Likht (ליכט, “light”) Ensemble is Jaclyn Grossman and Nate Ben-Hori, a piano-vocal duo whose goal is to uncover and disseminate music by Jewish composers from the Holocaust. In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on January 27, 2024 they will present The Shoah Songbook live with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. We caught up with Jaclyn and Nate to learn more about the project, performing music from the Holocaust, and their shared love of New York style bagels.
Kultura Collective: Hi Jaclyn and Nate! Can you please introduce yourselves as the two halves of Likht Ensemble?
Jaclyn Grossman: I’m an opera singer, curator, facilitator, producer, and all around jack of all trades (master of none). I was born and raised here in Toronto – some of my earliest performance memories are from United Synagogue Day School (throwback to my starring performance as unnamed daughter #4 in Fiddler on the Roof)! I love anything community-related, opera/musical theatre, petting dogs, and sushi.
Nate Ben-Horin: I’m a pianist and composer. My training is in opera/classical music, but I’ve always had a toe in folksier musical waters, including Jewish tunes. I’m originally from San Francisco, but have lived in Canada since 2018 (with an errant year in Ohio). Since moving to Toronto I’ve become a doting father to many, many houseplants.
KC: Can you tell us a bit more about the Likht Ensemble and how it was created?
Likht Ensemble: We met in grad school at McGill, where we were paired in a song interpretation class (doing Wagner, of all things). Around that same time, Jaclyn was first exposed to Holocaust music while researching a Jewish-themed recital as a recipient of the Ben Steinberg Musical Legacy Award from Temple Sinai. Then, just as we were about to graduate, the pandemic stopped the opera industry in its tracks. With live performance out of the question and a lot of free time, we began a deep dive into Holocaust music, and were awestruck by what we found. Some of the music written in the camps was so outstanding that we couldn’t believe we had never heard it before.
We began a process of researching, reaching out, and experimenting that led to us writing (and receiving) our first grants, and ultimately connecting with Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, who platformed our flagship project The Shoah Songbook, a series of digital recitals. To date, we’ve made three of these, focusing on music from Terezín (a Czech ghetto), Lithuania and Poland respectively. Each one is a potpourri of formal classical song, original arrangements of folk tunes, and other styles like cabaret. Often the materials that we work from are obscure digital scans of crinkled, barely-legible handwritten melodies, with incredible backstories of how they were created, discovered and preserved, so realizing these concerts is both a challenge and a privilege.
Since the performance sector has opened back up we’ve had chances to present concerts in wonderfully unexpected places (like Chattanooga, Tennessee!) and expanded our activities into quite a few different fields — theater, commissioning composers, lectures relating to antisemitism in the opera canon, and workshops teaching young artists how to self-produce original material.
KC: In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on January 27 you will present The Shoah Songbook live with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. What can the audience expect from the event?
LE: This concert features our favourite selections from the work we’ve done so far, as well as some new material. As with all our concerts, it encompasses a wide range of moods and styles, and this time we’ve organized the material according to a seasonal theme – the first half is an extended set centered around a few electrifying songs about springtime, and then in the second half we journey through a melodious summer, melancholy autumn and devastating winter. We’re lucky to have some phenomenal collaborators: all-star violinist Barry Shiffman, and legendary tenor Ben Heppner, who will be lending his voice as our narrator.
KC: In preparation for this series, you recently visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. How does your research from this trip inform the new pieces?
LE: Our trip was basically a week of frantic photocopying, which is to say we collected a TON of material from the museum archives and are still in the process of sifting through it. However, a couple of those finds will be in our upcoming concert – there’s a piece called Tatínkova Melodie by the Czech violinist-composer Egon Ledeč which is a particularly charming example of instrumental salon music from the Terezín ghetto. Then there’s “Der Herbst ist da!” (“Autumn is here!,”) a very evocative tune by a Polish composer named Leon Kaczmarek who survived Dachau. Kaczmarek felt that this was his best song in terms of capturing the mood of the camp, but as far as we know it hasn’t been performed since that time because there’s no written piano part. We’re really excited to share our new arrangement.
KC: Tell us about the Jewish Space Laser project! How can humor help audiences to engage with difficult subjects?
LE: Jewish Space Lasers is a brand new piece that we’re creating with our friend Tal Shulman, a Vancouver-based actor-writer-director. It’s a combination of Borscht-belt style comedy, musical performances of Holocaust music and standard classical rep like Wagner, and more serious personal reflections.
Our goal is to pull back the curtain on private conversations we have about our work, classical music, Jewishness, the state of the world, the ridiculousness and pervasiveness of antisemitic tropes …. Obviously the Holocaust is a heavy subject, but we think that comedy is an awesome way to ease into difficult conversations in a lighthearted way. And is there really anything more Jewish than treating tragedy with comedy?
KC: How does composing / performing in Yiddish affect your connection to the projects?
LE: Yiddish is such a fun and flavourful language. Being steeped in German from our classical background, it’s so interesting how much Yiddish is intelligible without ever having formally studied it — German vocabulary with a heap of Jewish seasoning. In fact, a few of our composers have written about their intrinsic connection to German culture, and the sense of betrayal that accompanied the Nazi takeover. It’s a fascinating topic, and you can really sense this cultural intertwinedness in the Yiddish language. Also, we keep mentioning flavor and seasoning, and that “spiciness” is something we’ve really come to associate with the Jewish spirit in its Yiddish expression in particular — of course there’s a fair share of tsures, but speaking of comedy, there’s also a surprising amount of dark humour in Yiddish Holocaust music — brutally wry lyrics, upbeat melodies with tragic texts, re-appropriated nursery rhymes, etc. It’s the Jewish way, always pointing out the element of the absurd!
