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.”
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
American pianist Oscar Levant (1906–1972), whose fortieth Yahrzeit was on August 14, was renowned, perhaps distractingly so, for his wit steeped in psychic pain. Born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to an Orthodox Jewish family originally from Russia, Levant was tormented by psychiatric ailments, requiring hospitalizations and medication which he made light of on radio, TV, and in films. The screenwriter Betty Comden (born Basya Cohen), who co-authored some of Levant’s musical classics, including “The Barkleys of Broadway” and “The Band Wagon,” once told me that on the set of the latter film, she made the mistake of asking Levant how his mother was. Levant retorted furiously, “Don’t mention that woman!” and refused to speak to Comden for weeks.
As is obvious from musicals such as “An American in Paris,” Levant was also a highly-trained pianist, whose finest hour was as soloist in a 1944 recording of his friend George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. Levant’s long-unavailable recording of the Arthur Honegger “Concertino” conducted by the Hungarian Jewish maestro Fritz Reiner would also merit reprinting.
Not content with keyboard mastery, Levant also studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg in California from 1935 to 1937. Levant originally commissioned Schoenberg’s 1942 Piano Concerto, but those plans went awry, as the pianist explained in “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” (1965), one of his entertaining books, all of which would bear reprinting. Yet Levant’s most individual gift may have been as songwriter and pop music performer, starting as a teenaged pianist in a New York band led by Ben Bernie (born Bernard Anzelevitz). Levant’s own popular songs are memorable, including the 1920s hits “Lovable and Sweet” and “If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain),” the latter recorded by Al Jolson and Fannie Brice.
Approaching springtime should make New York-area music lovers in search of Yiddishkeit look beyond the obvious choice of Felix Mendelssohn, famed composer of the “Spring Song.” On March 20 at The Austrian Cultural Forum, ardent modernist songs by Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky will be performed by mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson and soprano Katharine Dain with pianist Thomas Bagwell.
Also far from mid-Victorian sweetness is “Music for Strings” by the American Jewish composer Edward T. Cone, as played by The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra from March 22 to 25 in Newark, Princeton, and New Brunswick. Conducted by Jacques Lacombe, Cone’s “Music for Strings” has moments of creative agitation and tension, as indeed does spring.
Missing Mendelssohn already? On March 23 at Weill Recital Hall, The Elias String Quartet, a Mancunian ensemble named after Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” plays that composer’s String Quartet No. 2 with a repeat performance on March 25 at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium.
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.
Classical music lovers have long marveled at the richness of talent which emerged from the San Francisco area, from soloists Isaac Stern and Leon Fleisher to the Menuhin family. A well-researched new study out from University of California Press in October, “Music and Politics in San Francisco: From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War”, offers intriguing background information about how this wide-ranging achievement became possible.
Its author, Leta Miller, a musicologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explains that Jewish support for culture can be traced back to the founding days of modern San Francisco, with philanthropy from such 19th century families as Levi Strauss’s, the blue jeans magnate. Miller notes: “Among the founders of the San Francisco Symphony [in 1911], Jewish names appear in far greater numbers than their proportion in the population.” Early on, there was even a viper-tongued Jewish critic named Alfred Metzger, who accused one hapless San Francisco conductor in 1911 of “hopeless pirouetting through the atmosphere.” When the same musician tried to conduct Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Death and Transfiguration,” Metzger observed: “We noted more of the death quality than the transfiguration.”
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.
Coming to America is normally shorthand for the opening of opportunity: apparently not for Arnold Schoenberg. Commentators on modern music have long undervalued the Vienna-born composer Arnold Schoenberg’s years in America, from 1934 until his death in 1951.
Admittedly, there were some disappointments, such as when the Guggenheim Foundation notoriously refused to grant Schoenberg a fellowship, citing a then-extant age limit for applicants. Yet overall, Schoenberg’s last years were fulfilled and productive, as “Schoenberg’s New World: The American Years” by Sabine Feisst, out in March from Oxford University Press, establishes.
For background sounds to Jewish American Heritage Month, why not investigate some nostalgic treasures of Hebrew education from a half-century ago, available from Smithsonian Folkways, such as 1958’s “Israeli Children’s Songs” sung by New York native Miriam Ben-Ezra; or a charming 1955 lecture, “The Hebrew Language: Commentary and Readings” by Theodor Herzl Gaster, a UK-born scholar of religion and myth whose books Holy and the Profane: Evolution of Jewish Folkways and Festivals of the Jewish Year are still remembered fondly?
A different kind of nostalgia is provided by “Mosaic,” a CD from Solo Musica/Naxos by violinist Orsolya Korcsolan and pianist Judit Kertész, featuring beloved salon works including Josef Bonime’s Danse Hébraïque and Issay Dobrowen’s Mélodie Hébraïque. Similarly, on “The Hollywood Cello: Concert Works from Film composers of the Golden Era,” from Soundset Recordings, cellist Gregory Hamilton resonantly interprets works by Ernst Toch and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, among other Jewish composers who found refuge in 1930s California.
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.
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.)
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.
Franz Schreker, an Austrian composer of Jewish descent who was hounded to an untimely death by the Nazis, has long been considered an unjustly forgotten genius.
In recent years, however, Schreker’s works have received some long-overdue attention. In 2005 American music director Kent Nagano conducted a darkly impressive revival of Schreker’s 1918 opera “The Marked Ones” ( “Die Gezeichneten”) at the Salzburg Festival, and last April it was performed by the Los Angeles Opera to considerable acclaim.
Danielle Cohen-Levinas, married to Michaël Levinas, the composer-pianist son of French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, is ideally placed to evaluate the Jewish inspiration of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. A professor of aesthetics at the University of Paris IV–Sorbonne, Cohen-Levinas has just produced a groundbreaking study, “Schoenberg’s Century” for Les éditions Hermann. In addition to editing the volume, Cohen-Levinas also contributed several cogent essays, as well as an affectionate interview with the composer’s daughter Nuria Schoenberg Nono.
Other contributors to “Schoenberg’s Century” include the Bulgarian-born Israeli composer Yizhak Sadaï, who was awarded the Emet Prize in 2008 from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office. Sadaï notes how, shortly before Schoenberg’s death in 1951, the composer fervently accepted the honorary presidency of Tel Aviv’s Rubin Academy of Music, as offered in a letter by its then-director, Ödön Pártos. Schoenberg’s letter to Pártos states: “Just as in Israel, God chose the people whose duty is to safeguard the pure monotheism of Moses, so the duty of Israeli musicians is to serve in an exemplary way for the entire world…”
In one chapter, “Towards a Musical Messianism,” Cohen-Levinas explains how in 1938, Schoenberg, outraged by the “exacerbated sentimentality” of Max Bruch’s beloved “Kol Nidrei,” composed his own “Kol Nidre, for narrator, chorus and orchestra.”