Aharon Harlap
© Hadassah Harlap

Three composers have been named 2022 Azrieli Music Prize laureates, each of whom shows a spirit of interculturalism in their music while also representing Canada’s rich multinationalism in their own life stories. 

Since 2014, the Azrieli Foundation has awarded biennial prizes to contemporary composers whose work reflects the foundation’s goal “to improve the lives of present and future generations through education, research, healthcare and the arts mainly in Canada and Israel.” The 2022 winning composers will receive $50,000 CAD, have their works recorded and attend their performance by L’Orchestre Métropolitain at the 2022 AMP Gala Concert in Montreal.

The newly named laureates are: Aharon Harlap, winner of the Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music, for works composed within the last 75 years without a significant performance history or commercial recordings; Iman Habibi, Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, for new works responding to the question “what is Jewish music?”; and Rita Ueda, Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music, for a new work responding to the complexities of composing distinctly Canadian concert music. 

Aharon Harlap has set a number of Biblical texts to music, often returning to the Psalms, in which, he told me, he finds particular inspiration. His Azrieli piece is a collection of songs from the Psalms, sung in the original Hebrew. “The Psalms are an integral part of Judaism for over 2000 years, as a source of comfort and solace to the Jewish people,” he said.

Born in Ottawa and raised in Winnipeg, Harlap studied at the Royal College of Music before moving to Israel, where he remains to this day. While he grew up in an observant household, it was only when he moved to Israel that he became fluent in Hebrew. But Jewish music was in his blood. “My father was a Hebrew teacher and a cantor,” he told me. “I was very connected to Jewish music growing up in Winnipeg.”

“I’m influenced by all kinds of composers: Bernstein, for instance, or Gershwin, but also Israeli composers,” he explained. “But the music is my own. It’s a potpourri without my being conscious of it.”

The two other 2022 prize winners followed the opposite route, being born outside of North America and emigrating to Canada. 

“Canada is a curious culture,” Harlap said. “As new cultures come to Canada, you’re not expected to fit in. Whatever you are, wherever you are from, becomes a part of Canada.”

Iman Habibi
© Darko Sikman

Iman Habibi grew up in Iran but has been in Canada for 14 years. “I don’t mean to be intercultural, it just winds up that way,” he said. “As an immigrant, I don’t feel that I have one country. I think I’m in a unique position to bridge the cultural gaps between these two countries.”

Habibi’s Azrieli commission is for a song cycle on the works of the 14th-century Judeo-Persian poet Shahin Shirazi, sung in Farsi by a Persian soloist in the traditional style. Shirazi’s poetry is largely forgotten now, Habibi said, and is rarely translated, so he has had to teach himself Hebrew in order to work with the text. The piece will follow both western and middle eastern musical traditions, Habibi explained, with the orchestral parts notated and the Middle Eastern soloists improvising on written themes, as per custom. “I’m not trying to have the two be one, but there will be a conversation between them,” he told me.

Habibi sees his composition as a sort of musical activism. “Having been a child of war and revolution, it’s very important to me,” he said. “I’m hoping to communicate with many different people: Iranians of whatever religion they might be and people in the western world, and the message is: we have a common, shared heritage. No matter how distinct two cultures might be, a work of art can bring them together.”

The Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music follows a less specific challenge, especially given the great cultural diversity across Canada. The prize commissions Canadian composers to write works that “creatively and critically engage with the complexities of composing concert music in Canada today.”

Rita Ueda
© Rita Ueda

Rita Ueda, the 2022 Canadian Music laureate, was born in Hakodate, Japan, but relocated with her family to Vancouver as a child. Her initial considerations for a distinctly Canadian work were stymied, she said, by the national controversy over debts owed to first nation people. The debates about indigenous rights led to the creation of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation federal holiday on 30 September, 2021. “I set out to write a piece about Canadian nationalism but I made the proposal before I became fully aware of all the problems with reconciliation,” she said.

Instead, she turned to another population native to Canada – songbirds. Ueda found inspiration by recalling her time living in rural Ontario, “one of the places where you can’t see a neighbor out your window,” she told me. “The house I stayed in had no curtains. I woke up to this cacophony of birds.”

One bird stood out: the white-throated sparrow, whose high-pitched call has often been described as if it were singing “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada,” providing inspiration for what Ueda calls her first “nationalistic” piece. 

The work will also represent her own heritage, employing the Japanese sho and Chinese suona, two reed instruments evocative of East Asian music. While putting them against an orchestra, she said, she will strive to preserve their voices and not “westernize” them. Reconciliation remains a concern as well, and Ueda said she’s still doing background research for the composition. 

In addition to hearing their works performed by L’Orchestre Métropolitain in October 2022, there will be two subsequent international performances and a professional recording of the winners' pieces, released on the Analekta label. 

Azrieli Music Prize nominations are open to composers of all ages and at all stages in their careers, with the specific categories changing with each cycle. Upcoming prizes will be awarded for choral music (2024) and opera or oratorio (2026). Past laureates include Keiko Devaux, Yotam Haber and Yitzhak Yedid (2020), Avner Dorman and Kelly-Marie Murphy (2018) and Brian Current and Wlad Marhulets (2016). 

The primary work of the Azrieli Foundation lies in funding institutions and operating programs in Israel and Canada. The organization was founded in 1989 by David J. Azrieli. Born in Poland in 1922, Azrieli studied architecture in Israel before moving to Montreal in 1954. Among his many developments there is the 250-room Hotel des Artistes, that housed the musicians and artists who performed at Expo ’67. He was also responsible for Israel’s first indoor shopping center and for the landmark Azrieli Center, the largest mixed-use commercial complex in the Middle East.

“The message I have tried to impart from the Azrieli Foundation has been to see the potential in all people,” said Sharon Azrieli, D.Mus., C.Q., the force behind the Azrieli Music Prizes. Dr. Azrieli, daughter of David Azrieli, is also a board director of the foundation. “Everyone's future depends upon our abilities to work together, to break new ground and to nurture networks across cultures. We have always fostered and encouraged diverse voices and cultures to be heard and appreciated; this is the very basis of my concept for the four prizes – Jewish, Canadian and now international. You will see this fully reflected in our illustrious jury's selections for the 2022 AMP laureates and their prize-winning works.

“I am immensely proud of the three laureates this year – Aharon, Iman and Rita,” she concluded. “We received over 186 applications from all over the world, from North Macedonia and Armenia to Japan, France and Canada and everywhere in between. These three stood out to the juries for their excellence and creativity, and I really can't wait to hear the premieres next October.” 

This article was sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation.