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The Classical Station’s interview with Simon Wynberg for Preview!

Interview with Simon Wynberg
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: © Stuart Lowe)

Simon Wynberg is this week’s guest for Preview! The Artistic Director at ARC Ensemble, Wynberg has been dedicated to the preservation and spread of traditional Jewish music for decades. ARC Ensemble’s newest release, The Music of Alberto Hemsi, is an album devoted to composer Alberto Hemsi’s Sephardic chamber pieces. It is part of their Music in Exile series, which highlights music by composers forced to flee Nazi-occupied territory. ARC Ensemble is one of Canada’s leading cultural ambassadors, not least because of Simon Wynberg’s tireless efforts. Rob Kennedy’s interview with Simon Wynberg began with a discussion on the origins of Sephardic music.

WYNBERG: The whole concept of Sephardic music is amorphous because as people left and spread around the Mediterranean rim, they adopted the local music into their own and adapted it. You have this mishmash of styles and traditions. When one thinks about nationalism in the early part of the 20th century, you think of people like Bartok, who was going around collecting native traditions and songs and melodies, but with Sephardic music you have this unbelievable spread of music all over the Mediterranean rim. The music permeated this vast area. So for someone tracking down Sephardic music and tracing its origin, it’s a really complicated subject.

Sephardic music is capable of evoking many different moods—it can be dark, it can be light and joyful, it can be brooding, and it can be anywhere in between—and from a young age Alberto Hemsi was dedicated to exploring its unique attributes in his own arrangements.

WYNBERG: You have to go back to Alberto Hemsi’s experience at the conservatory in Milan. He met with one of the professors there who said that as far as he knew, all the traditional Jewish music was lost. He couldn’t produce any examples of it. And this one meeting became the basis of Hemsi’s interest in his own musical roots, because he recalled hearing his grandmother, and typically the female members of his family, singing all these traditional songs. In his late teens, I would imagine this path was laid out to him as someone who was going to collect and codify the history of Sephardic songs. He traveled everywhere collecting these songs–they represent the day-to-day life of people in the various lands around the Mediterranean.

The discussion then turned to ARC Ensemble’s new contribution to their Music in Exile series, as well as the pieces’ history–the first piece, for instance, originated in Greece.

WYNBERG: Hemsi lived for some time in Rhodes, Greece. During the Second World War, 72 members of his wife’s family were taken off to Auschwitz and the entire Jewish population of Rhodes was annihilated. Hemsi came along at exactly the right time, in the 1920s, and he managed to research and document the songs that were being sung in Rhodes. And of course, that whole tradition was annihilated during the Second World War, so there’s a sense of providential timing to his arrival on the scene and his collection of these melodies. 

The real excitement that propels these melodies along is in the accompaniment. In the Sephardic songs, you’ve got these extraordinarily complicated piano accompaniments, because he felt that these songs needed to be heard by concert goers, not just in folkloric settings by aficionados of folksong. So he wanted these songs to be played on stages, on recital stages, and sung by professional singers. He dressed them up with these extraordinary accompaniments and fascinating harmonies. Most of his material is vocal, so the instrumental stuff has been totally ignored. This is the first recording devoted to his instrumental works, which are just absolutely fascinating.

Listen to Simon Wynberg’s interview on Preview! on Sunday, December 11th, at 7 p.m. eastern. You can listen online at TheClassicalStation.org, on 89.7 FM, or on the App.