1920s Berlin was a wild place, and two of its wildest celebrities were descendants of the German Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn. The biography, “‘Is There Anything More Beautiful Than Desire?’: The Siblings Eleonora and Francesco von Mendelssohn,” is a diverting look at two arts madcaps. Its author, Thomas Blubacher, explains how Eleonora, an actress, dissipated her family’s collection of Old Master paintings to fund her amorous and artistic affairs. She sold an El Greco to pay for a theatrical tour by one lover, the Austrian Jewish director Max Reinhardt, and, to woo another paramour, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, she took a painting by the 18th century Venetian Francesco Guardi off her wall and handed it to the maestro.
Francesco (nicknamed Cesco), a cellist who played in the Klingler-Quartett and with the amateur fiddler Albert Einstein, was also a stage director and biographer of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse, his sister’s namesake. Cesco put even more energy into a romantic fling with the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, with whom he shared, as Blubacher explains, a “fondness for muscular boys in sailor shirts, seedy bars, and the slippery slope into idiosyncratic and effeminate eccentricity.” Cesco forgave Horowitz when the latter had an affair with the Hollywood silent screenstar Ramon Novarro, and Horowitz pardoned Cesco for making a pass at Horowitz’s personal chauffeur/male prostitute, a “broad-shouldered blond German man officially called a servant and secretary.”
Forced into exile by the Nazis, the siblings fled to Manhattan where they helped other refugees despite their own reduced circumstances. Eleonora stated: “If your name is Mendelssohn, you can’t avoid being on the Jewish side when Jews are in danger.” There, critics carped about Eleonora’s German accent during her stage performances, and Cesco worked with Reinhardt on the 1937 Kurt Weill spectacle “The Eternal Road,” about Jewish history, although Weill dismissed Cesco as a “dilettante.”
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.
As temperatures climb, some New Yorkers gather their families and head for the countryside, while others remain en ville to seek similar experiences in concerts redolent of Yiddishkeit. One such is a May 26 recital at The Austrian Cultural Forum in which Austrian soprano Ursula Langmayr performs a selection of Gustav Mahler’s outdoors-inspired songs, accompanied by pianist Russell Ryan. Instead of strenuous exercise in rural settings, music lovers can experience virtuosic derring-do in the form of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Variations sérieuses” played on June 1 at Bargemusic by pianist Victoria Korchinskaya-Kogan, whose grandparents were the mighty Ukrainian Jewish violinists Leonid Kogan and Yelizaveta Gilels.
On June 3, the PRISM Saxophone Quartet takes over Symphony Space with a happy family of world premieres, including works by David Rakowski, Perry Goldstein, and Matthew Levy, the last-mentioned being the tenor sax player of PRISM. Summer is nothing without old relatives, and pieces by two elder statesmen of musical modernism, Milton Babbitt (who died in January at age 94) and Mario Davidovsky will be featured in a Bargemusic performance by the composer/performer collective, counter)induction.
Once Hosni Mubarak is liberated from his heavy chains of office, he’ll have time to kick back and appreciate some of the new classical CDs on offer. And, as many Egyptians have taken time to point out, he’s a big fan of Yiddishkeit.
If he decides to take up American hospitality he might be especially interested in the gifted young ensemble, the Claremont Trio which has a new CD, “American Trios.” It includes works by American Jewish composers Leon Kirchner and Paul Schoenfield, the latter is an ex-kibbutznik who maintains a part-time residence in Migdal HaEmek with probably a soft spot for the Arab leader who presided over 30 years of peace with Israel. Schoenfield’s 1986 “Café Music,” especially as played by the Claremonts, is a rhythmic delight.
While Hanukkah preparations and aftermath can overshadow every other human activity in December, ‘tis also the season for classical concerts, especially although by no means exclusively, in the New York area. These can include much Yiddishkayt, despite the seeming omnipresence of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Mahler-lovers will not want to miss the much-loved British conductor Sir Colin Davis leading the New York Philharmonic in performances on December 2, 4, and 7 of Mahler’s orchestral songs, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Although born in 1927, Sir Colin still conducts with a balletic grace which vivifies everything he interprets.
“Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me,” a recent DVD release from Kultur International Films, reproduces a 2009 BBC TV film by UK-born writer Sheila Hayman about her eminent ancestor, the composer Felix Mendelssohn.
The multi-talented Hayman is author of previous light-hearted novels and documentary scripts about robots, abortions in China, car design and other eclectic subjects. Among the interviewees in “Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me” is musicologist Jeffrey Sposato, author of the astute “The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition,” (Oxford University Press) which explores the extent to which Mendelssohn adopted an antisemitic viewpoint in works like the oratorio “St. Paul,” in which a villainous chorus of Jews avidly shouts: “Stone him to death!”