By Sigurd Neubauer
Maestro Daniel Grossman, 45, was born and raised in Munich, Germany, but comes from a Hungarian Jewish family.
He’s the founder of the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich (JCOM).
In a wide-ranging interview, we discuss Grossman’s passion for promoting classical music by numerous “forgotten” Jewish composers.
Although the Maestro didn’t grow up in a musical family, his culturally inclined parents brought him for the first time to the opera when he was three years old; shortly thereafter, Grossman knew that he wanted to become a conductor.
While he subsequently learned how to play the piano and the cello, Grossman studied conducting at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. He also found encouragement and inspiration from his mother’s celebrated cousins – Iván and Ádám Fischer– who are, of course, internationally renowned conductors.
“They inspired me from an early age,” recalls Grossman, who witnessed Iván Fischer conducting at the Munich State Opera when he was a child.
Following his studies, the aspiring conductor had initially wanted to establish a musical ensemble dedicated to celebrating Jewish music but “nothing came out of it,” he recalls. That changed in 2005 when the city of Munich built the largest Jewish community center in Europe after World II. It includes the Ohel Jacob Synagogue and a Jewish Museum.
As part of that, Grossman was invited to establish an orchestra, but made his acceptance conditional on that it would have to be a professional one.
Daniel Grossman comes from a Hungarian-Jewish family. Photo credit: JCOM
Iván and Ádám Fischer inspired me from an early age
Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn
On June 22, the JCOM will perform Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s (1809-1847) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1842), which remains one of the most beloved pieces in the classical music repertoire. It is based on a comedy written by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), featuring German sopranist Pia Davila.
The JCOM will also perform contemporary composer Manfred Trojahn’s Four Women from Shakespeare (2015).
“In Germany there’s a debate about whether Mendelssohn should be considered a Jewish composer,” Grossman explains.
He’s referring to the fact that the Mendelssohn family had converted to Christianity, a practice that was not uncommon during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among the socially ambitious Jews of Germany.
The composer came from a distinguished family whose grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), was a leading Jewish philosopher and theologian. In his principal work, Jerusalem (1783), Mendelssohn argued that Judaism is the most rational of all religions. Jerusalem is an intellectual defense of Judaism, which was severely criticized in Germany at the time of its publication.
Mendelssohn the composer was also savagely attacked in Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) infamous antisemitic essay Judaism in Music (1850).
But Grossman’s JCOM has also recorded Fanny Mendelssohn’s (1805-1847) work, featuring Israeli soprano Chen Reiss and violinist Arabella Steinbacher. The 2021 recovering was dedicated to the celebration of 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany.
Fanny Mendelssohn was Felix’s older sister and a recognized composer in her own right, which Grossman wanted to showcase.
The Maestro has not only developed a renewed interest in the music of the Mendelssohn siblings but has established his own professional niche: promoting the music of the lesser known and often forgotten Jewish composers.
Grossman is particularly passionate about the music of Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). In 2019, the JCOM organized a Weinberg festival in Munch to mark the centennial of his birth.
The legendary “Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was amazed by his music,” Grossman explains, adding that the composer had invited Weinberg to Moscow where the two began collaborating and established in the process a friendship.
“Weinberg produced a massive output,” Grossman adds, pointing out that the Warsaw-born composer left behind over 20 symphonies and operas. The celebrated violinist Gidon Kremer has also performed his music.
Weinberg’s music is known for its Jewish themes: Grossman
There’s little doubt that Weinberg’s music is gaining some traction after Deutsche Gramophone recorded his music last year. And in 2021, Maestra Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla performed Weinberg’s Sinfonietta No. 1 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
Explains Grossman: “There’s a strong Jewish component to Weinberg’s music, especially to music from the Shtetl, which makes him really special.”
A Shtetl is the Yiddish term for town in pre–World War II Eastern Europe with a large Yiddish-speaking Jewish population, according to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Another forgotten Jewish composer that Grossman is promoting is Józef Koffler (1896-1944) whose music he wants to bring back to life. “I want to perform the music of the lesser-known Jewish composers who were either killed during the Holocaust or were forced to flee.”
Koffler’s music is inspired by Arnold Schönberg, whose life and legacy we have covered nearby.
Responding to which of the numerous forgotten Jewish composers Grossman chooses to promote, the Maestro reveals that “his only criteria is that he likes the music and otherwise finds it interesting.”
The JCOM is not limited to performing music from Europe’s interwar period, Grossman prefaces as his orchestra performs works from the Baroque period to contemporary classical music. It has also performed Klezmer, Jazz, and even Cantorial music.
“Every season starts with a Jewish New Year’s Concert – formally known as Rosh HaShanah – where cantorial music from Jewish liturgy is performed. We have featured some of the leading cantors from both the United States and Israel.”
While cantorial music has found its footing in the U.S. and Israel following World War II, it is not widely known in Germany, Grossman reveals.
Responding to what’s next for the JCOM, Grossman reveals that his collaboration with Reiss will continue as they’re planning to record Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s (1897-1957) music. His orchestra is also planning to perform more of Koffler’s music, including his variation of Johan Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750)’s Goldberg Variation.
In some ways, Grossman’s dedication to celebrating the respective legacies of Weinberg and Koffler are reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s own indispensable role in revitalizing Bach’s music, which after his death in 1750, had largely been forgotten by the musical establishment at the time.
Every season starts with a Rosh HaShana concert