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The diaspora personified

0 Robert Levine

Nazism was such an evil phenomenon that attributing any positive effects at all to its influence feels morally reckless. But a story like this is a reminder of how much vitality was brought to the classical music scene in North America by Jewish musicians who left Europe to escape war and genocide:

A conversation with a man who started music lessons in 1916 and arrived in Montreal 60 years ago this month is necessarily wide-ranging. The scope is amplified by his interests, which have included the apparently polar opposites of electronic music and the Renaissance.

In the 1950s, [Otto] Joachim was in the curious position of operating both an electronic music studio and leading the Montreal Consort of Ancient Instruments, years before these pursuits were in vogue. Many of the instruments in this ensemble, including organs, were of his own manufacture.

All this while joining the MSO as principal viola at the invitation of Mehta, teaching viola at the Montreal Conservatoire and playing viola as part of the Montreal String Quartet, which made recordings with Glenn Gould. And composing. And, later, painting.

“Forbidden is a big word, but I was doing all the things I was forbidden to do,” he said, referring to the rise of the Nazis. “And I have to mention that I found in Quebec the freedom to do what I wanted without the interference of the public or my colleagues.”

In Düsseldorf, young Joachim studied not composition but violin and viola, although he felt an urge to create.

“Whenever I walked to the conservatory to take my lessons, I had to pass by the house of Brahms,” he recalled. “Is that an inspiration to think, as a 12-year-old: ‘Hey, are you going to be a composer some day?’ “…

Yet this future forger of tough 12-tone scores started his professional career playing in coattails in cafés in his native Düsseldorf, and liking it.

When his contract was cancelled, along with those of other Jewish performers, his mother found him an opportunity to play in Bombay, many time zones away from the Nazis.

“It was the first time I saw my father cry,” he says, recalling the bizarre scene at the station on Jan. 28, 1934. Brownshirts a few platforms away were singing the Horst Wessel Song. A police officer friend accompanied Joachim as far as Cologne and instructed him to read the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer until he was out of the country.

In Genoa, Joachim discovered his destination would be Singapore, not Bombay. First he played in the Adelphi Hotel and then the storied Raffles. “That was the hotel where you wanted to be,” Joachim remembered. “The only six-star hotel in the world.”

He became friendly with Sir Alexander Small, the British colonial secretary, and particularly Lady Small, a pianist who produced musicales for fellow dignitaries. They were instrumental in getting Joachim’s parents out of Germany. Somewhat ironically, after Britain declared war, Small was compelled to sign papers declaring Joachim an enemy alien. “It was a little awkward for him, I’m sure,” Joachim says.

Rather than move to a labour camp in Australia, Joachim opted for Shanghai, along with his brother, Walter, a cellist who had been working in Kuala Lumpur. Joachim’s son, Davis, a guitarist and administrator, was born there (the marriage did not last long). Joachim developed his interest in electronics, running a radio shop, and acquired a taste for Chinese food that his live-in helper currently satisfies.

Next stop, Brazil. There was a touchdown in Montreal, and he decided to stay. The Montreal Musician’s Guild demanded a year of residency, so he worked at a Craig St. (now St. Antoine St.) electronics shop repairing turntables and the like.

Probably no single historical event led to the kind of diaspora of musical talent as did the rise of Nazism. The list of instrumentalists and conductors alone is astonishing. Add in the impact made by the children of those whose left, and it’s undeniable that our business would be immeasurable poorer had that diaspora not happened.

One can only speculate on the impact on the world that those who didn’t escape, and their children, might have had.


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