Eric Stein Previews the 15th Ashkenaz Festival

Published: August 23rd 2010
in Culture » Art

Eric Stein
Pic: Asli Alin

Despite its name and its founding mandate, Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival encompasses more than just Yiddish and klezmer music. Canada’s largest Jewish cultural event, now celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, embraces contemporary Sephardic, Mizrachi and cross-cultural events along with the requisite Eastern European flavour, and a large part of that is due to the efforts of Eric Stein.


Since Stein, an accomplished musician, took over the role of artistic director in 2006, he has led the organization from a biennial festival to a year-round presenter of Jewish events, and implemented greater programming for youth and families. This year’s festival features more than 90 acts and 200 individual artists hailing from over a dozen countries. Shalom Life spoke with Stein about the artistic process, festival highlights and how first-timers can get the most out of Ashkenaz.


How far in advance did you start choosing acts for the Ashkenaz Festival?


I began thinking about that the minute the last festival ended in 2008. This year’s lineup was solidified between fall 2009 and early this summer.


How do you go about choosing acts and performers for the Ashkenaz Festival?


I have to first think about fitting everything into the framework of disciplines at the festival. Music represents about 60-70% of our programming, the rest dividing up fairly equally between dance, theatre, film, visual arts, literature/talk and kids/family stuff. I also have to think about a general breakdown of 50% Canadian artists versus U.S. or international acts. After that I think about developing an all-new program that will feature new acts to the festival, [as] artists are seldom repeated from festival to festival. I have to assemble the program thinking about balancing traditional klezmer and Yiddish music with more progressive interpretations, and I also try to diversify that with programming from non-Ashkenazic traditions.


As for the actual research, I keep myself attuned to current trends in the contemporary Jewish music scene. In the end it often all comes down to money, as budget considerations often influence the booking process.


What new things can we expect this year?


Most of the acts are performing at the festival for the first time. We have a world premiere commission, a world premiere film, a book launch, and in music, a North American premiere, five Canadian premieres and six CD releases.


As music is a huge part of the Ashkenaz Festival, what does this year’s lineup of artists show us about the history and traditions of Eastern European (and Sephardic) Jewish music?


Most broadly, the incredible artistry and diversity inherent in each. It demonstrates the roots of those traditional forms as well as the contemporary directions in which these are spinning. It demonstrates the interconnectedness of these traditions, that they each relate to each other as part of the same universe of Jewish artistic creation.


Though the festival revolves around Ashkenaz culture and heritage, there are also Sephardic and Mizrachi elements built in. When was this decision made to include Sephardic- and Mizrachi-oriented events, and why?


Related articles: (art, ashkenaz, ashkenaz festival, eric stein, harbourfront)

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