KC: What else are you working on right now?
LE: Lots! Finding music, looking for performance and research opportunities, and sourcing funding is a never-ending job. We’re always on the hunt. There’s also Space Lasers, and another project in its infancy called “A Froys Kul,” which will bring together Jewish composers from all over the world to write songs on the theme of Jewish womanhood. After diving so deeply into Jewish trauma, the idea is to create something a bit more joyful. Aside from all this, we both have regular opera careers, if that phrase isn’t an oxymoron in itself – Nate is getting ready to play some Tchaikovsky in the States, and Jaclyn is preparing for performances of Beethoven and Wagner in the Spring.
KC: What other (Jewish) creatives should we know about?
LE: Well obviously people should learn about the Jewish composers of the Holocaust! A great starting point is Ilse Weber and her collected book of letters and poetry, Dancing on a Powder Keg. An amazing read. Another one is Anne Sofie von Otter’s CD Terezín – Theresienstadt, which was kind of our gateway drug in this field. Some other names to look up: Viktor Ullmann, Szymon Laks, Edwin Geist, Shmerke Kaczerginski.
KC: What’s inspiring you Jewish-ly lately?
JG: I’m a huge fan of Barrie Kosky, a Jewish-Australian director based at the Komische Oper Berlin. I love the way he draws attention to the Jewish identity, antisemitism, and how it all intersects with Germanic classical music. He did a production of Die Miestersinger where Beckmesser, (a Jewish-coded character whose name literally translates to “knife-nose,”) wears a giant bobblehead mask with stereotypical Jewish features to make the bias explicit and visible. He even sets the final act of the opera in the notorious 1945 Nürnberg courtroom, seemingly putting Wagner himself (represented by the character Hans Sachs) on trial. Incredibly bold and edgy! He was also the first Jewish person to direct at Bayreuth (Wagner’s own opera house).
KC: If you could have Shabbat dinner with anyone (Jewish), who would it be and why?
NBH: The late, great Oliver Sacks. My intellectual hero, and generally an adorable old man who I would hope to impress with my special chicken broth.
KC: Lightning round question!
Pickled herring vs gefilte fish?
J: Gefilte fish (year round!)
N: No thank you to both
Tevya vs Fruma Sarah?
J: Team Fruma Sarah all the way!
N: Not a musical theater person here
New York vs Montreal bagels?
J: New York (sorry Dad)
N: New York (Dad-approved)
About the project and the artists:
The Shoah Songbook is a series of recitals exploring music by Jewish composers from the Holocaust. The series is designed to shine a spotlight on great composers silenced before their time, ranging from the subtle poetry and haunting lullabies of Ilse Weber, to the stylistically advanced works of Viktor Ullmann, to the never-before-recorded songs of Miriam Harel, and much more.
Likht (ליכט, “light”) Ensemble is piano-vocal duo whose goal is to uncover and disseminate music by Jewish composers from the Holocaust. Likht’s founding members include Nate Ben-Horin (pianist/composer) and Jaclyn Grossman (soprano). As Jewish artists, the discovery of this music has allowed us to reclaim our history with a new perspective, while ensuring that voices once silenced are heard. Likht’s work ranges from performing Holocaust music, to sharing lecture recitals about specific composers and ghettos, and educating around antisemitism in classical music and opera.
Learn more at: www.likhtensemble.com | @LikhtEnsemble
At the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company we embrace and celebrate the Jewish story – stories about our history, stories about our beliefs, stories about our struggles and triumphs. These stories have been 5,000 years in the making; they have universal application. These stories have to be told and need to be seen. It is our responsibility and privilege to share them with the world.
Nate Ben-Horin divides his time as a pianist and vocal coach between the US and Canada. A former student of Michael McMahon and Stephen Hargreaves at McGill, he recently completed a 10-month residency with Opera Columbus, where he was also an adjunct professor at Capital University. He has worked widely in his native San Francisco Bay Area, including many seasons with West Edge Opera as a repetiteur, continuo harpsichordist, recitalist and choir director, and as teaching staff at UC Berkeley. Recent and upcoming engagements include Giulio Cesare with West Edge Opera, the North American premiere of Bas Sheve with Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival, and Rigoletto with Opera Columbus, and a recital in partnership with the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. Of his work in the Shoah Songbook, reviewer Lynn Slotkin wrote: “Nate Ben-Horin is a graceful pianist, a gifted arranger, and an attentive accompanist.”
Hailed as an “exciting dramatic soprano” (Opera Canada) with a “command over a powerful range of expressive emotion” (The Whole Note), Jaclyn Grossman will make her debut this season as Freia in Das Rheingold with Edmonton Opera and joins the Buffalo Philharmonic as the soprano soloist in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony under JoAnn Falletta. Jaclyn recently performed the title role in Bas Sheve (Henech Kon), a Yiddish opera in its North American premiere with the Ashkenaz Festival, the Milken Center, UCLA, and Yiddish Summer Weimar, and covered Judith with Against the Grain Theatre’s Bluebeard’s Castle. She has completed residencies with Pacific Opera Victoria, Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, and the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme. A proud co-founder of Likht Ensemble, Jaclyn is passionate about sharing music by Jewish composers from the Holocaust. In the 2023-2024 season, she will continue to curate and perform in the Shoah Songbook, a concert series with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. Passionate about her work with nonprofits, is the creator and facilitator of the Association for Opera in Canada’s Artist Development Programs, the Founder of the Phoenix Leadership Project, and a facilitator for Opera InReach and the Merigold Music Program.
Learn more: www.jaclyngrossman.com/ | @JaclynGrossman