Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 68:7 April 4, 2002 p.16


Two Centenarian Pianist-Composers
Paid Tribute in Concert and on CD

Leo Ornstein and Paul Ben-Haim Honored

It has been something of a perennial joke over the last decade or so, as more and more people have discovered the Russian-American Jewish composer Leo Ornstein, noted his birthdate of 1892 or '93, and concluded that he must be dead -- but when did he die? The answer, incredible to report, was that until February 24, 2002, he was still alive, which makes him probably the longest-lived musician in recorded history.

Not even mentioned in William Austin's until-recently definitive Music in the 20th Century, Ornstein enjoyed a vogue from about 1913 to 1925, the year of his magnum opus, the Piano Concerto. He then pretty much disappeared from the public eye, teaching in Philadelphia until his retirement in 1953, though composing (mostly piano music) well into his nineties.

Writer Carl Van Vechten was one of his early champions, critic Olin Downes raved about the Concerto, and Ornstein's piano performances introduced U.S. audiences to major works of Ravel, Busoni, Scriabin, and Schoenberg. Yet only recently has his music been receiving the attention it deserves.

Stylistically it has always perplexed, because of its eclectic, yet organic, combination of impressionistic textures, extended chromaticism, modal exoticism, and energizing tone clusters, often all in the same piece.

[Featured in Sarah Cahill's "Other Minds" concert of March 8 in San Francisco, and in the second half of Marc-André Hamelin's March 26 recital at the Miller Theater in New York,] Ornstein's piano music was given a full evening at New York's Greenwich House March 21, performed by the unbeatable combination of Jeanne Golan and Christopher Oldfather. Golan soloed in some of Ornstein's earliest and latest compositions, bringing great expressiveness, sometimes slightly at the expense of control, to the mechanically demanding figurations. Oldfather's solos, in music of uncertain dates [in between], were executed with low-keyed almost off-hand wit.

Together they then essayed the aforementioned Concerto, in a two-piano arrangement by the composer, and wallopingly brought down the house. Why this brilliant work has been so rarely performed since the composer himself premiered it with Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra must rank as a mystery of the century.

[To learn more about Ornstein and his piano music, read Vivian Perlis in Notes, xxxi (1974-75), 735-50; Tom Darter's Cornell dissertation of 1979; or Carol Oja's latest book, Making Music Modern. There is also a fascinating series of interviews from 1989, available at and]

A contemporary of Ornstein, Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), has also been honored recently. Israel[i]-born New York pianist Gila Goldstein offers his piano music on a Centaur CD (CRC 2506).

Ben-Haim was born Paul Frankenberger in Munich, and served in World War I. Kapellmeister at the opera in Augsburg from 1924 until his dismissal by the Nazis in 1931, he emigrated to Palestine in 1933, changed his name to Ben-Haim (after the first name of his father), and became Israel's most esteemed composer to date, performed by the likes of Bernstein, Heifetz, Menuhin and Stokowski.

[Invited back to Munich for a 75th birthday concert, he was hit by a car there while crossing a street, an accident that left him half-paralyzed for the rest of his life.]

His piano music, while not as eclectic or as wild as Ornstein's (whose is?), nonetheless draws on a wide palette of influences, from Bach to Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók and Prokofiev, but with his own characteristic invocation and manipulation of orientalist modality. [The photo on the cover is much too cute, but] Gila Goldstein's interpretations are authoritative and dynamic, as well as sensitive.

--Leonard Lehrman

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