Celebrations euphoric and bittersweet

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Thu Jun 4 4:36pm

The 2015 TD Toronto Jazz Festival is only two weeks away. That's a bit ridiculous. To suggest that things have been a little hectic around here would be an understatement and now, suddenly, it's almost go time.

Before launching into festival pre-amble mode, though, I wanted to pause and reflect on two celebrations which took place last week. As this post's title suggests, the first was euphoric; the second, bittersweet.

A couple of months ago, an email came through from the Toronto Arts Foundation inviting nominations for the 2015 Muriel Sherrin Award. An annual $10,000 cash prize (alternating between music and dance each year), the award is presented to an artist or creator who has made a contribution to the cultural life of Toronto through outstanding achievement; and who has also participated in international initiatives, including touring, studying abroad and participating in artist exchanges. This year, the award was to be made in the field of music.

When the email came through, I started thinking about someone to nominate. There is a long list of musicians in this city who likely fit the award's mandate, so how would I narrow it down? I decided to think about musicians who have made a significant impact on my development and, the more I thought about it, the more obvious the choice became: Paul Read.

As a Founder of the Jazz Performance Program at the University of Toronto and the Jazz Program at National Music Camp; as a classroom teacher and band leader; as a friend and mentor - Paul is one of the reasons I am where I am today. I won't rehash here my full nomination blurb; but I will recount one particular conversation which still sticks with me. As I was coming to the end of my undergraduate degree, I was trying to decide what would be next for me. I sat down with Paul - by that point he had known me as a person and a player for some eight years or so - and asked what he thought. I mentioned an interest in pursuing further education, likely a Masters in performance. And bluntly, but with utmost compassion, he suggested I wasn't ready.

If his response took me by surprise, it wasn't for long; instead, his honesty provided some much needed clarity. And in that moment I think I started to truly understand what a mentor could be. I trust that many of Paul's former students could share similar stories of how he helped to shape them into what they are today.

Last Thursday, at the Mayor's Arts Lunch, Paul Read was awarded the 2015 Murriel Sherrin Award. I unfortunately couldn't be in a attendance - the double-whammy of a nasty bug and another major work commitment - but was so excited to hear the news. Congratulations again, Paul - this recognition is so well-deserved!

And now the bittersweet part. Thursday night, as I was helping to produce a substantial concert by Continuum, word came through that another major musical influence in my life had just passed away - Esther Ghan-Firestone. The news was not surprising - she was 90 and had been ill - but in the few days between Thursday and Sunday's funeral, I began to realize how important she had been to me and to so many others.

I got to know Esther first as a member of Congregation Habonim, the little synagogue I attended, quite regularly, with my family, for about 10 years. She was the cantor, and her voice was incredible; only later would I learn that she was Canada's first female cantor, and that her performing career - including performances with the Toronto Symphony and regular appearances on CBC Radio - had been quite illustrious. (You can read more about Esther at thecanadianencyclopedia.com.)

When Esther pushed for the creation of a youth choir at Habonim, I jumped at the opportunity. I had always enjoyed singing, and here was a great outlet. I can't remember exactly when I joined, but I must have been maybe 11 or 12. Over the next several years, Esther imparted in the choristers a love of the music we sang; a love of the languages in which we sang (English, Hebrew, Yiddish); and fostered a sense of community among us. On a fundamental pedagogical level she wasn't necessarily a fantastic choir director; but her passion and enthusiasm for what we were doing were contagious. The Habonim Youth Choir became a point of pride for us. We got to perform at events large and small throughout the city, and through the Choir I even had my first in-studio recording experience (where I got to meet Raffi, who just happened to be recording in the same studio!).

After high school, as life got busier with, well, life, and I started to question certain aspects of my religious thinking (that's a whole other conversation…), I lost touch a bit with Habonim. But each year, Esther would call and ask if I would like to sing in an ad hoc choir for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - and I would always say yes. (And, for a few years, so did my Mennonite wife!) It was an honour to contribute to the services, and such a pleasure to hear Esther in action again.

As often happens, it was at her funeral that the full picture of who she was started to emerge. As her son (she had six kids) and then three grandchildren gave short remarks, the importance of music and family to Esther became clear. Despite a busy career, family always came first; despite a large and busy family, music always played a central role - whether professionally or just at the piano after a family meal at home. But that didn't really come as a surprise; under Esther, we all felt like members of a big musical family.

Thank you, Esther, for all you did for music - in this city and across this country, for me and for everyone else who had the privilege of working with you in some way.

Here is the song which became the Habonim Youth Choir's "greatest hit" and yes, that's a chubby, curly-haired me, to the right of the piano, towering over the rest of the choristers.