Every piece of music tells a story

An intellectual pianist in the best sense, Jonathan Biss has a probing and poetic musical mind wedded to a playful, spontaneous temperament. Biss, 34, is also a musician who craves performing in public. So much so that even though he wisely canceled a concert in April with the New York Philharmonic — during which he was scheduled to play Brahms' mammoth D-minor concerto — after he slipped and broke his left arm, he kept two concert dates less than a month later with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

At the second concert I attended, Biss gave an exquisite, classically balanced account of Mozart’s complex Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Remarkably, Biss then offered a generous encore, “Abschied” (“Farewell”) from Schumann’s “Waldszenen” (“Forest Scenes”) — a memorably touching performance, reinforcing his reputation as the foremost Schumann interpreter of his generation.

“I’m just counting my blessings,” Biss said by phone from the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. “I was incredibly lucky with the injury not ending up being all that bad, and then having fantastic medical care. It’s been six weeks since I’ve felt as much as a twinge.”

Such luck bodes well, because Biss is scheduled to give a recital of works by Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Oct. 16. 

Biss grew up in a Jewish musical family in Bloomington, Ind., where his parents — mother, Miriam Fried, a Romanian-born Israeli violinist, and father, Paul Biss, a violinist and conductor — were professors at Indiana University. Biss’ paternal grandmother was Russian cellist Raya Garbousova, whose playing was reportedly admired by Pablo Casals. His maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

“I’m not remotely observant,” Biss said of his heritage. “If I was forced to pick between musician and Jewish as adjectives to describe myself, I would obviously say musician. But in ways that are so basic — I can’t even put them in words — I am a Jewish person. It’s just part of my cultural being. It’s clearly who I am.”

Coming out of an immersive family musical environment, it’s not surprising Biss sees an intimate connection between music and language, a link he said he’s been thinking about even more now that he is on the piano faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, his alma mater.

“Any piece of music worth listening to, there’s a narrative and grammar,” Biss said. “The intonation of the musical sentence reflects that — pausing for emphasis, moving ahead for emphasis. And you have to articulate for emphasis. Without thinking about it, we all inflect phrases, and that’s a huge part of music making.”

If ever a piece of music tests an interpreter’s ability to keep the story focused and emotionally coherent, it’s Schumann’s mercurial “Kreisleriana” (1838), which Biss will perform during the second half of his Broad Stage program. A set of eight untitled fantasies, “Kreisleriana” is just the kind of challenge Biss revels in, from its tumultuous in medias res beginning to its disarming intimacy, childlike innocence and spellbinding mystery.

“When people say that Schumann’s music is poetic, it’s a way of saying that it’s music where how he says something is as important, or more important, than what he says,” Biss said. “I’m not saying there isn’t any of that in Beethoven, but Beethoven is so relentlessly concerned with taking you from place to place, he doesn’t leave himself space to find these nooks and crannies, where in Schumann, the nooks and crannies are so often the best part.”

For Biss, the interpreter’s most important job is to make listeners understand there is a reason why one event follows another. “Sometimes the sequence is strange, seemingly irrational on the surface,” Biss said, “but even irrationality has a reason.”

Biss said he also thinks a lot about the sequence of works in his recital programs. For the first half of his Broad Stage recital, he’s programmed Mozart’s Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457 and Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 533/494 with Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces” in between.

“The way one hears music is hugely affected by context,” Biss said. “The quality that binds these three very different composers is that they are all mercurial. Mozart writes temperamental music, which comes from him being, in essence, a theatrical or opera composer. The characters change their mood frequently. He can go from tempestuous to nostalgic, sometimes with finger-snapping speed. If anyone else did it, it would seem stage-managed.”

For Biss, the link to Schumann in the program’s second half is clear. “Schumann may have worshipped Beethoven, but temperamentally he was much closer to Mozart,” Biss said. “And with Schoenberg, there’s this unrelenting intensity, but his ‘Six Little Pieces’ are so tiny and evanescent, with the distillation of an idea — a feeling comes and almost before you know it, it’s gone.”

Although he’s currently midway through the process of recording Beethoven’s complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas, a project Biss said may take him until he’s 40, the pianist still finds time to perform new music. In April 2014, he premiered Bernard Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony, and his latest endeavor, “Beethoven/5,” involves the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned five composers — Timo Andres, Sally Beamish, Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw and Brett Dean — to write new piano concertos for Biss, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s five piano concertos.  

Andres recently sent Biss the first movement of his score, which takes off from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It will be paired with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra program in November.  

“The idea was to take as wide a range of composers to demonstrate that whoever you are or whatever your compositional style, you’re going to have something to say about Beethoven,” Biss said. “That’s just the nature of Beethoven’s music and his place in the musical world.” 

Meanwhile, Biss is busy teaching, recording, adding to his popular online music course “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas” (three more lectures were appended to the site in May) and working on Andres’ partial score while awaiting the rest with “a mix of elation, terror and confusion.” 

