Composer Leo Ornstein's long-delayed return

Leo Ornstein lived in Philadelphia from the 1920s to the 1950s, and founded the Ornstein School of Music.
Leo Ornstein lived in Philadelphia from the 1920s to the 1950s, and founded the Ornstein School of Music.
Posted: November 20, 2013

Few composers hid such a brilliant light under a bushel as Leo Ornstein.

When his entrancing Piano Quintet is heard Wednesday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, few will be aware that the concert marks the return of his music to Philadelphia, where it was heard for decades, but perhaps only in his studio.

Though Ornstein arrived in the 1930s as one of the most famous pianists of his day, he departed so quietly in the late 1950s - by choice - that nobody quite knows when he left. His death in 2002 at age 107 (some sources say 109) was noticed, but not widely.

"There are no traces of him [in Philadelphia], I'm sorry to say," said pianist Marc-André Hamelin by phone from his home in Boston. His belief in Ornstein prompted the current cross-country tour with the Pacifica Quartet, presented locally by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. He never met the composer, but there's little sense of distance.

"I'm in touch with Ornstein's son, who promotes his music," he says, "and I feel like I know his father through knowing him."

Or through hearing the music, which exudes an unusually extroverted personality that, in the case of the Piano Quintet, goes to the mystical depths of his Jewish upbringing in Imperial Russia, where he studied with Alexander Glazunov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. However, even after his glittering concert career, his works were almost completely unknown until the 1970s (some say the 1960s), when scholar Vivian Perlis tracked down Ornstein in a Texas trailer park, finding him alive, well, and remarkably productive.

"Even as he retreated into a more private existence, his urge to write continued," said Severo Ornstein, 83, the composer's son, who now lives in Woodside, Calif.

"My mother [Pauline] was a bit of a slave driver. He wrote a tremendous amount of music because he was stuck in that trailer and couldn't go outside because of the heat. He'd improvise . . . and I can still hear her shouting at him, saying 'Write that down!' But he wouldn't let my mother do anything to publicize his music."

Maybe he'd had enough of publicity as a young man. Having emigrated and studied at an early incarnation of New York's Juilliard School, Ornstein was considered among the most influential composer/performers in the decade before World War I, and maybe the most sensationalized. His music investigated the use of tone clusters. His pieces had provocative titles such as Suicide in an Airplane.

"Leo Ornstein . . . represents an evil musical genius wandering without the utmost pale of tonal orthodoxy, in a weird No-Man's Land haunted with tortuous sound, with wails of futuristic despair, with cubist shrieks and post-impressionistic cries and crashes," wrote Frederick Herman Marten in the 1918 book Leo Ornstein: the Man, His Ideas, His Work. How could anyone live up to that?

"He started to realize that people were coming to his concerts because he was the latest fad, and not because they understood what he was doing," says Severo Ornstein. "When his music became more conservative, people said he lost his edge."

Not all people. Leopold Stokowski heard one of his piano sonatas and insisted he turn it into a concerto. It became one of his best works, in a creative period that also produced the 1927 Piano Quintet.

Meanwhile, the Ornstein School of Music he founded at 1906 Spruce St. was a considerable success, particularly after World War II when many returning soldiers on the G.I. Bill sought to learn music. Enrollment ran as high as 1,000 - among them jazz great John Coltrane. However, Ornstein and his wife had a restless side. After selling the school in 1958, they lived in a New Hampshire vacation home, then bought the mobile home that took them to Texas.

Oddly, Ornstein kept his piano chops in good shape. "I asked him why," said Severo, "and he didn't have a good answer." The few surviving recordings suggest he wasn't just a keyboard master but a player of great imagination.

The 38-minute, 225-page Piano Quintet sounds nothing like Marten's description; it is a piece whose rich textures recall Richard Strauss and Karol Szymanowski, with ethnic influences not unlike the folk-based idiom of Bela Bartok plus tendencies toward the rhythmic savagery of Igor Stravinsky.

"It's music of great quality and is incredibly well-written, not some weird music that people record just because it's obscure," said Pacifica violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson. "Even when the harmonic progressions are unusual, they're so instinctual they make sense when you start to analyze what he's doing. And when you're playing or hearing it, the music sounds completely natural."

Said Hamelin, "It's a single utterance without any kind of adherence to any preconceived form, but one that somehow holds together. He said 'I wrote what I heard.' "

"He said to me once, 'I don't know how I wrote that,' " recalls Severo. "But the more you hear it, the more you're amazed at how cleverly it's put together."

So it's another Hamelin discovery, one that started when he stumbled upon Ornstein scores as a teenager in his native Montreal, continued during his years living in Philadelphia, and came to fruition during the residencies he has had around the world, where he has a free hand in programming.

"I've always been naturally curious," he said, "and the piano literature is a vast field. Why not avail yourself to it?"


MUSIC

The Pacifica Quartet

8 p.m. Wednesday, the Kimmel's Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Tickets: $24

Information: www.pcms

concerts.org


dstearns@phillynews.com

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