Sarah Cahill at Berkeley Arts Festival

Sarah Cahill gives moving piano tribute to Ornstein in Berkeley premiere

Well-known pianist and radio show host Sarah Cahill played a program dedicated to the later works of Leo Ornstein at Berkeley Arts Festival’s new temporary digs, on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley.

Most of the material at the Friday, Mar. 5 concert has never before been performed, and the concert coincides with Cahill’s soon-to-be-released CD of Ornstein’s later works.

Ornstein’s life reads like a Russian novel. The son of a cantor, he was born in 1893 in the Ukraine, quickly showing an aptitude for piano. By the age of 10 he was studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Glazunov, Shostakovich’s teacher. Three years later he and his family fled anti-Jewish pogroms for the United States, where he continued his musical studies.

Sarah CahillBy 18 he was performing well-known classical works to public acclaim, and by 21 he had begun to perform Schoenberg, Scriabin and his own “futurist” compositions. Though his work first provoked outrage, his audiences quickly grew to capacity, as his radical visions galvanized the musical world.

His early works championed tone-clusters, shocking audiences with the savage chords of Wild Men’s Dance (1913) and Suicide in an Airplane (1919).

By the 1920s he had fled notoriety and the stage for a quiet life of teaching, obscured for the next 50 years. But he continued to compose, stacking his lovely piano sonatas in drawers, until a resurgence of interest in him. His later work tempered violent chords with lyrical arpeggios and the French progressions of Ravel and Boulanger.

Cahill, whose career has tirelessly promoted those who inhabit the frontiers of music, visited Ornstein in 2001 in preparation for a New York concert of his work. He was then 107 years old, having weathered neo-classicism, tone rows, modernism, and even minimalism in pursuit of his own idiosyncratic voice. He died a year later, at 108, an extraordinary longevity coupled with an active creativity: he continued composing well into his nineties.

Playing a nine and a half foot Grotrian concert piano, a loan from J-B Piano that enlivened the experience, Cahill opened Friday’s concert with three Fantasy pieces composed in 1961. They are deliberate, with anchoring low notes and bright disconnected highs, wandering and musing. In Fantasy #2 the left is meditative and almost improvisational, slowly developing urgency in its deep bass under very high melancholia, a deep disconnect that draws one in.

His Fantasy #3, written in five sharps and full of difficult cross rhythms, develops discordant parallel chords with insistent highs over a rippling left hand. Cahill demonstrates a deep sensitivity for the phrasing despite few dynamic notations or clues left by Ornstein.

Her rendition of A Morning in the Woods develops from high rolling almost-accidental clusters of notes to something fiercer, as the left joins and counters. Repeated descending chords and an insistent ending would have been shocking from the enfant terrible who challenged propriety, but Ornstein was 78 when he wrote this, still passionate and subtle.

Three Tales was very Ravelian, but with grit. It moved into a second composition, emotions fluid and compelling, from a softly internal Arabic scale to a powerful density and back to dreamy finish.

The second half of the concert showcased Ornstein’s Metaphor series, short piano studies that blend the brevity of excercize with unique voices. Metaphor #1 was slow and demonstrative; #3 had high notes stumbling over a Zen reverie; #9 used elegant progressions for a beautiful seamless quality.

Cahill ended with To a Grecian Urn, more lyrical and mid-keyboard, with a modal Greek quality suggesting Ornstein’s early A la Chinoise, which combined simple pentatonic scales with swirling dissonance.

Sarah Cahill’s radio program can be heard every Sunday evening from 8 to 10 pm on KALW, 91.7 FM. She has numerous recordings, including definitive versions of Ravel, Cowell and Crawford on the New Albion label.

—Adam Broner

Sarah Cahill photo by Marianne la Rochelle

Originally published in the Piedmont Post.