“One of my great failings as a musician is that I don’t compose,” Biss said. “I don’t have any ability in that direction. I feel I would understand something more of the process if I did. I hear these great works — a Beethoven string quartet or ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ — and I always think, ‘What was the first idea that led to this?’ And it’s not a question I can begin to answer.”

Biss said that’s one reason he’s so proud of the “Beethoven/5” project. “My greatest hope is that the pieces have a life beyond me,” Biss said. “Playing new music — working on music that has no performance history — forces me to think in a different way about how the creation process happened.”

For now, Biss said he’s looking forward to his Broad Stage recital. “There’s something about my need to share with other people, and I really mean need. It’s wonderful to play privately in a room and feel free and uninhibited, but something happens when you actually connect to an audience, which can be total magic.”

Jonathan Biss plays Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16. For more information, call  (310) 434-3200 or visit ” target=”_blank”>dstage.com

Alice Herz-Sommer, oldest known Holocaust survivor, dies at 110

Alice Herz-Sommer, the 110-year-old Holocaust survivor and concert pianist whose life was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, has died.

Herz-Sommer, who was believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor and was still playing the piano, died Sunday morning in London.

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” the 38-minute film about her life, is up for best short documentary at the Academy Awards to be handed out next month.

The film showed her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality despite all the upheavals and horrors she faced in life.

“I know there is bad in the world, but I look for the good,” she told JTA in a brief telephone interview recently, and “music is my life, music is God.”

[Related: At 110, holocaust survivor finds sustenance in music]

Trained as a pianist from childhood, Herz-Sommer made her concert debut as a teenager, then married and had a son.

In 1943, however, Herz-Sommer and her husband, Leopold, and their 6-year old son Raphael (Rafi), were transported to the Nazi model concentration camp Theresienstadt. Her husband died in the Nazi camp, but Herz-Sommer became a member of the camp orchestra and gave more than 100 recitals while protecting her son.

Liberated in 1945, Herz-Sommer and her son returned to Prague but four years later left for Israel. There she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir, while her son became a concert cellist.

After 37 years in Israel she followed her son to London in 1986. She remained in London even after her son died 15 years later at the age of 65.

At 110, holocaust survivor finds sustenance in music

During her lifespan of 110 years, Alice Herz-Sommer has been an accomplished concert pianist, teacher, prisoner in Theresienstadt, wife and mother, and now she is the star of an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Even more remarkable has been her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality in the face of all the upheavals and horrors the 20th century could throw at her.

The 38-minute documentary, “The Lady in No. 6: Music Saved My Life,” opens in Prague, where Alice – everyone, from presidents on down calls her Alice – first saw the light of day on Nov. 26, 1903. She was born into an upper-class Jewish family, steeped in literature and classical music.

A friend and frequent visitor was “Uncle Franz,” last name Kafka, as well as composer Gustav Mahler and other luminaries.

Trained as a pianist from childhood on, Alice made her concert debut as a teenager, married, had a son and seemed destined for the pleasant, cultured life of a prosperous Middle European.

Everything changed in 1939, when Hitler, tearing up the 1938 Munich accord, marched his troops into Prague, and with them all his anti-Semitic prohibitions. Alice’s public concert career was over, but the family managed to hang on, living an increasingly restrictive existence in Prague.

In 1943, Alice, her mother, husband and six-year old son Raphael (Rafi) were loaded on the transport to Theresienstadt. The fortress town, some 30 miles from Prague, was touted by Nazi propaganda as the model ghetto, “The Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” with its own orchestra, theater group and even soccer teams.

With the full extent of the Holocaust still largely unknown, it was typical, not only of Alice but most European Jews, that she took her deportation with relative equanimity. “If they have an orchestra in Terezin (the Czech name of the town), how bad can it be?” she recalled herself saying.

Alice soon found out, as both her mother and husband perished in the “model ghetto.” Alice, as in so many other times in her life, was saved by her musical gifts. She became a member of the camp orchestra and gave more than 100 recitals.

But her main focus was on her son, Rafi, trying to make his life bearable, to escape the constant hunger and to infuse him with her own hopefulness. “What she did reminded me of Roberto Benigni in the Italian film ‘Life is Beautiful,’ ” said Malcolm Clarke, director of “Lady in No. 6.” “He plays an Italian Jew who pretends to his young son that life in the camp is some kind of elaborate game for the boy’s special amusement,”

Liberated in 1945, Alice and Rafi returned first to Prague, then in 1949 emigrated to Israel, where she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir. Rafi became a concert cellist.

Alice said she loved her 37 years living in Israel, but when Rafi, her only child, decided to move to London, she went with him. A few years later, Rafi died at 65, but the mother remained in her small flat, No. 6, in a North London apartment house.

Almost all of the film was shot over a two-year period inside the flat, dominated by an old Steinway piano on which Alice played four hours each day, to the enjoyment of her neighbors.

Originally, the filmmakers considered using “Dancing Under the Gallows” as the film’s title, but then changed it to “The Lady in No. 6.”

