Cometh the Auer, cometh the woman

Doreen Wachmann speaks to a woman at the forefront of Jewish music

GERALDINE Auerbach is responsible for putting Jewish music on the academic and cultural map of this country.

Yet the South African-born art teacher, who is now taking more of a back seat on the music front after the recent deaths from cancer of her daughter and son-in-law, told me she is not particularly a fan of Jewish music.

Geraldine, who founded the Jewish Music Festival and Jewish Music Institute, said: "Jewish music was an accident rather than an ambition."

Which makes her tremendous achievements all the greater because they were motivated by the altruistic desire to facilitate the needs of the vast number of Jewish music lovers rather than her own personal passion.

It all began in the early 1980s when, on a trip to Israel, Geraldine met her Latvian-born cousin, concert pianist Noemy Belinkaya.

Geraldine recalled: "Noemy was in a dilemma about how to advance her career. She wanted to play in England, but she didn't have a manager to organise a concert. If she didn't play in England she was not likely to get a manager."

Geraldine, who had come to London with her South African-born husband Ronald, was active in Bnai Brith.

She recalled: "I spoke to my Bnai Brith lodge. I had a friend who knew how to book and organise a concert. Bnai Brith agreed to do it and gave a debut concert for her in the Purcell Room, which got very good reviews.

"She then passed a BBC audition and came back and did many recordings for the BBC.

"In 1983 when Israel marched into Lebanon and all you heard about Israel was war, so Bnai Brith decided it would like to do a Jewish music festival and asked me to help because of my experience with the concert.

"We had a whole group of people sitting round a table. My friend, who had helped me with the concert, booked Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and St John's Smith Square.

"The publicity committee put in the papers that there would be a festival the next summer, but the sponsorship committee did nothing.

"This went on for months. It came to the crunch when it was time to pay the deposits on the halls.

"The programme committee man said if we did not have 10,000 we couldn't go on. The committee said they'd have to give up the halls.

"That's when I went to Bnai Brith president Sylvia Lewis and told her that if you give up the halls, you'll never have a Jewish music festival. I asked for three weeks. That's how I did it."

Geraldine didn't think they needed as much money as had been estimated.

She said: "I went to the people who made Jewish music. The Zemel Choir were doing a concert with an Israeli dance group. They offered it for the festival.

"They said they would love to do another concert called 'Jewish Music from the 12th to the 20th Centuries' at St John's Smith Square, but they couldn't get the date of the hall. We had the date.

"I went to Bevis Marks Synagogue and spoke to the London Jewish Male Choir and the choir of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which put together a special choir.

"I had a friend who was bringing over artists from the New York Philharmonic to perform klezmer music in the Purcell Room. She decided to do hers on the day we had booked.

"Somebody asked to do excerpts from the fantastic Yiddish opera King Ahab, which had been premiered at the Feinman's Yiddish People's Theatre in East End and had not been seen since 1912.

"The late Malcolm Williamson, master of Queen's Music, wanted to do a recital with mezzo soprano Sybil Michelow."

With her persuasive powers and great organising ability Geraldine succeeded in 1984 in putting together a highly successful month-long festival, which included big concerts, recitals, lectures and synagogue services.

She said "I could see there were really people who were interested in Jewish music. I knew people who could do it and I realised that lots of people wanted it. If I could help, I felt obliged to provide it in the best possible way."

Geraldine had proved her success as a Jewish music facilitator and there was no stopping her.

The next step was to record Jewish music, starting with excerpts from King Ahab and a Yiddish version of Shostakovich's Jewish Song Cycle at concerts at Bevis Marks Synagogue, which were broadcast by the BBC.

Geraldine said: "They gave us the tapes. We brought out three separate tapes, one of Sephardi music, one of Ashkenazi music and one of Cantor Stephen Robins. It was marvellous.

"We had a big launch for the cassettes at the Royal College of Music. Then people asked when was the next festival."

Bnai Brith ran festivals in 1986 and 1988, but eventually the Jewish Music Festival became independent.

Geraldine said: "We had to close our relationship with Bnai Brith. We realised we needed to set up our own charitable status.

"Bnai Brith did not want to fund it. They wanted any profit. That doesn't work. If you make a profit it has to go back into the next festival."

But Geraldine, who was still teaching art in a Harrow school, did not rest on her laurels with the music festival and record label. Her contacts next brought her into the academic field.

She explained: "Malcolm Singer, who was the conductor of the Zemel Choir, was also the conductor of City University Symphony Orchestra. Malcolm brought me to meet Professor Malcolm Troup of the university.

"I suggested that if he would perform concerts which had some Jewish connection, then everyone would benefit. We did that for a few years, including a concert for Israel's 40th anniversary -which was a bit controversial because some of the students were not so keen - and a concert to celebrate Jewish composer Wilfred Joseph's 60th birthday.

"Then someone suggested that Jewish music scholar Alexander Knapp could give lectures at music academies from time to time.

"Prof Troup thought it was a fantastic idea and suggested a full time lectureship as a research fellowship in Jewish music. Alex got the job. So we started a course in Jewish music which was a great step forward.

"We ran two international concerts of Jewish music with 60 speakers from all over the world.

"We really established Jewish music as a subject for discussion.

"This lectureship was headhunted to London University at the School of Oriental and African Studies where it fitted in much better because they have a lot of interest in the Middle East, Hebrew and Yiddish and they teach religion. Their music department teaches the musical cultures of the world."

Thus began the Jewish Music Institute of which Geraldine was appointed director until her retirement last year. In 2000 she was awarded an MBE for her services to Jewish music.

She said: "The number of professionals we have trained, who have passed through the hands of the JMI or won a Millennium Award is gratifying. We were very lucky to be successful in our application to be a partner with the Millennium Commission.

"We were able to give 58 grants of between 1,000-4,000 to individuals to follow a project in Jewish music with the outcome of a book, recording, concert or lecture. That empowered so many people.

"My legacy is that there are a number of trained and inspired people who are carrying on teaching and running Jewish music establishments."

But Geraldine has not totally departed from the Jewish music scene and is heavily involved with the European Cantors Association, which she co-founded.

She explained: "At SOAS we realised that Jewish music was so big that in order to have the experts in particular fields we needed to provide different platforms.

"We developed a platform for Yiddish and klezmer music, which we launched at the House of Commons in 2003.

"Once we became part of the university we started doing week-long summer schools in klezmer music and Yiddish songs. We also set up a cantorial branch and summer school.

"Mancunian Alex Klein was the convenor of the programme and ran summer conventions, of which he made a huge success.

"But the new people at the JMI decided not to continue with the cantorial branch. We have set up the autonomous European Cantors Association.

"I see that as part of my legacy that the platforms we set up are growing their own roots."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph