The Arty Semite

Why The Organ Is The Most Jewish Instrument

By Benjamin Ivry

Wikimedia Commons
Secondary keyboard of the organ at the Dohány Synagogue.

To some lovers of classical sounds, organ music seems irremediably goyish, despite outstanding achievements by such Jewish composers as Aaron Copland and Arnold Schoenberg in writing for the so-called “king of instruments.” For these, “The Organ and Its Music in German-Jewish Culture,” recently published in paperback, will be a real ear-opener. Its author, musicologist Tina Frühauf, notes that “until the Middle Ages, the organ was not officially permitted in any Christian liturgy inasmuch as instrumental music was associated… with the Jewish services once held in the temple at Jerusalem.”

Even after organs appeared in churches and became taboo for synagogues, there remained some Jewish fans of organ music, notably the 15th century Italian humanist philosopher Yohanan Alemanno, who in “Solomon’s Desire,” his commentary on the “Song of Songs,” included praise of a performance at the Mantua court by the German organist Conrad Paumann, a touring superstar of the 1400s. By the 18th century Haskalah, Europe’s Jewish Enlightenment movement, the time was ripe for a return of the organ as liturgical instrument. In 1810, at the Jacobstempel synagogue in Seesen, Lower Saxony, an organist named Gerson Rosenstein first participated in services. Debate was sparked and in 1818, Eliezer Liebermann, an Austrian Talmudist, wrote “The Bright Light,” a treatise which argued that organ playing had been the “Jewish custom in the Temple prior to the Christians’ adoption of the instrument.”

Some rabbis worried that if organs needed repair or adjustment on Shabbat, would that qualify as work, and if so, would a Shabbas goy be required to do it? An 1845 resolution decided that according to the Talmud, music-making qualified as a “display of art” and therefore was not work. The Vienna chazzan Salomon Sulzer opined in 1869 that a special virtue of the organ was that it was loud enough to easily “cover dissonances” of inferior cantors guilty of “trivial vocal ornamentations” or “weepy Polish virtuosity,” resulting in “that self-satisfied pseudo-artistry which often attacks esthetic beauty as a mildew attacks a seedling crop and poison it.” In 1933, Berlin organist Ludwig Altman was hired by one congregation only after he proved he could play thunderously enough to drown out a painful-sounding cantor.

Organ playing in European synagogues was violently halted, along with so much else, in 1938, but has enjoyed an afterlife in Israel, where many modern composers, such as Jacob Gilboa, Josef Dorman, and Ari Ben-Shabtai, are inspired by the instrument, even more than in today’s America.

Listen to Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924] here.

Listen to part of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Variations on a Recitative for Organ (1941)” here.

Read more


A Guide To November Classical Music

By Benjamin Ivry

A November of concerts featuring fall colors and Yiddishkeit is available to Manhattan music lovers. On November 3 & 4 at New Brunswick’s State Theatre in New Brunswick and Newark’s NJPAC respectively, explosively expressionistic colors will be conveyed by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and conductor Augustin Dumay in Arnold Schoenberg’s stirring “Transfigured Night.” Also on November 3 at the Ukrainian Institute of America, broodingly autumnal shades will be explored when the Ensemble Made in Canada plays Gustav Mahler’s ultra-romantic Piano Quartet. On the same day at Bargemusic the bountiful musical harvest will continue as Trio 21 offers the New York premiere of an arrangement for piano trio and narrator of Glen Roven’s sensitively fashioned orchestral work for children, “Runaway Bunny.”

On November 8 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Studio will be two performances of a chamber music programme including Aaron Copland’s kaleidoscopic 1937 Sextet for Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano by an ensemble featuring violinists Arnaud Sussmann and Areta Zhulla, as well as cellist Fred Sherry. Copland, who is most likely the only Jewish gay Communist composer whose music was ever performed and recorded by The United States Marine Band, is also unique for the splendid range of expression and melodic charm of his works.

