Old Ottawa South Community Association

Semer Ensemble
Semer Ensemble

Rescued Treasure: Jewish Music Almost Forgotten

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Southminster United Church presents “Rescued Treasure: A Treasury of Jewish Music Almost Forgotten” on Thursday, November 9, 2017 at 7:30 pm.

On November 9, 1938, Nazi paramilitaries carried out their infamous Kristallnacht (night of broken glass), a vicious pogrom against German Jews that left hundreds dead and a community irreparably scarred.

Among the casualties was the life work of Hirsch Lewin, a one-time forced laborer who ran a Hebrew Bookstore and later record label in the heart of Berlin’s Scheunenviertel (immigrant center) in the 1930s.

When the Nazis came to power, Jewish musicians were forbidden from playing in non-Jewish settings, forcing their work underground. For five years, Lewin’s Semer label recorded the brightest Jewish musicians of the day in hopes of preserving their legacy.

When the Nazis attacked, they demolished it all. Over 4,500 recordings and 250 metal plates were destroyed, and with them the memory of the Semer label was lost forever.

That is, lost until Dr. Rainer E. Lotz, decorated German author, jazz historian and record collector, spent the decade from 1992 to 2001 travelling the world in search of surviving excerpts of Lewin’s output.

Miraculously, by tracking duplicates preserved in private collections of the recorded musician’s descendants the world over, Dr. Lotz was able to reconstruct almost the entirety of the collection.

In 2012, the Berlin Jewish Museum commissioned music luminary Alan Bern, composer/arranger, pianist, accordionist, educator, cultural activist and philosopher, to honour the Semer collection with new interpretations based on the recovered recordings.

To make the project a reality, Bern formed a world-class ensemble of Jewish musicians from both sides of the Atlantic: named Semer Ensemble in honour of Hirsch Lewin’s legacy, the group has given authentic voice to a body of repertoire, and the musicians who created it, that would otherwise have been forgotten.

It’s as though some of the broken shards of that violent night in 1938 have been reassembled, forming a window through which we can glimpse the remarkable scene of Jewish music in 1920s Berlin.

Berlin cabaret, Russian folk songs, Yiddish theater hits, operatic arias and cantorial music are just a small sample of the repertoire preserved by Lewin’s label and recreated by the modern Semer Ensemble.

To date, Semer has played in Canada only once before, in a single sold-out performance in Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival in September 2016. Prior engagements were limited to Berlin where the group formed.

By popular demand, they are returning for a three-city Canadian tour this fall. Their sole Ottawa performance will take place at Southminster United Church as a special concert in the church’s Concerts by the Canal (CBTC) evening concert series on Thursday, November 9th at 7:30 pm.

Remarkably, and especially significantly for the city’s Jewish and German communities, Semer’s appearance in Ottawa will be given on the very anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Perhaps even more specially, the man who made preserving this cultural legacy possible, Dr. Rainer E. Lotz, will be among the special guests in attendance, courtesy of the Embassy of Germany in Ottawa. The Embassy will additionally host a post-concert reception.

Tickets for general admission are $30 and $15 for students, and are available through Eventbrite.ca (search “Semer Ottawa”). The concert is presented by Southminster United Church in partnership with artspace613, the RideauStone Arts Centre, and the Embassy of Germany in Ottawa.

Roland Graham is the Music Director at Southminster United Church.

Originally published in the October 2017 OSCAR.

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