Ernie Bloch, the grandson of famed composer Ernest Bloch, will attend opening night of the Britt Classical Festival Friday, where the orchestra will play one of his grandfather's pieces. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven

Britt classical opens with nod to history

Somewhere John Trudeau must be smiling. At the first Britt concert, on Aug. 11, 1963, Britt founder/conductor Trudeau and the orchestra performed Ernest Bloch's "Proclamation for Trumpet and Orchestra."

Trudeau was a huge admirer of the composer, who fled Europe in 1916, became an American citizen and spent the last two decades of his life in Agate Beach on the Oregon Coast.

Tonight in Jacksonville, as Britt opens its 47th classical season, Conductor Peter Bay and the Britt Orchestra will be joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein in a performance of "Schelomo — Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra," by Ernest Bloch.

Sitting in the audience as Bay traces this musical circle will be Ernie Bloch, the famed composer's grandson. Two years before Trudeau's death last year, Trudeau sent Ernie a copy of his Britt memoir, "Touches of Sweet Harmony," with an inscription in which Trudeau recalled reading the score of Bloch's "Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra" when the ink was barely dry.

Meanwhile, the soloist, Weilerstein, is a graduate of the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, whose first musical director, back in 1920, was one Ernest Bloch.

Ernie Bloch chuckles at all the connections.

"I get the biggest kick out of the six degrees of separation thing," says Ernie, a retired grant-maker and philanthropy counselor who lives in Portland.

In this 50th anniversary year of Bloch's death, Ernie plans to attend Bloch programs in Berkeley, San Francisco and Cleveland, in effect tracing Ernest Bloch's path through America.

Ernest Bloch was born to a prosperous Jewish family in 1880 in Geneva, Switzerland. He studied at the conservatory in Brussels and lived in Frankfurt, Paris and Geneva before settling in the U.S. in 1916. After his Cleveland stint, he became director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He returned to Europe in the 1930s but fled the rise of Nazism on the eve of World War II and, on his arrival back in the States, was given a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught composition for several years.

Bloch's early works reflected the Germanic tradition of Strauss and the impressionism of Debussy. Much of his middle period work draws on Jewish liturgical and folk music, including 1916's "Schelomo."

He continued working at Agate Beach almost until his death from cancer in 1959. Ernie, who was born in 1938, used to go out to Ernest's home at the beach on Friday afternoons after high school.He'd spend the night and go with Ernest to Portland to have new scores sent to his publishers.

"He was a wonderful grandfather," Ernie says. "We'd go down to the beach while he'd hunt for agates."

He says his grandfather taught him a lot about life.

"He would polish agates that he found on the beach, one at a time. He thought tumblers were greedy."

Bloch apparently believed in a theory that keeping the hands busy allowed musical ideas to germinate and mature. It must have worked. He wrote about one-quarter of his works at Agate Beach, including by some accounts some of his best pieces, such as the Jewish-themed "Suite Hébraïque" in 1950 and the second "Concerto Grosso" in 1952.

Ernie remembers his grandfather as "definitely different" for the Oregon Coast in the 1950s, hunting his beloved agates in waders and a beret and a woolen cape.

"Mr. Bloch, are you Superman?" a little girl once asked.

"No," the composer replied. "I'm more important than that."

Ernie says his grandparents liked the coast and its people but were protective of his privacy. What could sometimes come off as grandiosity might have run in the family. Ernie's uncle was a mathematics professor at Columbia and a friend of Albert Einstein, who sometimes brought his violin and joined Ernie's aunt's amateur music sessions in her home.

"Once when Einstein was late she got really angry," Ernie says. "She said, 'Albert, what is your problem? You're never on time. Don't you know how to count?' "

One time a boy asked Bloch where his music came from.

"You have to listen," the old man said. "It's in the wind, the waves, it's all around you all the time."

Ernie recalls that his grandfather fled fascism for the tranquility of the Oregon Coast — only to find massive blackouts and rampant fear after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor shortly after he bought his home in Agate Beach.

Still, Bloch relished the beach. He used to read Walt Whitman there. Which is why, on the Ernest Bloch Memorial at the Newport Performing Arts Center are lines from Whitman saying, "Give me solitude, give me Nature ... "

"He found them there," Ernie says, "for the only time in his life."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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