The following day at Bargemusic,, pianist Nataliya Medvedovskaya performs an excerpt from “Three Preludes” by Richard Danielpour, a New York-born composer of Persian Jewish origin. Danielpour described these prismatic pieces as “musical responses to dreams that I had.” A more somber-tinted reverie by the same composer will be heard on November 14 at the 92nd Street Y when the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio interprets “A Child’s Reliquary” which the composer calls a “kind of ‘Kindertotenlieder’ [Mahler’s ‘Songs on the Death of Children’] without words.”

Read more


A Guide To The Fall Classical Music Season

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy of Lilyfrancis.net
Lily Francis will be among the musicians playing the Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano and Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1

As this fall’s concert season kicks off, Manhattanites in search of classical performances with a dollop of Yiddishkeit will have a delightful array of choices, starting with the genial ghost of beloved Austrian Jewish violinist Fritz Kreisler, which presides over the New York Philharmonic’s Opening Gala. On September 27 at Avery Fisher Hall, Itzhak Perlman will play Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinois,” which some music snobs might see as an unadventurously musty selection for such a high-profile orchestral outing, but Kreisler’s legion of fans will be ever-grateful.

At the same venue on October 4, 5, and 6, pianist Emanuel Ax will solo in Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, with the Philharmonic led by Alan Gilbert. More modernism will be heard on October 20 at the High School of Fashion Industries when a group of Musicians from Marlboro, including violinists Itamar Zorman and Lily Francis and violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt play the Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano and Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1, among other works.

Schoenberg and Mendelssohn, those disparate spirits, are combined on October 25 at Carnegie Hall when the Israel Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta performs a highly original program of Schoenberg’s “Kol Nidre” and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, as well as the New York premiere of veteran Israeli composer Noam Sheriff’s “Mechaye Hametim (Revival of the Dead).” Soloists include Yuja Wang and Thomas Hampson.

Also at Carnegie, on October 27, Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.” Music lovers pining for a little more Kreisler-like fiddling schmaltz should hurry to Merkin Hall on October 30 to hear virtuoso Paul Huang in his New York debut playing Franz Waxman’s “Carmen Fantasy,” once a staple of the staggeringly able Jascha Heifetz (Kreisler would have balked at its technical demands). As the month rounds off, the benevolent mastery of Emanuel Ax, one of today’s classical musicians most temperamentally in the Kreisler tradition, will again be heard. On November 4 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Ax will perform Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces” as well as the chamber version of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth,” arranged in part by Schoenberg, who died before completing it, whereupon this version was eventually made performance-ready in an edition by German composer Rainer Riehn. Any month in which Schoenberg and Kreisler are so prominently honored is a good month for Jewish music.

Listen to Kreisler play his own “Tambourin chinois” accompanied by Franz Rupp here.

See a trio of young Icelandic musicians, Sigrún Eðvaldsdóttir (violin), Stefán Jón Bernharðsson (horn), and Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson (piano) playing part of Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in 2006 here.

Watch Jascha Heifetz playing Franz Waxman’s “Carmen Fantasy” here.

And see Yuja Wang playing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 here

Read more


Jews of Tanglewood

By Raphael Mostel

Aaron Copland owed much of his career to Serge Koussevitzky.

Leonard Bernstein was in Tanglewood’s first class and became a Koussevitzky protégé and a worldwide symbol of Tanglewood.
Photo By Egone, Courtesy BSO Archives
A Jewish Brahmin: Serge Koussevitsky was admired for his aristocratic bearing.

Paul Fromm was insired by Koussevitsky to create the Fromm Music Foundation to support new music.

Erich Leinsdorf inaugurated Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music with funding from Fromm.

James Levine, until recent ill health forced his resignation, presided over a new period of harmony following the rough transition caused by Ellen Highstein’s many changes when she took over directorship of the music center at the end of Seiji Ozawa’s long tenure.

Read more


The Arty Semite Guide to May Classical Concerts

By Benjamin Ivry

Photo Janette Beckman, Courtesy of concertartists.org
Chasing Reich Flutist Claire Chase will perform Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” at the Walter Reade Theater.