It was a wise decision, for the film is anything but a grim Holocaust documentary. It is dominated by Alice’s unfailing affirmation of life, usually accompanied by gusts of laughter. However, her health and speech have declined in recent months, and she doesn’t give any more interviews.

But in a brief phone conversation, conducted mainly in German, she attributed her outlook partially to having been born with optimistic genes and a positive attitude. “I know there is bad in the world, but I look for the good,” she said. “Mmusic is my life; music is god,”

At 104, Alice took up the study of philosophy and likes to quote the saying by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

The film is peppered with such observations, which, coming from anyone else, might be considered a sign of Candide-like naiveté.

A very small sampling of her sayings includes: “Wherever you look, there is beauty everywhere,” “After a century on the keyboard, I still look for perfection,” “I’m so old because I use my brain constantly. The brain is the body’s best medicine,” and “A sense of humor keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.”

Many of these observations are recorded by Caroline Stoessinger in her book “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor” (Spiegel and Grau, a Random House imprint), which forms the basis for the film and her on-screen interviews.

Stoessinger, a New York concern pianist, interviewed Alice and her friends over a period of 15 years, and she became an ardent admirer of her subject.

“Alice doesn’t complain; she doesn’t look back, she has no anxieties,” Stoessinger said. “Even in Theresienstadt, she never doubted that she would survive.”

Stoessinger also convinced Clarke to direct the film. Clarke won an Oscar in 1989 for his short documentary “You Don’t Have to Die,” and an Oscar nomination for “Prisoner of Paradise,” which also focused on life and death in Theresienstadt.

Producer Reed, like Clarke, was reluctant to take on the new assignment. “We asked ourselves, who is going to watch another Holocaust documentary with a really old lady? Fred Bohbot, our executive producer, Malcolm and I have really been stunned by the enthusiastic reaction to the film.”

Asked about the film’s budget, Reed responded, “About 35 cents, a bus token and bits of old chewing gum.”

Both Clarke and Reed are British-born Canadians. Neither is traditionally Jewish, but, as Reed put it, “I am not a Jew, but I’m Jewish.”


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“The Lady in No. 6” open Feb. 14 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles for a one-week run, together with the four other nominated short documentaries.

Technique, sensitivity the keys to pianist Bronfman’s success

When Yefim Bronfman performs Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with conductor Lionel Bringuier and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on July 31, he will be tackling what is known as a real “finger buster,” a term used for a work that is awkwardly conceived for a pianist’s hands or physically demanding. The Brahms concerto is both.

For Bronfman, who is celebrated for his virtuoso technique and musical sensitivity, the epic difficulty of Brahms’ score is pretty much business as usual, although something unusual happened during a Berkeley recital last October: While performing the final two pages of Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata, Bronfman literally busted a finger.

“I felt a very sharp pain,” the pianist said by phone from his apartment in New York. “Luckily, it was the last piece on the program. I finished the recital and managed to play two encores.”

Bronfman traveled to Los Angeles the next day, then straight into a rehearsal of Bartok’s Third Concerto with the Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. “I realized there was a problem,” he said.

A doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center gave Bronfman the bad news. He had broken the fourth finger of his left hand, and it would take four to six weeks to heal. Concerts would have to be canceled. But Bronfman was determined not to miss an upcoming European tour on which he was scheduled to play all three Bartok concertos with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. So he did what any driven musician would do: He went to another doctor.

“I did not miss a single concert in Europe,” he said. And, since breaking his finger, he’s also performed Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata. Was there any trepidation when he came to those last two pages of the breathtakingly powerful finale?

“What is scary about this piece is the middle section of the last movement,” Bronfman said. “That’s when you feel the pain in your hands because it’s so grotesque and with such gigantic leaps there. You cannot take it easy at this point. It’s the most wonderful moment of the whole piece.”

Bronfman clearly likes challenges. Within the last five years, he’s performed premieres of demanding concertos by Salonen and Magnus Lindberg. Both composers have added to the pressure by delivering their scores late. “When trying to learn the Lindberg, I realized some of the passages are really unplayable,” Bronfman said. “Did he think I was like a piano machine that could play anything?”

But Bronfman has sympathy for composers who try to broaden the scope of piano technique. “When Prokofiev wrote his piano sonatas, people said they were impossible. But then came [Sviatoslav] Richter and [Emil] Gilels, and now everybody plays them.”

Few living pianists get the honor of being immortalized in a major novel by an esteemed author. In Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” (2000), the narrator attends a rehearsal at Tanglewood and says: “Then Bronfman appears … He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt. … He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing.”

For Bronfman, Roth’s dramatic tribute came as a surprise. “I was amazed at his description, but I had no idea who Philip Roth was,” he said. The pianist laughed, recalling Roth’s unflattering detail about his being a “sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew.” The two artists have since become good friends.

Surprisingly, Bronfman, who is 54, didn’t learn Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto until 1988. “I recommend that every pianist learn some difficult pieces while they are still in their teens,” he said. “For instance, I learned Brahms’ First Concerto when I was 15, and it’s always much easier than the Second, where it takes a certain stretch in your hands and technique to bring it off effortlessly.”

