Toronto Jewish Folk Choir
Toronto Jewish Folk Choir. Amateur choir, Canada's oldest continuing Jewish choral group. Its repertoire, sung in four-part harmony, encompasses a wide range of secular Jewish music, classical works on Jewish themes (eg Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's Nabucco), and songs of many lands.
Founded in 1925 by a group of immigrant factory workers and known as the Freiheit Gezangs Farein (Freedom Singing Society), the choir began annual spring concerts in 1926 under Hyman Riegelhaupt. (The Young Socialist Choir, which flourished circa 1914-17, may be regarded as its precursor.) The Toronto Jewish Folk Choir was the new English name given to the Freiheit Gezangs Farein, when the rise of fascism and outbreak of World War II precipitated the choir's attempt to reach a wider audience. Riegelhaupt conducted the choir for two years and was succeeded by Henry Dobkowski. The composer Jacob Schaefer was a guest conductor in 1928, 1935, and 1936. Emil Gartner (b Vienna 1914, d Toronto 1960) succeeded Dobkowski in 1939. At that time the choir's repertoire consisted mainly of Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs and operettas that reflected the struggles and aspirations of the Jewish community in general and the working class in particular. As the choir under the charismatic leadership of Gartner became more accomplished and increased in size (to 130 voices by the late 1940s), its repertoire expanded to include Canadian folk songs; large 18th- or 19th-century works by Handel (a 1942 performance of Judas Maccabaeus; in 1952, Joshua), Mendelssohn (1945, Elijah excerpts), and Schubert (1948, Song of Miriam); and 20th-century works by Jacob Schaefer (1945, Tzvei Brider; 1946, Biro Bidjan), Benjamin Britten (1949, Ballad of Heroes), Max Helfman (1949, Di Naye Hagode: The Glory of the Warsaw Ghetto), and the Soviet composers Yuri Shaporin (1944, Birth of Russia) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1951, 1953, Song of the Forests). The choir also commissioned works from Bernard Rogers (A Letter from Pete, premiered 7 Apr 1948) and John Weinzweig (To the Lands Over Yonder, premiered 28 Jan 1950).
During Gartner's tenure the choir presented such guest performers as Igor Gorin, Charles Jordan, Alexander Kipnis, Lois Marshall, Jan Peerce, Regina Resnik, Paul Robeson, and Jennie Tourel. Fagel Freeman Gartner, the director's wife, was the choir's accompanist. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra often assisted the choir, and on one occasion the two organizations, with Daniel Duno and Mary Simmons as soloists, gave a joint concert, after which the critic for the Globe and Mail (26 Mar 1947) described the choir as 'well balanced and artistically responsive... with an excellently blended choral tone.' Even then, at the height of its fame, the choir retained its working-class character and most of its members still learned their parts by ear.
After Gartner's death in an automobile crash the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir continued on a more modest scale, under Douglas Webb and Esther Cronenberg in the 1960s, Searle Freedman 1971-5, Melvyn Isen 1975-8, Bill Phillips 1978-87, Voltr Ivonoffski 1987-90, David Varjabed (1990-3), Esther Ghan Firestone (1993-2002). Alexander Veprinsky became the conductor in 2002, and maintained the position in 2012). Lina Zemelman, the piano accompanist beginning in 1976, has maintained her position, 2012 marking her 36th year with the choir. Among the choir's chief administrators and major supporters after Gartner's death, were Dr. Ben Z. Shek, chair of the program committee since the mid 1980s; and Jean Shek, who served as president and then co-president from the same time until 2005.
Repertoire/Commissions and Soloists
As early as the 1960s the choir began to commission works, among them by León Zuckert (Canadian Work Song Suite 1978), Louis Applebaum, Ben Steinberg (To Dispel the Darkness, 1991; A Fist Was Once an Open Palm, 2000), Srul Irving Glick (Four Yiddish Songs 1988), Milton Barnes (Elegy for Emil: In memoriam Emil Gartner, 1990; Fantasy on Jewish Themes, 1993 and Dos Naye Lid [The New Song], both for choir and klezmer band). Veprinsky has arranged numerous works for the choir, including medleys of Yiddish favourites, and an orchestration for mandolin orchestra of Di Naye Hagode (2004-5). The choir performed Sid Robinovitch's Yiddish Suite in Amerike at the Montreal International Festival of Yiddish Theatre to a standing ovation in 2011.
Soloists as of the 1980s have included singers Claire Klein Osipov, Louis Danto, Ursula Ivonoffski, Daniel Neff, Tom Schwartz, Denise Williams, Marina Shemesh, Miriam Eskin, Mitch Smolkin, Belva Spiel, Michael Mandel, Eugene Burke, John Botten, Mark Fox, Leonid Karpinsky, Herman Rombouts, and Varjabed; Marat Maxutov, Bruce K. Hill, violinist Rebecca Brenner, cellist Esther Gartner (daughter of Emil and Fagel Gartner), flutist Suzanne Shulman, Trio Lyra, and the Flying Bulgar and Chutzpah! klezmer bands, among others.
The Ensemble Singers, initially comprising the younger members of the choir, was formed in 1981. In 1998, it was folded into the larger choir.
2000 and Beyond
The choir has continued to give an annual spring concert in Toronto, and to perform for Jewish Music Month, for the annual commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and on other such occasions. Tribute concerts have been held to honour Theodore Bikel (85th birthday), Srul Irving Glick (75th anniversary of his birth) in 2009; Milton Barnes (80th anniversary of his birth), and Ben Shek (d.2011) in 2011. The ensemble has been featured at the Toronto International Choral Festival, and at Festival Canada in Ottawa (1997), and has performed in Montreal.
In 2012, the choir, comprised of some 35 members and housed at the Winchevsky Centre, has continued to sing in many languages including English, French, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino. They have appeared at Toronto's biennial Ashkenaz Festival in 2012.