We will bring hundreds of Holocaust Survivors to the show for free. They’ll hear a sound that they may not have heard in decades.

The performing arts can bring us back to a time of place, and with the right audience, the experience can be electric. A piece of history is being revived by the Ger Mandolin Orchestra, harkening back to a time when the instrument had wide popular appeal across Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and North America around the turn of the 20th century.

Avner Yonai was inspired to revive this musical ensemble when he found a picture of his Grandfather’s mandolin orchestra from the Polish town of Gora Kalwaria. For many Holocaust survivors, it is a sound from their childhood, filled with living breathing memories of a bygone time.

It can be heard again at 7:30pm on Thursday Nov 7, at the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Under the musical direction of the award-winning string instrumentalist Mike Marshall, the eleven members of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra are all accomplished musicians of a variety of musical styles, and the program revives sound both familiar and new to our ears.

One Toronto-based member, Eric Stein, is also the Artistic Director of our city’s Ashkenaz Foundation, which puts on an annual festival celebrating Jewish culture. He joins us for a Q&A to share with us his personal experience of being part of this musical project.

Eric Stein with Tom Cohen as part of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra

1. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement in the performing arts? Is it what you set out to achieve when you started your career, or did it change along the way? 

I am active as a performer, composer and artistic director. My life in music began as a bass player in my teens and was originally focused around classic rock and folk of the 60s and 70s. My main musical influences were the Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, The Band, Bob Dylan. I played in rock and funk bands through my formative years, never expecting that I might make a career in music. I actually planned to be a history professor!

After I got my Masters degree in History, I intended to take a year off before returning to school for the Ph.D., but I took up the mandolin during this period and my musical interests began to broaden and shift. I got interested in bluegrass, jazz, classical, and most importantly, Klezmer/Yiddish music and east European folk styles. A number of dots connected for me and opportunities emerged. I became particularly active in the Jewish music world and started my Klezmer/Balkan band Beyond the Pale in 1998, and soon I was earning a decent living from performing as well as teaching.

In 2006, I became the Artistic Director of the Ashkenaz Festival, which allowed me to expand my work into curation and arts management.

The biggest surprise I would say about the way my life and career has turned out is the extent to which I am working within the Jewish cultural world. I grew up in a very secular home and did not have a strong sense of Jewish identity. If you’d told me 20 years ago what I’d be doing now I wouldn’t have believed it!

2. How did Ashkenaz Foundation come to work with with Ger Mandolin Orchestra? What drew you to collaborate with them?

I feel very lucky to have been invited to be part of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra and doubly lucky as the director of Ashkenaz to be able to marshall the resources to produce a such a unique and special concert. It shines a light on an amazing musical tradition that is not well-known.

This concert has facilitated some really meaningful partnerships with Holocaust Education Week and the Yellow Rose Project to bring hundreds of Holocaust Survivors to the show for free. They’ll hear a sound that they may not have heard in decades. Something that resonates with the sounds of their youth and with the lost cultural world of eastern European Jewry. Being able to share that experience with the younger generation is a very special thing.

I generally try to avoid presenting my own artistic work under Ashkenaz, but in this case, I can objectively say that even if I weren’t part of the Ger orchestra, as Ashkenaz Artistic Director I would have been just as motivated to present the group.

3. Tell us more about your involvement as a Mandolin player, What the experience has been like from your perspective?

First off, I am an absolute zealot when it comes to the mandolin. I love mandolin music of all kinds. It’s an instrument that tends to generate fanatical devotion among those who play it, and that goes for me for sure. There’s something about the sound of the instrument. It’s mysterious, nostalgic, seductive, romantic, funky, quirky. I love how versatile the instrument is, and how many people can’t even identify a mandolin! It’s quite a conversation piece, really.

Playing in this orchestra has been a great thrill. We don’t get together very often but when we do it’s pretty special. Eleven great mandolinists from eclectic musical backgrounds. Playing with Mike Marshall is also an incredible thrill. I have been a fan of his for a long time and he has been an inspiration for me and so many mandolin players out there in the world.

Our experiences playing in Poland two years ago were especially extraordinary. It was quite amazing to play in the town of Gora Kalwaria (Ger), where this whole thing started, for an audience of mostly non-Jewish Poles. My grandparents also came from Poland, and though there are few Jews still there, I feel a connection to that country as, at very least, my family’s homeland.

How special it was to be part of something that created an opportunity for current generations in Poland to look back at their own history and recognize the significance of the Jewish presence in shaping their own national culture.

4. What do you see as the main challenges for performing arts today?

At Ashkenaz we’re always struggling to raise the funds required to carry out our work. Everything we do is heavily subsidized by art councils and government as well as private philanthropy. When the economy shifts and scarce sources have to be re-prioritized, the arts is the first area that they look to cut. I wish that weren’t the case, though I understand that when times are tough it’s hard for music and art to compete with social services, infrastructure, etc.

We also present most of our work free in order to maximize accessibility and create significant artistic and cultural experiences in the community. There’s no business sense in that, it’s completely idealistic, and I worry that it ultimately devalues the product.

Something that frustrates me, and which I think is a challenge for the arts community, is that audiences often expect non-commercial art and music to be free or low cost. And though they really value the product they receive, they don’t often step up and say “yes, I’ll pay for that”.

I’d love it if more of the people who come to our biennial Ashkenaz festival (which is mostly free) would voluntarily donate to the organization, recognizing that the quality and quantity of product they receive. It’s always amazing to me that people will pay $100 or more to see pop acts in an arena or stadium, but will complain about paying $20 or $30 to see any of the amazing cutting-edge artists we present.

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