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November 05, 2012

A Tale of Two Pianists

This week The Philadelphia Orchestra presents a series of concerts that, in part, are re-creations of a pair of concerts given by Leopold Stokowski and the Orchestra in December 1935. On the program this week are two pieces that Stokowski and the Orchestra performed on December 27 and 28, 1935: César Franck’s Symphony in D minor and Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra. The Franck Symphony was by then a staple of the Stokowski-Philadelphia repertoire; they had performed it together numerous times, starting in November 1912, just two months into Stokowski’s tenure in Philadelphia. The performance of the Poulenc Concerto was the American premiere of the piece, which had had its world premiere three years before in Venice.

Alexander Kelberin and Jeanne Behrend, soloists for Stokowski and the Orchestra's 1935 U.S. premiere of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos.

The pianists for the 1935 Poulenc premiere in Philadelphia were Jeanne Behrend and Alexander Kelberine, a husband and wife duo who performed and recorded together often in the mid-1930s. There is a strong Philadelphia connection and an interesting, ultimately tragic, story to their careers. Jeanne Behrend (1911-88) was a Philadelphia native who studied piano and composition at the Curtis Institute of Music and went on to a long career as a pianist, teacher, composer, and musicologist. She taught for many years at Curtis, Juilliard, the Philadelphia Conservatory, the Philadelphia Musical Academy, and other institutions. A champion of music of the Americas, she wrote and taught courses on the subject and in 1959 founded the Philadelphia Festival of Western Hemisphere Music.

Jeanne Behrend, 1911-1988

Alexander Kelberine (1903-40) was a native of Russia who studied piano and composition in his home country and elsewhere in Europe before immigrating to the United States in 1923. He made his American debut in 1928 in New York City’s Town Hall, the first artist presented in public by the Juilliard Music Foundation. His playing was widely praised. The noted pianist Olga Samaroff, Stokowski’s wife, wrote of Kelberine, “His tone is beautiful—hauntingly so, his molding of phrases—exquisite. He shows poetic insight and rare intensity of feeling.” The music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer described a Kelberine performance as “electrifying and spectacular … a tempestuous and torrential performance.” Kelberine was on the faculty of the Philadelphia Musical Academy in the mid-1930s, teaching piano and giving lectures in musical style and interpretation.

Alexander Kelberine, 1903-1940

In addition to giving the American premiere of the Poulenc Two-Piano Concerto, Behrend and Kelberine collaborated with Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra on the 1937 world premiere of Harl McDonald’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. They recorded the piece that same year with Stokowski and the Philadelphians. McDonald was director of music at the University of Pennsylvania and served as general manager of The Philadelphia Orchestra from 1939 to 1955. Under Stokowski, and later Eugene Ormandy, the Orchestra gave world premieres of many of his compositions.

While Alexander Kelberine seemed to have a promising career, he suffered from acute depression. In late January 1940 he programmed his last recital, at Town Hall in New York, with many minor key pieces with funereal connotations, ending with Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of the Dead). A few days later he committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. He was not yet 37 years old. Some of his recordings are still available, including his piano arrangements of Bach organ chorales (some performed solo, some as duos with Behrend) and the 1937 recording of him and Behrend performing McDonald’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.

 

Images courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music Archives