By SHARON LOVE Dr. Alan Bern, the world famous and Berlin based Klezmer musician, scholar, teacher and cultural activist, was here in Winnipeg from November 13th, 2022 until the 23rd. In that time frame he held three workshops, was involved in two concerts, was an honoured guest and speaker at The Museum for Human Rights, and was a guest lecturer for Dr. Itay Zutra’s Yiddish in North America class at the University of Manitoba (in which I am a student).
They say that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, that is the best description as to how Dr. Bern’s visit here came about. According to Dr. Ben Baader, Associate professor at the University of Manitoba, the planning process for Dr. Bern’s visit took several months. Initially, Professor Laura Loewen, of the Faculty of Music was contacted by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. She did much of the organizing and was then joined in the planning process by University of Manitoba professors Simone Mahrenholz, Itay Zutra and Ben Baader. Also at the university, the Desautels Faculty of Music, the Mauro Institute for Peace and Justice, the Department of German and Slavic Studies, along with the Rady JCC, all played their part.
Dr. Bern was born in Bloomington, Indiana and has an MA degree in Philosophy and a DMA in music composition. He is widely known for his work in the promotion and preservation of Yiddish music. He has been based in Berlin since 1987 and has also done much of his work in Weimar. He is the founder and artistic director of the Yiddish in Summer Weimar program, and the founder of the Other Music Academy (OMA). He is also a founding member of the Klezmer groups ‘Brave Old World’ the ‘Other Europeans’ and the ‘Semer Ensemble’. He is also an international music conductor and arranger for theatre and dance productions. In 2016 he was the recipient of the Weimar Prize in recognition of his cultural contributions to that city. Earlier this year he received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He has also been featured in many audio recordings and films.
Dr. Bern’s first three lectures were held at the University of Manitoba. He spoke about why Yiddish matters and traced the history of the Yiddish language up until today’s new Yiddish music. During his second lecture he spoke of the Shoah and the new Yiddish song. His third lecture was hands on and he introduced music students to the origin and the philosophy behind the Hasidic Nign.
The Sunday afternoon concert held at the Berney Theatre was definitely jam packed. The program opened with an introduction by Dr. Bern and his brief explanation of Nigunim as wordless songs which serve to move Hasidic Jewry beyond the rational towards the mystical prayer. This was followed by three musical numbers performed by the Desautels Klezmer Group from the the Desautels Faculty of Music, accompanied by Dr. Bern on the accordion and Myron Schultz on clarinet. The audience was invited to join in with some chanting on cue. I have a feeling that these dozen students playing various instruments were not aware of this genre of music prior to Dr. Bern’s visit and his hands on workshop and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. The family of one of the violinists was sitting in front of me. I could just tell that they were inspired and pleased. Myron Shultz and Alan Bern played a few lively numbers together.
The musical portion of the afternoon was followed by the screening of ‘The New Klezmorim. Voices Inside the Revival of Yiddish Music.’ This documentary was filmed in 1998 both at Klez Canada in the Laurentians and at the Askenaz festival in Toronto and is a study of the revival of Klezmer music and Yiddish culture commencing in the 1970’s. At the end of the film we were joined via Zoom from Toronto by David Kaufman, the producer, in discussion with Alan Bern.
‘An Evening with Dr. Alan Bern’’ took place on Monday the 21st at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Opening remarks came from Myka Burke, the Communications and Culture Officer of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Ottawa. Greetings were extended by Jutta Essig, Honourary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany and by Gustavo Zentner, President of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.
Those in attendance were treated to a screening of ‘60 Years in 22 Minutes,’,a biography of Alan Bern starting from his childhood. This was followed by an interview with Matthew Cutler (CMHR Vice-President, Exhibitions) in conversation with Dr. Bern. Some topics discussed were Bern’s interest in the philosophy of music and how it can be a vessel for bringing people together, the Klezmer revival, why he is based in Berlin, the Shoah and Jewish relations vis a vis the Republic of Germany today.
The evening closed with a musical performance by Dr. Bern and a reception.
The highlight for me of Bern’s visit was his lecture for the Yiddish Culture in North America class the next afternoon. The focus with video was on three specific entertainers and musicians and their roles in the revival of Yiddish and Klezmer music. They were: revival pioneers Adrienne Cooper(z”l), Josh Waletzky, and present day musician and songwriter, Klezmer-Yiddish -Punk Rocker Daniel Kahn (who is now based in Berlin). I found Bern to be very personable, knowledgeable and having presented a very friendly and ‘haimish’ atmosphere at the events that I took in.
On Wednesday November 23rd, at the Eva Clare Hall, the performances of the final term Chamber Music students took place. Bern conducted the Desautels Klezmer group in performance one last time.
What can I say but Dr. Alan Bern was very busy during his time spent here. I am sure that his audiences learned a lot, and enjoyed themselves. Kudos to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and to Prof. Laura Loewen who got the ball rolling and to the rest of those who joined in to ensure that this project was such a success!
And I am still humming those nigunim…..