The Arty Semite

A Concerto and Chance Meeting for the Ages

By Raphael Mostel

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It’s always surprising how often Jews cross borders. But this coincidence was just too good not to be documented.

Cathy Fuller
Beate Sirota Gordon and virtuoso soloist Marc-André Hamelin at Carnegie Hall.

In January I was raving to my friend Beate Sirota Gordon about a performance of the famously gigantic, wild and strange Ferruccio Busoni Piano Concerto I’d just heard for the first time, performed by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra with soloist Piers Lane in Carnegie Hall. In response, Beate exclaimed, “You know, my father gave the Viennese premiere, with Busoni conducting! When I was a child in Vienna, I remember my father playing that music over and over. How could I have missed this?!”

The half-Jewish, half-German and, despite his name, only half-Italian Ferruccio Busoni was astonishingly gifted and contradictory in equal measure. One of the greatest pianists and composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he remains a strange historical figure. In his review of the concert, critic Alex Ross wrote:

He was, in some ways, the prophet of a future that never came to pass, yet his idiosyncratic pluralism now seems strangely contemporary, as if he had anticipated the entire course of the century and tried to resolve its contradictions…. atypical of him, to the extent that any of his works are typical… the concerto… is a gaudy, unapologetically over-the-top piece, stuffed with references to nineteenthcentury Romantic styles.

This 70-minute concerto, with a chorus singing a hymn to Allah as its finale, is famous for its excess, but because of its outrageous demands and difficulties, it is not often programmed. So I was happy to tell Beate that much to everyone’s astonishment, there would be another opportunity this same season to hear this rarity from 1904, with Jacques Lacombe conducting the New Jersey Symphony with soloist Marc-André Hamelin as part of Carnegie Hall’s “Spring for Music” series in May. Nothing was going to keep her from that performance.

The piano soloist, Marc-André Hamelin, has made a career performing the most extremely difficult works without breaking a sweat. So of course he has played the Busoni concerto dozens of times, and all of the Busoni piano solo works for good measure. It would be no overstatement to report that the Carnegie Hall audience swooned to hear this idiosyncratic concerto coherently interpreted with such flair and devilish fun. They demanded more, so Hamelin provided another dazzling solo work by Busoni. (The entire concert, of which the Busoni was the last part, can be streamed for free here.)

The performance brought back many memories for Beate, who kept repeating how “magical” the performance was. She insisted on going backstage to thank Hamelin for such a rich gift.

But we were both surprised when Hamelin acted as if it was he who had come backstage to see her! He immediately asked, “Aren’t you Beate Sirota? This is a great honor! Where’s a camera? We need a picture!” He explained that he had been in the audience for his step-daughter’s graduation at Smith College when Beate had been given an honorary degree for her role in writing Japan’s post-war Constitution, especially the women’s rights section that she had personally written and that was included in the final version.

Beate’s father, and Busoni’s protegé, was pianist Leo Sirota. Born to a Jewish family in Ukraine, he moved to Vienna where he rose to prominence as a musician.

Refusing to convert in order to obtain a teaching position in Vienna, Sirota decided to move his family to Tokyo in 1929 to become head of the piano faculty at the Imperial Academy of Music and he continued to concertize from there. Beate lived in Tokyo from age 5 until she left to go to Mills College in California, where she lived with a family friend, the noted Jewish composer and faculty member, Darius Milhaud.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor stranded Beate in the U.S., not knowing what was happening to her parents. Her first chance to get to Japan at the end of the war was as part of the U.S. reconstruction efforts. Valued as a one of the very few non-Japanese native speakers of the language, Beate was responsible for writing — and more importantly, getting promulgated — the women’s rights section of that constitution. It was her early experiences growing up in Japan and seeing how badly women were treated that gave her the will as a 22-year-old to improve the treatment of women in Japan — even as the Japanese pointed out that the U.S. constitution has no such clause.

After finding her parents and bringing them and herself to back to live in the U.S., Beate went on to found the performing arts programs of both the Japan Society and The Asia Society in New York — which is how we met. When my compositions were included at the atom bomb commemorations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1987, Beate arranged for the ensemble’s trip to be co-presented by The Asia Society, where the music was also performed on our return.

Evidently Beate’s example was such an inspiration for Hamelin and his step-daughter that he insisted on a photo record of their meeting. And Beate was thrilled to provide a link for this wonderful pianist to her father and through him, to Busoni himself.

Watch Marc-André Hamelin play Busoni’s Piano Concerto:


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