Shalom Life | February 19, 2014

Mandolin Orchestra Revives Pre-Holocaust Music

Shalom Life chats with GMO member Eric Stein about the orchestra’s Holocaust Education Week event

By: Ilan Mester

Published: November 6th, 2013 in Culture » Music » Interviews

Mandolin Orchestra Revives Pre-Holocaust Music
It’s no secret that many events for Holocaust Education Week tend to be lectures. The Ger Mandolin Orchestra (GMO) is hoping to do something different. The group of 11 musicians, led my Grammy winner Mike Marshall, is set to perform at the Toronto Centre for the Arts this Thursday, Nov. 7 as part of the educational week.

“I think that Holocaust education and Holocaust remembrance for the most part generally takes the form of analyzing and discussing and remembering how the Jews of Europe were murdered,” says Eric Stein, artistic director of the Ashkenaz Festival and a member of the 11-person orchestra. “Obviously that’s an extremely significant and important thing for people to be educated about. But the thing that I really like about this project is that it’s not about how the Jews were killed, it’s about how Jews lived.”

GMO was launched after Israeli-American Avner Yonai went on a quest for his family roots in Poland. The search led him to an aged photo featuring a group of musicians, among them his grandfather and other relatives, playing in a pre-World War II Jewish mandolin orchestra in Poland’s Gora Kalwaria (Ger in Yiddish). That’s when Yonai decided to start a contemporary version of the group to honour his family members who perished in the Holocaust.

The orchestra’s current lineup features 11 musicians from around the globe. Last year, the group was invited to perform in Poland in the same town that Yonai’s grandfather inhabited. Stein says the orchestra played in what was left of the town’s synagogue, which had not seen hundreds of people in it for 70 or so years.

“So we performed for a packed house of mostly local residents, including the two Jewish guys that still live there,” he shares. “It was really quite special and the people in the town were very welcoming. And I think that one of the things that’s really cool about this project is that it shines a light on Polish-Jewish history and it also creates an opportunity for contemporary Poles to interface with their own history through a Jewish lens.”

Stein says joining the orchestra was a no-brainer because it brings together his interests in the mandolin, history and Jewish music.

“I’m an absolute freak for mandolin music,” he tells Shalom Life. “I love the mandolin, I have a great love affair with the instrument and I love all kinds of music that’s played on the instrument. And [I] had for many years wanted to be part of a project like this. I created a number of arrangements of Jewish orchestra for a mandolin orchestra format. And it’s a pretty obscure thing, a mandolin orchestra, but a hundred years ago it was extremely popular all over – both in Europe and in North America.”

He continues: “This project just created an opportunity for the arrangements that I’ve created to be played by top-notch musicians. As well as for us to explore other styles of music that we guess would have been played by that orchestra.”

Audiences can expect a number of genres for this Thursday’s concert, including Klezmer, Yiddish music, as well as tunes from Poland, Russia, Italy and other countries.

“We’ve also got a segment during the show when different members of the orchestra get to get featured in different ways doing what they do well,” he says. “So there’ll be a little bit of jazz, there’ll be some Brazilian music, some classical music. So just a lot of different sounds going on and really hopefully that helps increase the audience’s appreciation for how versatile this instrument is.”

Ashkenaz, which is presenting the concert, is partnering with the Yellow Rose Project to bring Holocaust survivors to the event free of charge. The goal is for them to experience a cultural sound that they might not have heard for decades.

Stein hopes the music “evokes their childhood and helps them feel positive about knowing that the world that they came from, which for all intensive purposes was wiped out, that it still lives on and that people are interested in it, and it has that kind of eternal life.”


For more information about the event, visit www.ashkenazfestival.com.
 

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