Bronfman said he doesn’t want audiences to see the difficulties: “I put the technical challenges behind me as soon as possible so I can focus on the concerto’s grandeur and passion, intimacy and beauty,” he said. “And there’s the humor of the last movement. It’s Brahms at his most mature and divine.”

Bronfman also avoids distracting mannerisms at the keyboard.

“My greatest idols are the ones who played with poker faces and made great music,” Bronfman said. “Heifetz was such a genius. He didn’t lift an eyebrow. The same with Horowitz and Rubinstein. I pay for a ticket to hear music. If I want to see a dance, I go to the ballet.”

Born and raised in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Bronfman said his arrival in Israel in 1973 marked a turning point in his young life.

“I was about 14 years old, and Israel was where I decided I wanted to be a musician,” Bronfman said. “Within months of arriving, I heard some of the greatest musicians. Everybody was coming through Tel Aviv—Casals, Stern, Bernstein. Everybody.”

Bronfman, who holds dual citizenship, returns to Israel quite often, both to visit his older sister, Elizabeth, a violinist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and to perform with the orchestra there.

Being an Israeli and Jewish has deeply informed his life and work: “My mother is a Holocaust survivor, and my father was in the military fighting Germans during the war,” Bronfman said. “I’m very aware of the past of the Jewish people, particularly my mother, who is a direct victim of those horrible times. She was 13 when the war started. Most of her family got killed. She hid in the forest from the Germans.”

Bronfman added: “It makes a difference. Also, living in the Soviet Union, where Jews definitely felt like second-class citizens.”

In addition to his Bowl performance, Bronfman is scheduled to perform a solo recital in January at Walt Disney Concert Hall. “I’m going to try to play Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata without breaking my finger,” he said.

Yefim Bronfman performs at the Hollywood Bowl on July 31 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit hollywoodbowl.com.

Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

Jazzman Frishberg charts own tuneful territory

One of the great joys of L.A. jazz, from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, was the blossoming of jazz pianist Dave Frishberg into a singer-songwriter of quirky, yet warmly satisfying, material. His tunes navigated a pathway that sidestepped melodramatic cabaret material on one hand and self-absorbed pop music on the other. Frishberg created a ” title=”My Attorney Bernie lyrics”>My Attorney Bernie“: “He’s got Dodger season boxes and an office full of foxes, it’s amazing all the different things your average guy might need a lawyer for.”

Frishberg’s songs are jazz-informed, yet modeled on pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop standards, written by supreme tunesmiths like Alec Wilder and Frank Loesser. While working as a pianist in New York, Frishberg struggled to find his voice as a songwriter, while trying to find a place in the market for himself.

Speaking from his home in Portland, Frishberg said, “When I started, I wanted to write songs that would be recorded; I wanted to be part of that world. But I couldn’t really figure the market out.

“Popular music changed with rock music and I didn’t want any part of that; that was for kids. Then the folk music took over and that was amateurish. But I rediscovered a place for myself in popular music when Brazilian music came in. Those bossa nova songs were so beautiful and graceful. That music showed me there was still a place for beautiful songs.”

His break came in ’71, and it brought him west.

“I’d lived in New York for 15 years. I was getting divorced and I was ready for something new. I had begun writing a couple of years earlier with no success at all. A friend of mine invited me to come to L.A. and write for a TV show he was producing, ‘The Funny Side.’ Nothing I’d written was notable up to that point but I came to L.A. as a songwriter. They wanted a production number on the topic of the week: newspapers or leisure or something like that. I was pleased to learn I could do such a thing. The discipline was good for me and the deadlines were murder. What I did was known as ‘special material,’ which was on its way out at the time.”

The show was short-lived, but Frishberg found himself transplanted into the L.A. jazz community. He played in trumpeter Bill Berry’s Big Band. “That was the best Ellington tribute band around,” Frishberg asserted, “because everybody on the band was an Ellington fan and really knew how the music was supposed to sound.”

Another trumpeter, Jack Sheldon, not only employed Frishberg as a pianist, but also jump-started his career as a solo performer. “I probably played a hundred nights with Jack,” Frishberg said. “He was very generous about giving me the spotlight. At rehearsals I would sing a few things I wrote, not expecting anything. Then on the bandstand, Jack would suddenly say, ‘Dave Frishberg’s going to sing one of his songs….’ I was terrified.”

There’s a long tradition in jazz of instrumentalists who sing, stretching back at least as far as Louis Armstrong. Frishberg is certainly no polished vocalist, but like Bob Dylan, his phrasing and rhythm are absolutely the best for his own songs.

“I started singing because I had to make demos of my songs and I couldn’t find singers to sing them the right way. I didn’t like the way other people sang my songs. I found that I had to write for my own vocal range,” he said.

For stellar interpretations of Frishberg songs, refer to Rosemary Clooney’s “Sweet Kentucky Ham” and Sue Raney’s rendition of the love ballad, “You Are There.”

