Sounds of the Sephardic Diaspora in Houston

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s chamber music and human journey were recently highlighted in Houston at a program presented by the Congregation Emanu El and The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, with support from the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center.  A concert and lecture entitled Sounds of the Sephardic Diaspora on Sunday, 25 February 2024 featured a group of outstanding young musicians who performed chamber music by twentieth-century Jewish composers. The afternoon also included remarks by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco about her grandfather Mario and other composers who expressed their Jewish and Sephardic heritage in their music. The event was part of  a series of programs dedicated to Jewish music that Congregation Emanu El Cantor Rollin Simmons launched in 2022 in collaboration with the Shepherd School.

 The concert program was organized by pianist Isaac Foreman, who is currently pursuing his DMA at the Shepherd School of Music, as well as serving as The Shepherd School concert coordinator for Music at Emanu El.  The Shepherd School performers were violinist Yu-Ming (Andrew) Ma; violinist Julie Lin; violist Weilan Li; cellist Han Lee; and baritone Keaton Brown. The ensemble performed chamber music by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, including Chant Hébraïque for violin and piano; Toccata for cello and piano, the final movement of his first Piano Quintet, as well as his Three Sephardic Songs. Also featured were chamber music by  composers Ernest Bloch, Paul Ben-Haim, Albert Hemsi, as well as by André Previn, who, as a young man, studied with Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

The roots of Sephardic music can be traced back to the Jewish communities in medieval Spain and Portugal. After the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 when the Jews were expelled from the Iberian peninsula, Sephardic music began to take on characteristics of the local music traditions of the countries where Jews settled. As a result, what the ‘Sephardic Sound’ meant for modern composers is not easy to define. “For this event, we wanted to offer a sampler of different approaches by twentieth-century composers to stimulate curiosity and discussions among the attendees,” explained Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

“Mario was very much inspired by Bloch’s unparalleled way of conveying ‘Jewishness’ with feelings and emotions. After he first came across Bloch’s music in the 1920s, he performed it and eventually met the Swiss composer several times in Florence,” Diana recounted to the audience. “I’m not sure my grandfather knew Ben-Haim and Hemsi personally, but there are some interesting parallels to consider. All three experienced career and life disruptions due to twentieth-century anti-Semitic persecutions and wars. All three had traditional European musical education from which they developed their own distinct personal styles and ways of expressing their Jewish roots. Lastly, all three are known for adapting traditional melodies into musically sophisticated works.” 

The program concluded with reflections and music related to Mario’s legacy as a teacher, a role which enabled him to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of American composers, as well as on the works that emerged from his decades-long collaborations with virtuoso musicians Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Andrés Segovia

A heartfelt thank you to the Congregation Emanu El and the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center for hosting the event, and congratulations to the Shepherd School musicians for their marvelous performances!

Center photo, left to right: violinist Yu-Ming (Andrew) Ma; pianist Isaac Foreman; cellist Han Lee; baritone Keaton Brown; violinist Julie Lin; violist Weilan Li; Cantor Rollin Simmons, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

Photo credit: Natural Expressions Photography, Houston