Introducing: Sharon Azrieli
Soprano, philanthropic leader and entrepreneur: Dr. Sharon Azrieli CQ talks about the legacy of her father, her own multi-faceted career and the ideas behind the Azrieli Prizes
WFIMC: The Azrieli name is more well-known in Canada and Israel than in Europe or Asia. Yet, your family had its start in Europe. Your father's life is such an amazing story… He fled Poland in 1939, surviving the Holocaust, and fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 before settling in Montreal in 1954. What more can you tell us about your family’s history and establishment in Canada?
My family had been in Poland for 600 years. King Casimir the Great, in the 14th century, invited the Jews to Poland to form a new middle class. It was not always an easy life, but they lived in relative peace.
My grandfather was a tailor in Poland who made coats for the Prussian Army during World War I. But 20 years later, during the second world war, when it was clear that things were getting dire, he sent his three sons across the Soviet border to a school in Bialystok. My uncle Ephraim was sent to Siberia and managed to survive the war there. My uncle Pinchas was taken away. We don't know what happened to him. My father was able to move deeper into the Soviet Union, staying one step ahead of advancing Nazi forces after 1941..
It wasn’t until I was 16 years old that my father spoke to me about the war. . It wasn't until I was studying at Juilliard that my sister, Danna, interviewed him about his early life and wrote his memoir “One Step Ahead,” which is now in its second edition.
My father arrived in Mandatory Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel and fought for the state’s creation – a very fascinating part of his life. He studied architecture at Technion in Israel when he learned that much of his family had perished in the Holocaust. He knew he had uncles in South Africa and in London who had survived, but his other relatives had been deported and killed in concentration camps. He went on to spend two years in South Africa, then lived in England and finally New York City, where he spent a year studying at Yeshiva University. He could not get a visa to stay anywhere until, one day, he learned about the possibility of settling in Canada.
My father got in his car and drove across the border from New York to Montreal. He found a job as an architectural draftsman. He also had a job selling Venetian blinds and teaching Hebrew. There are still people who come up to me to this day and say they were in my father's Hebrew class.
And so, you were born in Canada?
Yes, in Montreal. My father met my mother in Montreal, got married and started his family – and his business – there.
Like your father, you have developed a very versatile background. You're not only a musician…
That’s correct. My first degree is in art history, and my second is in graphic design from Parsons School of Design. My father was not keen on me becoming a singer. He wanted me to have an art gallery or to become an architect. So, I came to singing rather late. In fact, I studied graphic design at Parsons because it was in New York City, which is where I wanted to study singing.
And he would not accept you attending Juilliard?
On the contrary! He said to me: “I'll only pay for voice lessons if you get into Juilliard.” But, of course, you already must know how to sing exceptionally well in order to get into Juilliard. And I was still studying at Parsons. He said he would pay my rent while I was in school, but I had to raise money for the rest, including my voice lessons.
Like my father, I had three jobs to make ends meet. I had a part-time job at a Venetian blind company, another at a Madison Avenue art gallery, and another making and selling jewelry from Swarovski crystals I sourced from the Lower West Side. I used to sit with my girlfriend on Columbus Avenue selling my earrings and avoiding getting caught by the cops!
But then, you were accepted into Juilliard…
Yes! It took three years of voice lessons and three auditions to get into Juilliard. By the time I graduated in 1991, I was already quite active as a singer in small opera productions.
When did you begin performing?
In 1986, I was cast by the Opera Company of Atlanta. Since then, I’ve performed at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, the Opéra Bastille de Paris and with the Canadian Opera Company, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the New Israel Opera. I’ve recorded many albums in a variety of genres, not just classical but also jazz and musical theatre. I’ve even appeared in movies and became a cantor for a time. It’s been a rich and rewarding career so far.
Did your father come to see you perform?
Yes, he did. He was actually very supportive by the time I graduated and would come to see me at every opportunity, until he was quite elderly. He was very proud of me when I received my doctorate from the Université de Montréal and he even took a private plane to see me sing Aida. This was big proof of his support. My mother, of course, also loves to come and see me perform. At age 87, she still comes to all my concerts.
Beyond a long and active career in singing you have also followed the family’s passion for philanthropy. When did your father create the Azrieli Foundation?
The Azrieli Foundation was founded in 1989. My father’s firm belief was that everyone has a contribution to make if given a chance to nurture their potential. This stemmed from his early days as a teacher. To this day, education is the thread that runs through everything we do.
The Foundation has grown a lot over the past 30 years. It has developed into Canada’s largest non-corporate funding body. We provide support across eight different priority areas – including music, arts and culture – and operate seven different programs, including the Azrieli Music Prizes.
I had the idea for the Prizes in 2013 and they were adopted by the Foundation’s board in 2014, when my father was still alive (he passed later that year.) We started out with just two prizes – the Jewish Music Prize and the Jewish Music Commission.
It's a very interesting concept for a music competition: to give a prize for an unknown, unpublished but existing composition, and then also another prize for a new commission…
I agree! I wanted to invent something new, something that did not yet exist, and something truly important. We lacked a top-level composition prize in Canada. There are others for piano, violin, voice, organ, string quartet… but not composition.
