Piano Concerto (1925)

By Carol J. Oja

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Born in the Ukraine in 1892 and still living in Wisconsin, Leo Ornstein led this century’s first wave of immigration by European composers to the United States. Arriving here in 1907 at fifteen, he was joined in the next ten years by Ernest Bloch, Dane Rudhyar, and Edgard Varése. Three decades later a larger, more widely recognized crew–including Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Hindemith, and Milhaud–followed the same path. Ornstein studied piano with Bertha Fiering Tapper at New York’s Institute of Musical Art (now The Juilliard School), and she nurtured him intensely, especially in taking him on a couple of extended trips to Western Europe, where Ornstein first discovered the continent’s emerging radical tendencies in art. An acclaimed virtuoso, Ornstein made his New York debut in 1911 in a sober program that included the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin. But he was soon to acquire a much more flamboyant persona. That same year he started composing, and when his London debut took place in 1914, Ornstein established himself not only as a formidable keyboard artist but as a flaming futurist. Included on the program were his recent compositions, Wild Men’s Dance and Impressions of Notre-Dame, both of which quickly became notorious hard-hitting assaults on cherished traditions. Those compositions also appeared on an important series of recitals given by Ornstein at New York’s Bandbox Theatre in 1915. At the same time, he performed new works by Schoenberg, Satie, and Scriabin–figures whose music was then barely known in the United States. Waldo Frank, the renowned literary critic and shaper of American modernism, recalled after hearing Ornstein perform his compositions in the late 1910s that “a voluminous, cacophonous broadside of chords” erupted from the piano which threatened “to blow the instrument in the air and break the windows.” Like his contemporary Henry Cowell, Ornstein had a talent for making an explosive impact.

After nearly a decade as a prophet of the avant-garde in the United States, Ornstein suddenly retreated from the concert stage in 1920, just as New York was on the cusp of launching a group of home-grown modernists. In retrospect, it was an unfortunate decision, causing his music to be neglected by the very revolutionaries who benefited from his pathbreaking work. Ornstein settled down to teach piano at the Philadelphia Musical Academy and performed only occasionally–most notably for the premiere of his Piano Concerto in 1925 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. He went on to found the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1953.

A pyrotechnical dazzler, Ornstein’s Concerto was clearly written by a pianist with a physical passion for hammering every inch of the keyboard. From the first note, the writing for piano teems with raw virtuosity. Using a traditional three-movement concerto form, the work glories in chromatic runs and gapped scales, as well as chords built of fourths and fifths (no tame triads for Ornstein). Rapid-fire runs and octave gymnastics alternate within toccata-like sections and passages of static repetition. Defying the reputation of modernists for taking their art too seriously, this work brims with fun and wild daring. Like watching a high-diver, it leaves the listener breathless, wondering if a safe landing is possible.

Fifty years after its composition, in a letter to Oliver Daniel, who was then preparing a biography of Stokowski, Ornstein recalled rehearsals for the premiere of the Concerto and gave a sense of the challenge of performing a brand-new work:

I remember our meeting when Stokowski looked at the score. He had a funny little room at the head of a rickety stairway back of the stage of the old Academy of Music. He studied the score for a long time, then turned to me and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We eventually gave two performances in Philadelphia and one in New York. He must have realized the difficulty of the piece because instead of leaving the rehearsal for Friday morning, the day of the concert, he set the first rehearsal for the previous Monday. Then his professionalism was very evident. He turned to the men and indicated that there would have to be not only extra rehearsals but longer ones. He practically devoted the entire week’s work to the Concerto and gave a dazzling performance. It was entirely clear to me after working with him that under the surface appearance of great bravura there was a thoroughness that might almost be considered of an academic nature.

Ornstein’s Piano Concerto has lain dormant for seventy years. Like the whole of his output, it awaits fresh performances and renewed critical attention.