainder of my life, in other words, to share the rich and powerful experience of music with others. Over the next few years, I am excited for upcoming commissions for orchestras, choirs, and chamber musicians, as well as several engagements to perform and record with my wife and piano duo partner, Deborah Grimmett.

RU: My next commission is a concerto for koto and orchestra with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (March 10-12, 2023) followed by a chamber opera at the Chutzpah! Festival in Vancouver (November 2023). The VSO piece is about springtime in Vancouver, and the opera is a real-life story of a Jewish family’s escape from the Holocaust with the help of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in WWII Lithuania. I hope to continue to create thought-provoking works that help us shape the future of Canadian culture.

The Azrieli Prize Gala

This year, the Azrieli gala takes place October 20 at the Maison symphonique de Montréal, the compositions performed by l’Orchestre Métropolitain under the baton of Alexandre Bloch.

The program will include work by this year’s third Azrieli laureate, Aharon Harlap, a prominent Canadian-born Israeli composer and conductor, who was awarded the prize for Jewish music.

Originally published in Ludwig van Toronto. View the original article here.