You may have heard of Fanny Mendelssohn’s brother Felix, but she was a great composer in her own right. Today, for International Women’s Day, the BBC finally premieres her “Easter Sonata.”
1920s Berlin was a wild place, and two of its wildest celebrities were descendants of the German Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn. The biography, “‘Is There Anything More Beautiful Than Desire?’: The Siblings Eleonora and Francesco von Mendelssohn,” is a diverting look at two arts madcaps. Its author, Thomas Blubacher, explains how Eleonora, an actress, dissipated her family’s collection of Old Master paintings to fund her amorous and artistic affairs. She sold an El Greco to pay for a theatrical tour by one lover, the Austrian Jewish director Max Reinhardt, and, to woo another paramour, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, she took a painting by the 18th century Venetian Francesco Guardi off her wall and handed it to the maestro.
Approaching springtime should make New York-area music lovers in search of Yiddishkeit look beyond the obvious choice of Felix Mendelssohn, famed composer of the “Spring Song.” On March 20 at The Austrian Cultural Forum, ardent modernist songs by Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky will be performed by mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson and soprano Katharine Dain with pianist Thomas Bagwell.
Classical music events both before and after Purim (on March 8) focus on dialogues redolent of Yiddishkeit, as New Yorkers and others will discover. On February 10 at Weill Recital Hall pianist Lia Jensen-Abbott will perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s “The Year,” a work inspired by the composer’s relationship with her brother Felix. The Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti described his 1951 “Sonata for solo cello” as: “[a] dialogue. Because it’s like two people, a man and a woman, conversing.” Ligeti’s sonata converses on February 10 at Bargemusic with cellist Nicholas Canellakis.
As temperatures climb, some New Yorkers gather their families and head for the countryside, while others remain en ville to seek similar experiences in concerts redolent of Yiddishkeit. One such is a May 26 recital at The Austrian Cultural Forum in which Austrian soprano Ursula Langmayr performs a selection of Gustav Mahler’s outdoors-inspired songs, accompanied by pianist Russell Ryan. Instead of strenuous exercise in rural settings, music lovers can experience virtuosic derring-do in the form of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Variations sérieuses” played on June 1 at Bargemusic by pianist Victoria Korchinskaya-Kogan, whose grandparents were the mighty Ukrainian Jewish violinists Leonid Kogan and Yelizaveta Gilels.
Once Hosni Mubarak is liberated from his heavy chains of office, he’ll have time to kick back and appreciate some of the new classical CDs on offer. And, as many Egyptians have taken time to point out, he’s a big fan of Yiddishkeit.
While Hanukkah preparations and aftermath can overshadow every other human activity in December, ‘tis also the season for classical concerts, especially although by no means exclusively, in the New York area. These can include much Yiddishkayt, despite the seeming omnipresence of Handel’s “Messiah.”
“Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me,” a recent DVD release from Kultur International Films, reproduces a 2009 BBC TV film by UK-born writer Sheila Hayman about her eminent ancestor, the composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Putting my own and others’ sincere bicentenary panegyrics aside, Felix Mendelssohn wrote not just admittedly splendid works, but also sugary Victorian church schmaltz. More than simply belonging to an assimilated German Jewish family which baptized its children, Felix composed pieces which appear to stodgily embrace his newfound Christian identity, although some scholars continue to disagree to what extent this occurs.