Everything Jewish and everything Canadian: Sharon Azrieli on the Azrieli Music Prizes

Sharon Azrieli performs with Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal and Alexandre Bloch © Danylo Bobyk

Growing up in a Jewish Canadian family able to afford the best education money could buy, it’s fair to suggest that Sharon Azrieli’s career choice of “opera singer” wasn’t exactly at the top of her parents’ wish list. Yes, it was a house full of music; yes, she had been receiving music intravenously since the cradle – classical, opera, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald. But a career? Only, her father insisted, if she got into Juilliard, so Sharon did the necessary. “It took me three auditions to get into Juilliard. I made earrings, I sold them on the streets of New York City, I ran from the cops. And eventually I got in – the rest is history.”

David J. Azrieli, Sharon’s father, had created substantial wealth in a successful career. In 1989, he set up the Azrieli Foundation, with a mission to devote some of that wealth to philanthropic causes – in particular, education, in both his former homeland Israel and his new homeland Canada. By 2013, with her own musical career firmly established, Sharon had begun to think about how some of the Foundation’s wealth could be allocated to music, a project that would require persuading both her father and her sister Naomi, CEO of the Foundation. She tells me the story over a video link from her Montreal home. “Because I’m a singer, I thought, I can’t really ask for something involving singers. So I thought to myself ‘well, what doesn’t exist now? What do we really need?’ And my sister challenged me to find out what doesn’t exist. I looked around, and what really didn’t exist was a prize for composition.”

The competition would be centred – at least initially – on Jewish music. “Our focus at the foundation has always been everything Jewish and everything Canadian. I didn’t tell them at the time that I had a longer vision!” Sharon’s credentials in this area were impeccable, since she had studied Jewish music for her doctorate, had already worked as a synagogue cantor and been fascinated by what she calls the “confluence” of Jewish and classical music. And over time, the biennial Azrieli Music Prizes have added categories: Canadian music and, most recently, an International cross-cultural category. (While the Foundation is based on Jewish values, it has grown to focus extensively beyond Jewish causes in community, research, healthcare and the arts.)

The question of “what constitutes Jewish music” is by no means clear-cut, so the competition’s stipulations allow for many different aspects of Jewishness. The first lies in the construction of the music itself: Sharon explains the tradition with which she is most familiar. “There are ten modes of Ashkenazic music. They’re about a thousand years old, they’re codified and still used to this day. You can hear them in klezmer, in Yiddish music, in different kinds of music throughout the centuries. You can also hear them, for example, in Ladino music, which is a kind of Sephardic music that was important in countries like Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco.”

The variety on a common root will be clearly audible at New York’s Allice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on 28th March, when the compositions of the 2022 laureates will be performed in a celebratory concert. Sharon herself will be singing Aharon Harlap’s Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord a setting in Hebrew for soprano and orchestra of five biblical psalms (the most familiar being psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”), a work which is Jewish both because of its theme and because the music uses Jewish modes. Iman Habibi’s Shāhīn-nāmeh starts with Judeo-Persian text connecting the biblical story of Queen Esther with characters from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the “Book of Kings”, one of the defining works of mediaeval Persian poetry. Habibi’s music breaks many boundaries, juxtaposing ancient Persian scales and vocal styles with passages that would be at home in a Korngold film score.

The question of what constitutes Canadian-ness in music is perhaps even more vexed, since Canada is a nation of so many different peoples, whose cultures don’t necessarily mix. Sharon explains: “Canada calls itself a mosaic – we have always prided ourselves on that. The United States calls itself the melting pot; we don’t. The Italians here speak Italian, here in Montreal where I live, we speak French: it’s very important for everybody to maintain their cultural identity.” The Lincoln Center concert will also feature the 2022 winner in the Canadian category, Rita Ueda’s Birds Calling… from the Canada in You. Ueda started from an interest in her own Japanese roots and her connections with the Chinese community in Vancouver. But with the country in the throes of the “unmarked graves” controversy, and debates over debts owed to First Nation peoples, she felt the need to choose a completely different angle. The jury were highly taken with her idea of creating a soundscape from the sounds of birds native to the country: Canadian Loons, Canada Geese, Snowy Owls.

The vast majority of music competitions are for performers, and the nuts and bolts of a composition competition are fundamentally different: you can’t judge a performance of music which has not yet been written. So each entrant for the Azrieli Music Prizes is required to submit a substantial proposal package containing the founding ideas behind the composition-to-be, backed by research results, biographical information, references and musical examples. These go to a pre-selection jury who weed out the proposals which fail the competition’s criteria – starting with obvious things like the length of the proposed piece, or the performers it is written for. “Sometimes, we wonder if they even read the rules, which is obvious but absurd. They will submit for two minutes, or 30, and we’re very clear that it has to be between 15 and 20 minutes! What makes our prizes so interesting is that every two years they’re for a different orchestration. For example this year, we are a choral prize. Next year, we’re going to be an operatic prize. Last year, it was orchestral music.”

Sharon advises the pre-selection jury but plays no part in the final judging round, where, after three weeks of preparation, the final jury five spends two days locked up together to decide the laureates for each prize.

The 2024 Prizes have included a new Commission for International Music, which invites composers to join in “the goal of fostering greater intercultural understanding through music”. Sharon describes the thinking: “I thought it was now time to really open up to the world, any culture from anywhere, let them bring what they know of their culture.” The first laureate in the category is Mexican American Juan Trigos, who won favour not just because Latin American composers are underrepresented on the world classical music stage but because he plans to delve as far back as Aztec culture in creation of his composition, in a process for which he has coined the term “Abstract Folklore”.

Sharon’s excitement is palpable when she talks about the richness and variety of music, and indeed, her own career has been musically omnivorous. After Juilliard and six years in opera, including the Canadian Opera in Toronto, that career took a pivot: “I had first child in 1995 my second in 1997 and that basically kiboshed my operatic career, because you can’t run around the world with toddlers. Most opera singers don’t have children, unless they have husbands who follow them around. I wasn’t lucky in husbands, so I needed a job, and I was very lucky to get a job as a cantor in 1998, in New York, and then in Montreal. That was a lovely transition, because you could sing and you could have a family.” She now sings other styles, her most recent album being of music by Frank Wildhorn and before that, music by Michael Legrand in which she sees Jewish overtones: “I think it’s because he has an Armenian background, so there’s that Middle Eastern feeling in there. Do you know that song What are you doing the rest of your life? That’s Ahavah Rabbah, it’s a Jewish mode in there”, she laughs.

Now, with her children grown up, Sharon is able to make a return to opera. “In fact, I’m making my debut in October with Opéra de Montréal, believe it or not, at my advanced age. So I’m still singing opera, but much less and I’ve moved into jazz and into Broadway. I’m still singing!”

The concert 
Azrieli Music Prizes at 10: A New York Celebration will take place at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on 28th March 2024.

This article was sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation.


Originally published by Bachtrack. View the original article here.