His album “Quality Time” (Sterling, 1994) saw Frishberg offer political commentary in the song, “My Country Used To Be”: “My country used to be famous for quality, we led the way. Now we buy overseas. Then beg the Japanese, to buy some products, please, made in U.S.A….”

Reverting to type, Frishberg acts as accompanist to vocalist Rebecca Kilgore on their new collaborative album, “Why Fight The Feeling?” (Arbors). It’s a collection of songs by Frank Loesser, whom Frishberg sees as “the first songwriter I wanted to emulate.” It’s easy to consider the casual grace of a Loesser song like “I Believe in You” and see an antecedent for Frishberg’s “I Can’t Take You Nowhere.”

So what’s Frishberg working on these days? “I’m employed, so to speak, at work on a musical. It’s called ‘Vitriol and Violets: Tales from the Algonquin Round Table.’ It’s all very literary, of course, and it’s a big challenge, trying to imagine what Dorothy Parker or Alexander Woolcott were thinking. I’m back to writing ‘special material’ and it requires that I get into character. It’s hard for me to think of what to write about on my own, until someone gives me an assignment and a deadline. And a check, of course.”

Dave Frishberg will perform Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. as part of the Parlor Performances series at Steinway Hall at Fields Piano, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 4713979 or email Jeannine@FrankEntertainment.com

Botox-aided pianist: Oscar documentary nod a ‘gas’

Leon Fleischer was 37 and considered among the world’s top pianists when he noticed the sluggishness in his right hand in 1963. Over several months, his fourth and fifth fingers progressively curled under, requiring an enormous effort to extend them.

At the time, the pianist was preparing for a European tour with the esteemed Cleveland Orchestra — but conductor George Szell confronted him after a few days of rehearsal.

“He said, ‘You can’t go on like this,’ and I agreed with him,” Fleischer recalled.

“The gods know how to hit you when they want to hit you,” he added. “I was a musicmaker who felt he could no longer make music. And I was absolutely devastated.”

It took more than three decades of searching for a cure (during which he continued to perform the limited left-hand repertoire) for Fleischer to get a diagnosis — the neurological disorder focal dystonia — and an unlikely remedy: Botox. But when the 78-year-old was finally able to set out on a major concert tour in 2005, he once again earned rave reviews — for playing with both hands.

He is back on tour again, this time with violinist Jaime Laredo, with whom he will perform Schubert sonatas at Royce Hall at UCLA on Feb. 24. The following evening, Fleischer will attend the Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre, because a film about his life, “Two Hands,” is a nominee in the short documentary category (see sidebar).

“It’s a bit of a gas,” he said of the Oscar nomination.

As for his ability to play with two hands: “Every performance is a celebration,” he said. “It’s a state of ecstasy, of grace.”

Speaking by telephone, the Baltimore-based pianist is less emotional than jovial, preferring to crack jokes and to tell pithy stories than to dwell on his ailment. With relish, he described how his fiercely ambitious mother, a Polish immigrant, educated herself, in part, by listening to classical music, which “to her represented the finer aspects of life.”

“I became a [musician] because she gave me two choices: to either become the first Jewish president of the United States or a great concert pianist,” he added.

Fortunately the musical option jibed with Fleischer’s own desire to play the piano. He was fascinated by his older brother’s lessons on the family’s boxy, used upright, and he began his own studies at age 4. He said he survived his first recital, at 8, despite his mother’s particular form of mishegoss (craziness).

“As I walked from the wings, she snatched my glasses off my face, because glasses were a sign of imperfection,” he recalled with a laugh. “I was shocked, but I didn’t have time to do anything about it, because I was so involved with trying to find the piano ahead of me.”

Even so, the boy’s talent caught the eye of renowned teacher Artur Schnabel, and the following summer Fleischer found himself living and studying with Schnabel at his villa on Lake Como in Italy. Those lessons came to an end when Il Duce began implementing anti-Semitic policies around 1938.

“Mussolini made an exception for my teacher, but Schnabel said, ‘Thank you very much, no,’ and immigrated to the United States,” Fleischer recalled.

In the fall, Fleischer’s father sold his San Francisco hat shops and took a New York City factory job so that the family could relocate near Schnabel’s new home on Central Park West.

The move paid off: Fleischer made his Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Philharmonic when he was 16 and went on to become “one of the darlings of all the great conductors,” “60 Minutes” noted in 2005. “[He] might have become the most famous American pianist of all time. But … like a hero from a Greek tragedy, he was struck down in his prime.”

Fleischer’s dystonia not only prevented him from playing the standard piano repertoire, it deteriorated to the point where he could no longer write or feed himself with his right hand.

In the midst of a deep depression, Fleischer divorced his wife, grew a ponytail and a beard and bought a motor scooter that he drove recklessly, “putting myself at risk any number of times,” he says.

He felt his life was over until he realized his connection was to the music, not to playing with both hands. Fleischer sought out repertoire written exclusively for the left hand, threw himself into teaching at Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory and conducted orchestras, such as the Annapolis Symphony. He also tested his right hand daily and sought to improve his condition via techniques such as EST (Erhard Seminars Training), hypnosis, biofeedback and Rolfing.

