Avant-garde composer Leo Ornstein, who first came to prominence as a virtuoso pianist and was widely known to concertgoers in the 1920s and ’30s, died Feb. 24 in Green Bay, Wis. He was thought to be about 109.
Early works of the Russian emigre — who first studied piano at age 3 and later attended New England’s Conservatory of Music and Institute of Musical Art (later Juilliard) — made use of tone clusters, polyrhythms, etc., before they were widely known.
Playing to packed houses after his New York debut in 1911 (and Euro tours 1913-14), he U.S.-preemed many of Debussy’s works and highlighted contempos such as Ravel, Scriabin and Schoenberg even as he continued to present expert renditions of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. He was so adulated and reviled that in 1918, while still in his 20s, Frederick H. Martens published a biography of him, “Leo Ornstein: The Man, His Ideas, His Work.”
But in 1933, having tired, as he put it, of “the incessant practicing and the incessant traveling,” he stopped performing. In 1937, after the St. Louis Symphony performed the world premiere of his “Nocturne and Dance of Fate,” he disappeared from public consciousness, though he continued to compose and, with his Park Avenue debutante wife Pauline C. Mallet-Prevost, founded the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia in 1935, which the couple ran until it was sold in 1958. His final work, the Eighth Piano Sonata, was composed in 1990.
His wife of 67 years, whom he met at the Institute of Musical Art, died in 1985. He is survived by a son, daughter five grandchildren and four great- grandchildren.