Furthermore, I wanted to encourage composers to embrace this question of what Jewish music is and can be. It’s a topic I know well, given my background as a cantor and through my doctoral studies. I wanted to encourage composers to think deeply and creatively about music’s ability to create intercultural understanding. At the time, Jewish music seemed like the best and most underexplored way of doing this within classical music.
As for the prize for an existing work, my hope remains to uncover works that have been lost, suppressed or unappreciated. I want to celebrate great works that otherwise would go undiscovered.
Any this second prize is for any unpublished work? Is there a time frame involved?
We call for works written within the past 75 years. We discussed going back further, thinking about music written in the unimaginable conditions of the concentration camps. I would have loved to offer a prize to this kind of music. But we must recognize our objective to award a composer who will benefit from the prize, which limits us to the terms of copyright. So, we focus on more recent, unpublished works that are unrecorded. It can be composed by anyone, anywhere. The composer does not have to be Jewish. This is one of the most important aspects of both the Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music and the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music: you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish music.
What was the outcome of your very first competition? Did you receive applications from all over the world?
We did! We received 96 applications from 11 countries for our first call for submissions. The winner of the inaugural Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music was Wlad Marhulets, a Polish composer who discovered his Jewish ancestry after winning the competition. The first winner of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish music was Brian Current, a Canadian, non-Jewish composer who wrote an amazing oratorio for tenor, choir and orchestra, based on the mystical texts of the Zohar. Both compositions are marvellous and went on to be performed several times. I love the feeling of sitting in the concert hall and hearing these still-fresh works, realizing that they are finding their way into the repertoire. It's very exciting.
And then in 2018, you added a Canadian prize?
We did. “What is Canadian music?” is a very difficult question to answer. We recognize the complexities of living in a very multicultural nation based on a colonial history. We are attempting a reconciliation with Indigenous people on whose land we reside, who have faced a long and ongoing history of discrimination and mistreatment. In addition, the pandemic has revealed some deep stresses in our social fabric. Much of this is at odds with the international view of Canada and Canadians as peaceful and polite. We are asking composers to be bravely creative in addressing these complexities and contradictions, while also seeking out those moments that we can still celebrate together.
With the Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music, we have assembled a jury that is broadly representative of Canada, from coast to coast, including Indigenous representation and those knowledgeable in Indigenous protocols. We’ve received a truly impressive response to this prize and the two works that have resulted from it have been both audience and critical darlings. We even won a JUNO (Canada’s recording industry awards) for the inaugural work in this category – Keiko Devaux’s Arras. That was a real joy for me.
And then there is yet one more prize….
Our fourth prize, which we launched with the 2024 competition, rounds out the AMP program. The Azrieli Commission for International Music is very exciting. Here, we are looking for composers who engage with the richness of humanity’s diverse cultural heritage. Ideally, composers will express their own nationality and heritage through their music. For example, a composer from Serbia could write something distinctly Serbian, something related to Serbian history and Serbian culture. Composers can also explore other musical cultures outside of their “home” culture, but their proposals must demonstrate a respectful and responsible approach free of cultural appropriation. Ultimately, we are calling on composers to extend their creativity and curiosity in expressing their cultural heritage in ways that extend beyond simple representations. We are seeking proposals that are authentic, original, honest and convincing. I know that proposals addressing the preservation of endangered cultural expressions are especially appealing to our new Jury.
Can you tell us what a candidate can expect from winning one of the Azrieli Prizes?
Each of our four 2024 Laureates will receive a prize package valued at $200,000 CAD. This includes a $50,000 CAD cash prize, a premiere of their prize-winning work at the AMP Gala Concert in October 2024, at least two subsequent international performances, a professional recording of their prize-winning work for a future commercial release, and publicity support. This makes AMP unique, not only for the size of its prize package, but also for the range of career-boosting activities it offers to music creators. As Laureate Yotam Haber has said “AMP may very well be the most exciting, brilliantly engineered opportunity for a composer.”
The Azrieli Music Prizes will celebrate their 10th anniversary next year…
Yes, our 2024 AMP Gala Concert will mark ten years since the Prizes were launched. We held our first Gala concert in October 2016 with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and Kent Nagano. We are thrilled to be partnering with the OSM again for this magical event which we have livestreamed on Medici TV over the past three competitions to thousands of viewers in 65 countries.
Our 2026 competition will see us come full circle with an oratorio / opera-in-concert edition. That call will go out early in 2025. Composers: get your big ideas ready now!
Sharon Azrieli Upcoming Dates
28 August 2023 Screening of SHTTL at the Montreal Holocaust Musuem
(Sharon Azrieli plays the role of Rabbi’s wife)
September 2023 Screening of Irena’s Vow at the Toronto International Film Festival
(Sharon Azrieli plays the role of Helen)
October 2023 Quebec Philharmonic Orchestra
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Azrieli Music Prizes Upcoming Dates
6 October 2023 New Jewish Music Vol. 4 (Azrieli Music Prizes) album release date
15 October 2023 AMP London Debut Concert w/ Philharmonia Orchestra at Cadogan Hall
(Sharon Azrieli gives the European premiere of Aharon Harlap’s 2022 winning work)
2 November 2023 2024 Laureate Announcement Event
The Azrieli Music Prizes have been a member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions since 2021.