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From Tragedy Came a Music Festival Now in its 25th Year

The festival serves to encourage children to take up music, participate in a competition and give them the exciting opportunity to perform for enthusiastic audiences at majestic theaters.

The phrase “may their memory be for a blessing” is on the mind of Dr. Rosemary Cohen every day. The mother and grandmother has endured unfathomable tragedy on the route to starting the Liana & Ruben Cohen Music Festival, an event that’s become a staple of the childrens’ music scene in Los Angeles. 

“We came to this conclusion that doing music competitions and concerts will be a way to remember her, but mostly to do good [for] other students,” Rosemary said about starting the music festival in 1997 in memory of her daughter, Liana.  

On January 23, The Liana & Ruben Cohen Music Festival will be held for the twenty-fifth time. The festival serves to encourage children to take up music, participate in a competition and give them the exciting opportunity to perform for enthusiastic audiences at majestic theaters.

The festival used to just be named for Liana. In 1992, Liana was only 18 years old when she died in a horrific accident where a drunk driver hit the car containing her and her entire family. And then in July of 2021, Liana’s surviving brother Ruben died in a tragic plane crash at age 46, leaving behind two daughters and an extended family all too familiar with sudden tragic loss. Rosemary’s husband lost a brother in the 1980s when he was taken hostage and killed in Lebanon as well.

“I really want to bring something good out of the sadness, and Liana was a very good pianist.”
— Dr. Rosemary Cohen

“I really want to bring something good out of the sadness, and Liana was a very good pianist,” Rosemary told the Journal. “That’s why we started the competition. And this year, I added Ruben because he was also a good violinist and they used to play together.”

In the wake of Liana’s death nearly 30 years ago, Rosemary and her family decided against suing the drunk driver. But the thing that stuck with her the most is that when questioned by police, the young driver said that he was bored, so he drank and drove to go drink some more.

“Boredom.”

The pain of saying that word still echoes in Rosemary’s voice as she cited the one-word reason her daughter’s life ended so suddenly. 

“There are so many people who are stressed [or] afraid, and it’s not a reason to go to drink,” Rosemary said. “There’s no reason to go on drugs. I always told my children that listening to a very good piece of music—classical music for me—can be the best drug to heal.”

Ruben Cohen at 5 years old, performing a Szeryng violin concerto in Paris, France.

Rosemary seeks solace in painting, writing and taking positive action. Over the years, as a doctor of sociology, she has written books about her life experience and painted the music competition certificates herself.

One of the enduring reasons for the festival’s lasting legacy is what Rosemary believes are the benefits of getting young people involved in the arts.

“Performing in front of the public gives the child self-confidence, as it requires courage to face strangers and to share a part of themselves in the process,” Rosemary said. “Also, playing with an accompanist teaches the child to respect others, as [they] have to watch and follow the accompanist in order to create music together. So we see that discipline, hard work, respect and so many other advantages are the results of learning to play an instrument.”

One former participant in the festival, pianist Gaby Sipen, attributed the trajectory of her career in music directly to the competition.

“My whole life journey, I would say, would kind of actually go back to that,” Sipen said of the festival, having first participated in 2003. “And since I was eight years old, I participated in every single Liana Cohen competition every year up until high school.” 

Sipen went on to win many prestigious piano competitions while she was a student at Valley Torah High School and in college at UCLA. Now, at age 26, she is a teaching assistant at a neuroscience lab at UCLA, and is also applying and auditioning for masters programs in piano. 

This year, the festival will take place in two parts. First, there’s a competition for Jewish children on January 23 at Milken Community School. The winners will perform a concert on February 3rd.

Then, there’s the “open” competition on March 6 at Temple Beth Am, where anyone can compete. The winners of the open competition will be given the honor of performing on March 20 at Zipper Hall at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown L.A.

Competition winners at the Liana Cohen Music Festival in 2020. (Photo: Liana Cohen Foundation)

The two competitions of the festival are emblematic of Rosemary’s journey to Los Angeles: competitive, enriching and worldly. Although Judaism plays an enormous part of Rosemary’s life, she was born in Iran to a Christian Armenian family. While studying sociology in France, she met her Jewish husband and eventually had four children with him. She wasn’t able to convert to Judaism in France, so when her family immigrated to the United States in 1985, she converted and they officially got married. Rosemary proudly points out that their four children were each holding a pole of the chuppah on that special day. She always wants to find ways to engage and inspire children.

When asked about what Rosemary’s work has meant to so many children like her who have been involved in the festival over the last quarter century, Sipen can only reflect in awe. 

“To go through something like [losing two children] and not just to come out of it standing, but to create something so beautiful and so long-lasting that will have an impact on other people is just incredible,” Sipen said. “You can see the pain in her eyes. And obviously I cannot imagine, I don’t wish that on anyone, but just the fact that she keeps going and she keeps creating, she is so committed to having this legacy go on. It’s incredible.” 

Another former participant, cellist Shoshanah Israilevich, looked back at how much the festival meant to her career in music.

“Each year, we were greeted by Rosemary’s beaming smile ready to welcome us into the synagogue where the competitions were,” Israilevich said. Like Sipen, she also started performing at the festival at age eight. “Now, being a cellist studying classical music at a conservatory, I can without a doubt say that the festival helped me grow immensely as a performer as I learned to work hard for the awards I received, and my confidence as a musician grew the more I performed. [The festival] allowed me to hone my skills in an environment where I felt encouraged to become the musician I am today.”

Applications for the festival are available now at www.lianacohen.org

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