Recovery eluded him until the mid-1990s, when doctors finally gave him the diagnosis of dystonia — a condition related to Parkinson’s disease — and shot the then-experimental treatment of Botox into his forearm. After more than three decades of dormancy, he was suddenly able to play again with his right hand.Yet even as Fleischer prepared for his upcoming Los Angeles concert, he said he remains far from cured.

“When I play, a good 70 to 80 percent of my concentration is in the positioning of my hand, and being able to use it, and only 30 percent on the music, which is the wrong focus and quite distracting,” he explained.

To compensate, Fleischer carefully selects repertoire within his technical range. “Mozart running scales are difficult for me, while Schubert is good for my hands, because the work is more chordal,” he said by way of example.

Schubert is also good for his psyche: “There’s a directness, an honesty of emotion that’s very pure,” he said. “It’s not whiny or self-pitying. It has much sentiment, but it’s not sentimental.”

Fleischer could well be describing himself.

For tickets to the Feb. 24 recital at UCLA, call (310) 825-2101. “Two Hands” will screen at the concert. The Oscars will be televised Feb. 25 on ABC.

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, April 29

Sure, they’re renown writers, but it seems what everyone really wants to be is a rockstar. Columnist Dave Barry, novelists Stephen King, Mitch Albom and Amy Tan and cartoonist Matt Groening, among other artists known for their literary talents, went so far as to form a band several years ago. The Rock Bottom Remainders performs a few times a year in benefit concerts, and tonight they’re at Royce Hall. The show is called “Besides the Music: Conversation, Debate and yes, Music,” and raises money for 826LA.

8 p.m. $25-$50 (general), $200 (VIP reception). Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood. R.S.V.P., (310) 825-2101.

Sunday, April 30

The City of West Hollywood’s cultural programming today includes a free concert of Jewish songs performed in Hebrew, English and Russian. Embracing the Russian Jewish heritage of many WeHo residents, the city celebrates with traditional songs performed by local artists.

5-7 p.m. Free. Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-6826.

Monday, May 1

For those who need a little Bar-Chu on-the-go, religious school music teacher Idan Irelander, of Temple Emanuel in Andover, Mass., and the temple’s Youth Chorus have recently come together to record “Shacharit Inplugged.” The CD features morning prayers like Ashrei and the Shema recorded with a live and spirited sound.

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Tuesday, May 2

On view at two local galleries are photographs offering extreme perspectives on our world by Jill Greenberg and Lisa Eisner. Head to Paul Kopeikin Gallery for Greenberg’s “End Times” to view profoundly upsetting images of babies crying. “The children I photographed were not harmed in any way,” Greenberg said in a press release. Toddlers are wont to cry, Greenberg noted, saying “It reminded me of helplessness and anger I feel about our current political and social situation.” After Greenberg, head to M+B Gallery for more uplifting work by Eisner. “A Butterfly Fluttered By: Photographs of the West” offers beautiful saturated color photographs celebrating the spirit of western states from Wyoming to California.

Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-0765. Through July 8.
M+B, 612 Almont Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 550-0050. Through May 27.

Wednesday, May 3

Better than a book signing is a book signing with booze. The vino will flow at tonight’s event promoting former Journal singles columnist J.D. (Jeff) Smith’s new book on wine collecting, “The Best Cellar.” Get some tips, and get a designated driver.

Free with book purchase. Wally’s Wine and Spirits, 2107 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. Space is limited. R.S.V.P., (310) 475-0606, ext. 122.

Thursday, May 4

It pays to get canned tonight. Celebrating the nonworking man this evening is performer and writer Annabel Gurwitch, with her latest installment of “Fired!” monologues. This new one — aptly titled “Fired Again!” — features a revolving cast of actors and writers, and proof of unemployment gets you in for $15.

May 3-7. $15-$45. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 827-0889.

Friday, May 5

Just arrived on the West Coast is the new musical “I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin.” The song-and-dance feel-good production celebrates Berlin music, weaving 64 of his songs through the story of an old piano’s life.

Through May 7. $25-$50. Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. (562) 856-1999.

Classical Musicians’ Volume Decreases

The conductor raises his baton. On cue, 73 young musicians launch into a heartfelt rendition of “Sabbath Fantasies,” a piece that weaves together snatches of Jewish liturgy and folk tunes.

This is the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (LAYO), a 6-year-old ensemble sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple to encourage the next generation of music lovers. The players, all between the ages of 8 and 18, represent a wide range of cultures and ethnicities.

But because the orchestra rehearses on Sundays on the temple’s grounds, it especially attracts young musicians from Jewish homes. The LAYO is one route through which Jewish community leaders are trying to keep alive the noble tradition that links Jews with classical music.

Russell Steinberg, who conducts the LAYO and composed “Sabbath Fantasies,” is at the forefront of this effort. As founder and director of the Stephen Wise Music Academy, he also works to provide music education for all students at Stephen Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.