As summertime slowly approaches, concerts of music both minimal and maximal will enchant Manhattanites in search of aural Yiddishkeit. On April 29 at the Walter Reade Theater, flutist Claire Chase will perform Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” in its version for flute and tape; the alternate version, for eleven flutes, would doubtless exceed even the gifted Chase’s capacities. She will be joined for other, less minimalist, works on the program by the pianist Jacob Greenberg. On May 1 at Carnegie Hall, Reich’s mini-fluting is exchanged for emotional maxing-out in the form of Gustav Mahler’s songs interpreted by baritone Matthias Goerne with the superstar pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

The next day at Zankel Hall, Hungarian Jewish pianist András Schiff offers not-to-be-missed performances of his landsman György Kurtág’s aphoristic works, including two American premieres. On May 4 at Bargemusic, cellist Dave Eggar and pianist Olga Vinokur will play more intriguing sounds in reduced formats, including Philadelphia-born Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Air for cello and piano” (1996) and Marc Mellits’s “Fruity Pebbles” for violin, cello, and piano (1997). The latter work contains a playful tribute to Leonard Bernstein, somewhat curiously quoting TV’s “Brady Bunch” theme, itself a classic at Maryland’s Beth Tfiloh Day Camps where Mellits’ mother long worked as assistant director.

Read more


The Arty Semite Guide to Upcoming Concerts

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy of Barrett Vantage Artists, Darla Furlani
Nokuthula Ngwenyama Helping a trio become a quartet for Richard Danielpour’s ‘Inventions on a Marriage.’

Classical music events both before and after Purim (on March 8) focus on dialogues redolent of Yiddishkeit, as New Yorkers and others will discover. On February 10 at Weill Recital Hall pianist Lia Jensen-Abbott will perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s “The Year,” a work inspired by the composer’s relationship with her brother Felix. The Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti described his 1951 “Sonata for solo cello” as: “[a] dialogue. Because it’s like two people, a man and a woman, conversing.” Ligeti’s sonata converses on February 10 at Bargemusic with cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

Then it’s back to Bargemusic on February 18 for another meeting of the minds, with some of the late keyboard dazzler Earl Wild’s “Seven Virtuoso Études on Popular Songs,” after George Gershwin. Played by Olga Vinokur, the “Études” will be complemented by Gershwin’s own “Rhapsody In Blue.”

Dialoguing across the centuries may be witnessed on February 22 at Alice Tully Hall when the UK’s premier Jewish composer/conductor Thomas Adès directs the Britten Sinfonia in his own “Three Studies After [17th century composer] Couperin” as well as his arrangement of the same Frenchman’s keyboard work “Les barricades mistérieuses,” and Adès’s “Violin Concerto (Concentric Paths)” with soloist Pekka Kuusisto.

Read more


The Arty Semite Guide to Winter’s Classical Music Lineup

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy of PiusCheung.com

An approaching New Year can be a time of rearrangements and transpositions, as Manhattan classical music lovers in search of Yiddishkeit will discover. From December 1 to 3 at Avery Fisher Hall, Gustav Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10 in its revised Deryck Cooke performing edition will be conducted by Daniel Harding. Harding has recorded this work for Deutsche Grammophon, but some Mahlerians may prefer the version on Brilliant edited and conducted by Russian Jewish maestro Rudolf Barshai.

On December 10, modernism will be on the menu when pianist Peter Serkin plays “Toccata in Three Parts” (1941) by the German Jewish composer Stefan Wolpe at the 92nd Street Y. Wolpe’s Toccata has been limpidly recorded by Serkin on Koch Classics and by pianist David Holzman for Bridge Records.

Read more


Monday Music: Saxophonist Unearths New Aaron Copland Score

By Eileen Reynolds

“You may find it implausible that we are announcing a world premiere by the venerable (and dead) American composer Aaron Copland,” boasts the press release for saxophonist-composer Christopher Brellochs’s new CD, “Quiet City.”

Courtesy of Christopher Brellochs

Implausible, yes, and perhaps only half true. The piece in question is the score Copland wrote to accompany an Irwin Shaw play of the same name. The play flopped after its dress rehearsal in April 1939, never to be produced again. Copland’s original manuscript, which called for a small chamber group made up of trumpet, saxophone, clarinets and piano, was never published. However — and here’s the rub — the composer did convert a substantial portion of his original material into a 10-minute piece for trumpet, English horn and string orchestra. That piece premiered in 1941, and has been performed frequently since. A couple of haunting themes that Copland wrote for Shaw’s “Quiet City” also found their way into his 1940 score for the film adaptation of “Our Town,” which in turn spawned its own orchestral suite.

