Leo Ornstein is certainly not a household name. His fascinating story (as a Ukrainian immigrant escaping anti-Semitism, a darling of new music, and a relatively unknown teacher/composer for the next eight decades) only gives a glimpse of what Ornstein accomplished in his long life. And Marc-Andre Hamelin is determined to raise awareness of his work in a new CD with the Pacific Quartet.
The story of Leo Ornstein is one of the most remarkable in American music. By the time his family fled the anti-Semitic pogroms in their native Ukraine, the young pianist and composer had already studied under Glazunov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In New York, he made a successful recital debut in 1911 — and then became, within a few years, an enfant terrible of the avant-garde. Championing challenging contemporary composers and writing even wilder music of his own — “Suicide in an Airplane” and “Wild Men’s Dance” pioneered the use of tone clusters — he played to sold-out houses, and a biography was written of him when he was only 24. Then, in the 1920s, he simply walked away from his public career. He continued to teach and compose in relative obscurity almost until his death in 2002 at the age of 109. To the end, Ornstein remained a pragmatist. He once said that if his music were any good, it would survive; if not, it would be deservedly forgotten.
These days, a few musicians are doing their best to make sure that Ornstein is more and more remembered. The pianist Marc-André Hamelin, for one, is a longtime champion of his music. His new recording with the Pacifica Quartet presents two Ornstein works from the late 1920s, when the composer had abandoned his tone clusters for a more expressive style.