Another pioneer is Bryna Vener, who for 28 years has led Sinai Akiba Academy’s popular after-school orchestral program. But many other Jewish day schools that offer elective music programs are struggling to keep them afloat.

Perhaps it’s a matter of scheduling. Students today face mounting academic obligations that leave many feeling hard-pressed to take on an instrument.

Still, Steinberg suspects also that many Jewish parents view classical music as an outmoded form of entertainment. Because they themselves prefer the likes of Pink Floyd to Prokofiev, they are less inclined to push traditional music lessons on reluctant offspring.

There was a time when Jews dominated the ranks of American orchestras, and superstars like Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern were musical ambassadors to the world. The fact that today’s master Jewish musicians tend to have proteges with names like Yo Yo Ma, Kyung-Wha Chung and Lang Lang is one hint that for many Jews, classical music is no longer a top priority. This gives Steinberg an important goal: “I’m trying to build a parent culture that values music.”

Why in recent years have so many American Jews sidestepped classical music?

One answer is that most 21st century American Jews are far removed from the immigrant experience of their forebearers. The Jews who came from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as those who arrived as refugees after World War II, brought with them a passion for music.

Nostalgic for the culture they left behind, they flocked to concerts and regarded soloists as heroes. Their love of good music dovetailed with eagerness for success in their new homeland, making them hugely ambitious for their American-born children.

Sylvia Kunin Eben, 91, was raised in a Jewish enclave in South Central Los Angeles, where “everybody we knew had a piano. Even if you couldn’t afford lessons, you had a piano.”

Eben’s Russian-immigrant father somehow scraped together 90 cents for her weekly piano lesson. In return, she was expected to be a prodigy. Although stage fright derailed her performing career, she went on to create award-winning music programs for television.

A generation later, immigrant Jewish parents were still avidly steering their children toward classical music. Music educator Neal Brostoff is the American-born son of a couple who left England for Los Angeles in 1936. He began concertizing at a early age, often rubbing shoulders with such soon-to-be-famous young Angelenos as violinists Glenn and Maurice Dicterow, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, pianists Mona and Renee Golabek and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. All had parents who were staunch supporters of their youngsters’ careers, and all had strong European roots.

Today, times have changed. Aaron Mendelsohn, whose Maestro Foundation lends musical instruments to talented but impoverished young players, notes that many of the Asian-born musicians he helps are “clawing their way out of poverty, just the way the Jews did.”

Young Jews, for the most part, now tend to be firmly ensconced in the American middle class. All professions are open to them, and they’ve long-ago cast off the immigrant tradition of letting their parents determine their future path.

Jewish mothers and fathers, who in earlier eras might have overseen their children’s lessons, monitored their practice sessions and carted them to musical auditions, are now much more likely to emphasize academics, sports and, in Los Angeles, acting auditions.

UCLA music professor David Lefkowitz provides a telling example. His 9-year-old son has been playing the violin since age 3. A promising musician, he practices an hour a day but also plays soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring.

A colleague’s daughter, exactly the same age, started the violin at the same time. She practices two hours daily, and Lefkowitz doesn’t doubt that by 12 she’ll have moved far beyond his son, for whom music is one of several boyhood interests. It’s probably no coincidence that the girl’s mother is a fairly recent immigrant.

If Jewish parents are less driven now to turn their children into stars of the concert stage, they’re also well aware that music as a profession has become less promising. With the number of quality orchestras diminishing, 200 applicants vie for each open seat.

Some record labels have done away with their classical divisions. Hollywood studios that once employed a full complement of musicians often make do now with synthesized music and the licensing of pop tunes. Alan Chapman, composer, music educator and KUSC radio host, stressed, “The value of being a classical musician to society at large is not what it used to be.”

In a materialistic age, it’s no surprise that young Jews have learned to be pragmatic about their career choices. When Steinberg introduced his students to a professional conductor, their first question was, “How much money do you make?”

But sometimes pragmatism can be idealism by another name. Adam Mendelsohn, a recent UCLA graduate, for years played violin in the American Youth Symphony. Unlike most members of that highly motivated group, he gave up any thought of a formal music career to enter a doctoral program in biomedical engineering.

His father’s Maestro Foundation has shown him firsthand the hardships faced by music professionals. As a scientist, he can treat music as a serious hobby and “play the music I want to play when I want to play it.”

The dearth of rising young Jewish musicians does not extend to Israel, where ongoing political tensions may be part of what makes the arts an appealing outlet. In addition, Israel’s subsidies for artists, as well as its numerous institutes for promising students and its European-based tradition of respect for classical music, also play a significant role.

When Israeli composer Ariel Blumenthal attended a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, he was amazed to find an auditorium full of graying heads. At home, the Israeli Philharmonic had always attracted a younger crowd, including uniformed soldiers who get in for free.

One source of Israel’s eagerness to produce the next Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman lies in its thousands of music-loving emigres from the former Soviet Union. The Russian musical legacy also shows itself in the U.S. Sixteen-year-old Simona Shapiro, whose Russian grandmother was a concert pianist, admits that her own budding piano career is fulfilling the dreams of several generations: “My entire family is basically living this through me.”

