TORONTO — As a Jewish child in Toronto, composer Howard Shore relished going to synagogue and hearing the songful prayers of the cantors, some of whom were renowned special guests brought in from abroad for the high holidays.
After all, he was a budding musician himself, learning the clarinet, counterpoint and harmony starting at age nine from instructor Morris Weinzweig, brother of acclaimed Canadian classical composer John Weinzweig.
While such experiences shaped Shore into the three-time Oscar-winning composer he is today, he hasn’t been able to incorporate those cantorial memories into his music career — until now.
With Quebec director Francois Girard’s new film “The Song of Names,” Shore says he mined that time in his life as he created the score for the story of a Polish-Jewish violin prodigy before and after the Second World War.
“It was very emotional for me, this film, because it brings me back to my childhood and my father in the synagogue,” said Shore, noting his father, Mac Shore, was the first president of their synagogue.
“It kind of completed a circle to me. I haven’t been that involved with Judaism for years, and now to work on this film and this story, it brought me back into the world of it and the deep roots of the faith.”
Opening in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Dec. 25, “The Song of Names” stars Tim Roth as a London native who has long wondered what happened to the violin virtuoso his music-publisher father took in and mentored before the Second World War.
Clive Owen plays the older version of the musician, Dovidl Rapaport, who disappeared just before a 1951 London concert that was to launch his career.
The story is based on Norman Lebrecht’s novel of the same name.
In a key scene, an Orthodox Rebbe chants the titular song, which includes a recitation of the names of all who perished at the Treblinka death camp, where Dovidl’s family was. Daniel Mutlu, senior cantor at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, performed the role of the Rebbe.
Shore studied the cantorial tradition for two years and drew on his childhood memories to create the song.
“I was studying, studying, searching, searching — looking for that sound and trying to recreate it,” said the New York-based Shore, who won Oscars for his work on “The Lord of the Rings” franchise.
“It’s an oral tradition and so, depending on where you studied and who you studied with and who you listened to, that was the sound that you carried with you. I had the sound of Toronto, because that’s the one I remembered. And when I found it, immediately I just had an overwhelming feeling.”
Girard, who has also staged operas and plays, worked closely with Shore on the music in Montreal. They spoke with various cantors, worked with Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, and hired acclaimed violinist Ray Chen to play the titular song.
“He’s fantastic musically,” Shore said of Girard, whose other major films include “The Red Violin,” which received an Oscar for best original score.
“As a composer you want that kind of relationship.”
Shore has also had a great working relationship with renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese, creating the score for several of his films, including “After Hours,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed.”
Scorsese recently made headlines when he told Empire magazine that he thinks Marvel films aren’t cinema and compared them to theme parks.
Shore said he feels Scorsese is “making interesting points.”
“He’s saying, ‘We need to make room for all types of art. We can’t push out all these films just to have these blockbuster films. We can have those, it’s OK, but we must continue the tradition of filmmaking so it doesn’t die. There’s an art to that that needs nurturing. And it’s not just about money in box office; it’s about expression and creativity,’” Shore said.
”I like to see a balance. And what he’s doing is he’s ringing the siren and saying ‘This is getting out of whack and maybe we need to put it back into balance.’”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2019.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press