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ARC Ensemble Uncovers Hidden Treasure: The Music of Alberto Hemsi

ARC Ensemble Uncovers Hidden Treasure: The Music of Alberto Hemsi

Published on October 14, 2022

The Royal Conservatory’s Multi-Grammy Nominated Chamber Group Rescues Overlooked Gems of Composer Who Championed Sephardic Culture, for Sixth “Music in Exile” Recording

Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi

It is ironic that composer Alberto Hemsi, who spent much of his life rescuing music that faced extinction, should have his own brilliantly original works threatened with a similar fate. As part of its mission to research and recover 20th century music suppressed or marginalized by repressive regimes, war, and exile, Canada’s acclaimed ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) focuses its sixth Chandos recording on this overlooked and prodigious talent, the latest in its acclaimed “Music in Exile” series. Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi, released today, is the first commercial release devoted to these extraordinary works.

With JUNO, OPUS Klassik, and multiple Grammy nominations, the ARC Ensemble has built its international reputation on enlarging the repertoire, rather than replicating it. Drawn from the senior faculty of The Royal Conservatory’s esteemed Glenn Gould School and its accomplished students and alumni, ARC has revived the works and reputations of a growing number of outstanding composers

Alberto Hemsi
Photo Credit: Institut Européen des Musiques Juives

The ensemble has uncovered another worthy candidate in the composer and ethnomusicologist, Alberto Hemsi, who was born in 1898 in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire and now Turkey. If Hemsi is known at all today, it is for his Coplas Sephardies, arrangements with piano accompaniments based on traditional Sephardic melodies that Hemsi collected across the Mediterranean and Middle East. Similar to the path that Béla Bartók followed in reviving Hungarian folk music, Hemsi attempted to “recreate with them the traditional spirit of the people in the manner I thought was most favorable and appropriate to the song’s mood.” He saw this as “rescuing work in a triple process: reproduction, reconstruction, and recreation.”

While these vocal works have been performed and recorded, Hemsi’s instrumental music has been ignored, even though these scores have been available since 2004, when Hemsi’s widow left the composer’s archive to the Institut Européen de Musique Juives in Paris. The ARC Ensemble’s recording is the first dedicated to this repertoire.

“Hemsi’s music is sui generis, very different from what anyone else was doing at the time,” says Simon Wynberg, Artistic Director of the ARC Ensemble. “Hemsi worked outside the European mainstream, using fairly simple Sephardic melodies as the building blocks for extended and sometimes quite complex concert works.”

Wars, political unrest, and anti-Semitism forced Hemsi to flee from areas that had once provided sanctuary for Jews. The Société Musicale Israélite in Smyrna supported him with a scholarship to study at Milan’s Verdi Conservatory, whose alumni include Puccini and, more recently, Gian Carlo Menotti and Riccardo Muti. Hemsi’s natural gifts were expanded and developed here, but any chance of a piano career ended when he was drafted into the Italian army and wounded in the final months of WWI. He returned to Smyrna after completing his studies but left for Rhodes in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War, and the massive fire of 1922 that destroyed much of the city. 

In 1928, he was appointed musical director of the Middle East’s largest synagogue, the Eliahou Hanabi Temple in Alexandria, where he remained for nearly 30 years. With Israel’s invasion of Sinai, and the Suez Crisis, the Hemsi family was among the 25,000 Jews who fled Egypt in 1957. He spent his remaining years in Paris, where he continued to teach, study, and supervise the music of two synagogues. He died of lung cancer in 1975.

Hemsi was certainly fortunate to abandon both Smyrna and Rhodes, almost all of whose Jewish residents were killed in Auschwitz after Nazi forces took over the island. “Living through the war in Egypt, though undeniably stressful, was not remotely comparable to the experience of European Jews,” says Wynberg. Yet, while the frequently displaced composer may have been able to survive and even thrive, despite having to rebuild his career, his strikingly original music has remained in exile, unheard for the last 60 plus years.

Alberto Hemsi and the Philharmonique des Ecoles Communaut‚ Isra‚lite Alexandrie
Photo Credit: Institut Européen des Musiques Juives

ARC’s Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi highlights five works by this unheralded composer. The Danses Nuptiales Grecques for cello and piano, op. 37, likely the last piece Hemsi completed before moving to Paris, celebrates three wedding participants, mother-in-law, bride, and godfather. Dedicated to two Jewish philanthropists, the Tre Arie Antiche (dalle Coplas Sefardies) for String Quartet, op. 30, are transcriptions of three songs he had originally arranged with piano.

The Pilpúl Sonata for Violin and Piano, op. 27, draws on ironic aspects of Talmudic argument, creating an absorbing work that incorporates elements of jazz and impressionism. In the Quintet for Viola and String Quartet, op. 28, Hemsi breaks from the use of Sephardic themes, and includes a movement that mimics a stomping dance and another that sounds like an English jig. In the Méditation for Cello and Piano, op. 16, which was broadcast in Egypt during the 1920s and ’30s, the piano’s quick repeated notes, decorative trills, and arpeggio flourishes evoke the Greek santouri, a hammered dulcimer.

The ARC Ensemble album features violinists Marie Bérard, Erika Raum, and Emily Kruspe (Pilpul Sonata), violists Steven Dann and Julien Altmann, cellist Tom Wiebe, and pianist Kevin Ahfat.

The ARC Ensemble’s Hemsi recording is generously sponsored by The Asper Foundation.