But most American Jews have to force themselves to be philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their youngsters can make a living in the classical field.

But many American Jews feel, at best, philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their talented youngsters can make a living in the music field. One organization trying to help is the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity (jewishcreativity.org).

This small but ambitious nonprofit based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem has, for the past 16 years, worked to promote Jewish identity through support for the arts. Proceeds from the center’s ongoing $3 million fundraising campaign go toward such projects as international arts festivals, subsidized residencies at an Israeli arts colony, and multidisciplinary events at major universities.

More than 400 Jewish artists from many nations and in many fields have been named center affiliates. On behalf of Jewish classical musicians, the center underwrites the L.A.-based Synergy Chamber Ensemble as well as an Israeli group, Metar. It also sponsors recordings, awards prizes, and has commissioned works from such rising Jewish composers as Ofer Ben Amots, Sharon Farber, David Lefkowitz and Yale Strom. The center’s founders, led by board president John Rauch, recognize that from the time of King David forward, music has played an integral role in Jewish life.

They hope their support will smooth the way for the talented Jews of tomorrow.


Spectator – Sweet Music Amid Turmoil

Those who have followed the documentaries produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center know what to expect: Films like “Genocide,” “Liberation” and “In Search of Peace” that hit you right between the eyes and in the solar plexus.

Thus, it is more the surprise that its Moriah Films division’s latest documentary, “Beautiful Music,” a 39-minute film narrated by Brooke Shields, proves to be sensitive and understated. “Beautiful Music,” directed and written by the Wiesenthal Center’s Richard Trank, was based on original material by Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier.

It’s about a blind and autistic Arab girl who blossoms into a musical savant under the tutelage of a caring Jewish piano teacher.

Rasha Hamad, who is deaf and blind like her younger sister, is locked into a small room with her sibling by their parents and later abandoned. Traumatized and helpless, the girls are given a warm home in the Arab village of Beit Jala by a Dutch missionary couple, Edward and Helene Vollbehr.

The girls seem unable to respond to human contact, they beat themselves on the heads and they scream endlessly. But then the Vollbehrs notice that Rasha calms down when listening to classical music and shows an amazing aptitude for playing the piano.

The Vollbehrs turn to the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music, where Rasha is entrusted to Devorah Schramm — although the task is daunting even for this devoted teacher. While Rasha’s piano playing keeps improving, and she even starts to compose her own music, it takes two or three years of daily lessons before Rasha shows any signs of bonding with her teacher. Rasha also suffers when the larger world around her goes awry, when Scuds fall during the 1991 Gulf War or during the terror of the two intifadas.

With calmer days, Rasha picks up again, The last scene shows her performing a Chopin sonata, joined by Jewish classmates, to the applause of the Jewish audience, which had pitched in to pay for her lessons.

Summing up her experience, Schramm observes, “If we look at the headlines, we see generalities. But when we look at one individual, we see more deeply.”

The film will screen at the Hollywood Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arclight Theatres, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. For information visit www.hollywoodawards.com/screenings.


Sing Us a Song, Israel’s Piano Man

One hot summer night in 1997, under the starry desert sky at Masada mountaintop in Israel, I fell in love with Rami Kleinstein.

“Get yourself some apples and dates/sweeten up your days/He’s not worth the pain/that rattles your heart.”

I felt as if Rami was singing directly to me, as he played piano while the sun rose on one of Israel’s most famous sites. The song was “Apples and Dates” from his 1995 triple-platinum eponymous album. It was an album that solidified his place in the canon of Israeli pop stars, culminating in his most recent album, “Say It,” which hit platinum in Israel.

Now the American-born singer and composer is coming to Los Angeles as part of a six-city tour, “Rami and the Piano.” While the charming chanteur has played here before, his new solo tour, produced by Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, is aimed at English-speaking audiences. The proceeds will benefit the community programs produced by Keshet Chaim, a nonprofit organization whose goal is also to bring Israeli artists to the general American community.

With his dancing fingers and heartfelt lyrics, Rami has often been called Israel’s answer to Billy Joel and Elton John. Besides his music, his other claim to fame has been his wife: the sexy singer, Rita. Rami has composed for his wife and they produced a joint album, “Rita and Rami,” which they performed in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Like other Israeli singers, Rami has sung about the political unrest, as in his first solo album in 1986, “The Day of the Bomb,” which went gold. He has also released his own versions of American music, namely Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”; but his most poignant work is when he sings about — you guessed it — love.

“Everything you want/everything you ask for/I will do everything in my power to do it for you/I am captivated by your magic/just whisper it/everything you want, I will do it for you.”

Every time I hear Rami sing this, I know it is meant for his wife, Rita. But still, I remember our time on Masada together, so many years ago, and I pretend he’s singing it just to me.

Play it again, Sam.

Rami Kleinstein will perform “Rami and the Piano” on
Saturday, Dec. 6, 8 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For
more information, call (818) 986-7332 or visit www.kcdancers.org .