Chamber Music: Benjamin Bernstein Interview

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /

In the late 1940s, after working for some years as a film composer in Hollywood, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco found his way back to chamber music, a genre he had always loved. Mario was inspired to write his celebrated Quintet for Guitar and Strings, op. 143, as well as other works that remained unpublished for many years. Thanks to the collaboration between Edizioni Curci and the composer’s family, many of these works are now published and available in the Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Collection. The Ensemble Mark Rothko, based in Northern Italy, has dedicated its latest recording project to Mario’s music from this period. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Chamber Works (Da Vinci Classics) includes the world premiere recording of the Third String Quartet “Casa al Dono,”  op.203 (1964).  The composer’s final quartet, a work filled with nostalgia for Tuscany, is dedicated to the composer’s friend Bernard Berenson (1865–1959), the great scholar of Italian renaissance art. Benjamin Bernstein, Ensemble Mark Rothko’s violist, kindly accepted our invitation to tell us about this project and the group’s experience recording Mario’s music for the first time. 

Interview with Benjamin Bernstein of the Ensemble Mark Rothko by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco – June 2023

Tell us about the Mark Rothko Ensemble: a little bit about yourselves and your mission. I am also curious how you chose the name – Rothko is one of my favorite artists!

The Ensemble Mark Rothko was created in 2011. It gathers some of Northern Italy’s best string players. Its core is a string trio [Carlo Lazari, violin; Benjamin Bernstein, viola; and Marianna Sinagra, cello], which extends to a string quartet, a quintet and a sextet. As a flexible group, we also include woodwinds, harp or a guitar. The Ensemble focuses mainly on twentieth century music but performs the classics and romantics as well. I chose Mark Rothko’s name for the group as he is one of last century’s most important painters, an artist with whom we feel many artistic bonds. In addition, we have a common background. Rothko was born in Latvia (Tsarist Russia at that time), like my own father.

How did you become interested in Mario’s chamber music and what led you to dedicate an entire CD to his works?

I discovered Mario’s music through the recordings of Jascha Heifetz (not only the violin concerto “I profeti”, but the shorter pieces with piano accompaniment as well). The idea of this recording came after the publication of several chamber works based on Mario’s manuscripts held by the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and edited by Angelo Gilardino in 2018 for Edizioni Curci. Laura Moro of Curci presented these scores to Davide Casali, artistic director of the Viktor Ullmann Festival in Trieste, which focuses on the music of the authors who were persecuted under the Fascist and Nazi regimes. Davide then asked us to perform the Third String Quartet. Unfortunately COVID interfered with these plans, but we were able to perform the String Trio and the Third Quartet in Gorizia in October 2021. It was, to our knowledge, the first performance of the String Trio in Italy and the first performance since Mario’s time of the Third String Quartet. We subsequently recorded both works along with the guitar quintet, a blockbuster on its own, to complete the CD. 

What emotions do these pieces elicit for you? 

This music is very rewarding to perform as its beauty, inner peace and balance goes directly to the audience’s hearts. It reflects not only the composer’s artistry but also his elegance and moral values.

What do you hope to achieve with this recording?

I hope that this tribute to MCT’s chamber music will help many performers and listeners to understand that Mario was not only a composer of guitar music, but that he wrote many valuable works for different chamber formations, works that are well worth playing and listening to!

Benjamin, many thanks to you and your colleagues for your enthusiasm for my grandfather’s music and especially for giving us our first chance ever to hear the beautiful Third Quartet!