When Untermyer Gardens presents the acclaimed “Two Pianos - Playing for Life” in the outdoor amphitheater on Sunday, May 29, the audience will experience a trip back to the era of Samuel Untermyer.
The multi-media event features pianists Stanislavka Varshavski, a native of Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Diana Shapiro, born in Moscow. The duo, who met at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, have been performing together since 1998. Together, they have won numerous awards in piano competitions worldwide.
They will perform the first-ever two-piano event at Untermyer Gardens on a pair of Steinway grand pianos, as they recreate the concerts given by two female Jewish pianists, Anna (Burstein) Bieler-Suwalski and Halina (Neuman) Schulsinger, who also met as conservatory students, but under far different circumstances.
From 1934-36, after the Nazis prohibited Jews from performing for Aryan audiences, Anna and Halina performed under the auspices of an organization called the Jewish Culture League (Judischer Kulturbund), which provided employment to thousands of Jewish performers who were only allowed to appear before Jewish audiences.
“Two Pianos” recreates Anna and Halina’s concerts in Germany, with classical music by Arensky, Mozart, Rachmaninov, and other composers. Varshavski and Shapiro will also voice the words of the other pianists, who recorded them in the 1980s. Their descendants, Kenneth Hoffman (Halina’s grandson) and author/producers Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin (Anna’s daughter and son-in-law) will provide narration, accompanied by documentary photographs.
Anna, who was born in Romania, and Halina, born in Poland, met at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1926, where they were both piano students. The two women survived the war and both became naturalized Americans. The contemporary “Two Pianos” concert was first performed in 2018 by Varshavski and Shapiro in Philadelphia at the Settlement Music School, where Anna had taught for almost 40 years.
Levin said that when her mother died in 2003, she and her husband found among her mother’s possessions reviews of her concerts with Halina, as well as family photographs linking her aunt, Rebecca, and grandfather Jacob Burstein to the Hebrew University Amphitheater paid for by Samuel Untermyer. Further research led them to the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy website, and they contacted its president, Stephen Byrns. So it seems only fitting that Untermyer Gardens should be the setting for another performance of “Two Pianos,” as this year’s first performance of the “Minnie Untermyer Concert Series.”
Untermyer built the Greek amphitheater within the walled garden of his Yonkers estate so that he and his wife, Minnie, could host cultural events (a 1923 appearance by the original Isadora Duncan Dancers, “The Isadorables,” was captured on film, and Byrns invited the present-day Duncan Dancers back to the amphitheater for a performance in 2020). Minnie died in 1924. Four years later, Samuel Untermyer, a wealthy lawyer whose interests ranged from business and the arts, to politics and Jewish affairs, was visiting the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which had been established in 1918 during the era of post-World War I British rule. The campus had officially opened in 1925.
“He attended a concert on a small mountain overlooking the Dead Sea,” Byrns recounted. “They told him it was the first performance there since the time of King David. He was so moved by it he decided to make a large donation, to make it a proper stone masonry performance space. It was called the Minnie Untermyer Amphitheater.”
Anna’s sister, Rebecca Burstein-Arber, was also a musician. She performed a concert at the 1933 dedication of the $25,000 amphitheater, designed by British architect Benjamin Chaikin.
Untermyer was among the first prominent Jews to warn of the dangers of allowing Hitler to remain in power. From 1933-1938, he was president of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, traveling and giving speeches to expose Nazi propaganda and to gain support for a global boycott of the Nazi Third Reich. But he failed to win the support of other influential Americans, even Jews in business and the media, until it was too late.
“By 1938, he realized Hitler was going to [cause] this holocaust,” Byrns said. “He never really lived to see how right he was.”
Untermyer died in 1938.
“Two Pianos - Playing for Life” will be at 5 p.m. in the Walled Garden Amphitheater. Tickets, $50, can be purchased at untermyergardens.org in the “Programs and Events” section, under “Concerts and Performances.” Untermyer Gardens is located at 945 N. Broadway, Yonkers. Parking available on-site.