The bottom line is that, if you’ve heard orchestras play either of the “Quiet City” or “Our Town” suites, you aren’t going to be shocked by what Brellochs has uncovered in the original manuscript. (He came across it during his doctoral studies with saxophonist and historian Paul Cohen at Rutgers University.) There is some never-before heard music in Brellochs’s “new” chamber version of the “Quiet City” material, but the most obvious difference between this and the familiar orchestral piece is the instrumentation: Themes that sound grand and romantic over the swell of strings take on a lonelier, more melancholy quality in the original arrangement.

Read more


Berlin New Music Festival Honors Avant-Garde Composer Alexander Goehr

By A.J. Goldmann

For over half a century, Alexander Goehr has been one of England’s most important composers, an avant-garde musician whose varied (and often challenging) body of work has been championed by luminaries including Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline de Pré.

Getty Images

Goehr’s manuscripts have recently been acquired by the music archive of Berlin’s Akademie der Künste. On January 26, Ultraschall, Berlin’s festival for new music (which ran this year from January 21 to 30) feted him with a composer portrait.

Goehr was born in 1932 into a remarkably musical Jewish Berlin family. His father, the conductor Walter Goehr, championed the music of Monteverdi and Messiaen and also wrote the score to David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and conducted for several of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films. Both Walter and his brother, Rudolph, a composer of popular music in Paris, took master classes in Berlin with Arnold Schoenberg at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Alexander’s mother, Laelia, was a classically trained pianist. (The family’s accomplishments continue with Goehr’s daughter Lydia, a philosophy professor at Columbia University, who writes extensively about philosophy and music.)

Read more


Heartwarming Classical Concerts for Cold Winter Days

By Benjamin Ivry

Andrew Eccles/Decca Records
Renée Fleming, America’s sweetheart, singing German Jewish composers of art songs at Carnegie Hall, January 11.

The Babylonian Talmud counsels that at times of bitterest cold, it is best to say, “Such is the way of the world,” and then “observe eight days of festivity.” One such ideal post-winter solstice festivity for Manhattanites is a January 11 Carnegie Hall recital by America’s sweetheart of song, soprano Renée Fleming, in a program of German Jewish composers of art songs, including Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky, and the ever-schmaltzy Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Another German Jewish contemporary of these masters, Kurt Weill, is honored on January 25-26 with Collegiate Chorale concert performances of the 1938 musical “Knickerbocker Holiday” at Alice Tully Hall. Starring Victor Garber, a beloved Canadian performer of Russian Jewish ancestry, as Governor Peter Stuyvesant, “Knickerbocker Holiday” is noteworthy — even apart from the immortal melody “September Song” — for its disconnection between Weill, who saw the work, set in colonial New Amsterdam, as anti-fascist allegory, and playwright/lyricist Maxwell Anderson, who intended it as a screed against then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Read more


Monday Music: David Amram at 80

By Eileen Reynolds

Courtesy David Amram

“There isn’t an after party because I know pretty much everyone here,” composer David Amram announced at the end of his 80th birthday celebration at Symphony Space on November 11. “I figured that with 500 of you, plus your dates, plus the 60-piece orchestra, the rest of the performers and our families, we’d need Madison Square Garden. And it was booked.” He was exaggerating, but not much: The hall was packed with fans and well-wishers, and the concert program listed more musicians than could comfortably fit backstage at any one time — they were told to arrive in shifts.

The sprawling evening of music was a fitting tribute to Amram, a musical polymath who, during the course of an almost unimaginably prolific career, has collaborated with artists as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Joseph Papp, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Elia Kazan and Tito Puente. He is the author of countless jazz, symphonic, and chamber music pieces; the Holocaust opera “The Final Ingredient”; the film scores for “Splendor in the Grass,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and “Pull My Daisy”; and dozens of works that incorporate musical elements from the world’s great folkloric traditions.

Read more



Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.