Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Discovering a forgotten master, Leo Ornstein

Lately, one of my favorite albums is "Leo Ornstein: Piano Sonatas," a Naxos disc recorded by pianist Janice Weber.

Ornstein (1893-2002) was a composer and pianist who enjoyed fame early in the century as a modernist composer and as a performer who premiered many modern classical pieces. He largely quit performing in the mid-1920s and opened a music school in Philadelphia in the 1930s, which he operated with his musician wife until 1958. He continued to compose for decades without attempting to attract attention to his work and he was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when the distinguished music historian Vivian Perlis tracked him down.

I had discovered Ornstein through a Gloria Cheng recording, "Piano Dance," a collection of short piano pieces by many different 20th century composers. I was fascinated by Ornstein's "Waltz No. 7." I had no idea who he was. Eventually, I got around to looking for more of his music, and downloaded the Weber album from Emusic.

The Weber recording is a mixture of very modernist pieces such as "Suicide in an Airplane" (written about 1918) and the "Seventh Piano Sonata," written in the 1980s, with very melodic pieces. Other pieces, such as the "Fourth Piano Sonata," are very melodic. What's consistent is the high level of quality of the work. There's always something interesting going on. Some of his other work is available on CD.

More information about Ornstein is available at the official site, which is maintained by Ornstein's son and grandson. The site includes a large library of downloadable MP3 files of his music, including music which isn't available anywhere else.

Weber, by the way, is an interesting person in her own right. She maintains a dual career as a musician with adventurous tastes and a novelist who has published five novels so far with titles such as "Hot Ticket" and "Devil's Food." Some of the novels are about a concert violinist and secret agent named Leslie Frost. In "Hot Ticket," she finds the body of a fellow secret agent after playing the White House. Weber has played the White House, too, and has a photo on her web site to prove it.

Perlis' dramatic story of how she persuaded Ornstein to speak to her and rescued decades of music manuscripts from being eaten by mice in a New Hampshire barn is available here.

1 comment:

rchrd said...

There is also a recording of an Ornstein Centenary that was broadcast on KPFA in 1992:

Composer-pianist Leo Ornstein visits with Charles Amirkhanian on the occasion of his 100th birthday! Severo Ornstein, the son of the composer, is in the studio with Amirkhanian to provide commentary, while Leo Ornstein and another near centenarian, Nicolas Slonimsky, are interviewed by phone. The discussion centers on Ornstein's early history as a Wunderkind pianist in the 1910s, and his enormous output of music over nine decades of composing. Slonimsky details a recent revival of Ornstein's music in his native Russia and Severo talks of his efforts to get Ornstein's music back into print.

You can find it at:

And more information at

Richard Friedman
Other Minds