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ClassicsOnline Home » AVSHALOMOFF: Violin Concerto / Soul of the Ch'in / Hutungs of Peking
Mr Aaron Avshalomoff achieved a new triumph at yesterday's concert'
given a veritable ovation by an audience won by his genius in presenting Chinese
musical themes through the medium of the Western symphony orchestra ...In a
mass trek backstage hundreds went to congratulate the composer.
China Press, 20 January 1936
Those comments might well have applied to any of the works which were presented
in Shanghai between 1933 and 1943 - The Dream of Wei Lien, The Soul of the
Ch'in, Buddha and the Five Planetary Deities, a Violin Concerto, the First Symphony,
the Hutungs of Peking.
The high point of that career was the elaborate production of a music drama,
The Great Wall, which enjoyed the patronage of both Mme Sun Yat Sen and
Mme Chiang Kai Shek - the two Soong sisters who ended up on opposite sides of
the Chinese Revolution. More than thirty gala performances of Avshalomoff's
masterpiece were given for the galaxy of foreign residents and visitors then
shining in China, as well as the Chinese musical community.
Acclaimed in China, that eminence did not translate into a career in America,
even after performances of Avshalomoff' s works by Stokowski and Monteux and
a commission from Koussevitzky.
Aaron Avshalomoff spent nearly thirty years in China, drawn there by the sounds
of its street music, its ancient opera, costumes and legends, all encountered
as a child in the Chinese quarter of Nikolaievsk, his Siberian birthplace. At
the outbreak of the Russian Revolution he escaped, travelling through north
China, bound for the USA. But finding life there hard and with the sounds of
China still in his head, he decided to return to the Orient in 1918.
Between then and 1947 Avshalomoff worked to evolve a synthesis of Chinese musical
elements with Western techniques of composing for symphony orchestra and theatre.
Making his living primarily as a bookseller, the self-taught composer wrote
and produced his first opera, Kuan fin (Goddess of Mercy) in 1924. During
a sojourn in the USA, from 1925 to 1929, he was able to get it mounted at the
Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. A second work, The Soul of the Ch'in,
was performed in Portland, Oregon. Returning to China he continued composing
in the Chinese vein - adopting the full panoply of Chinese percussion instruments
and ornaments, such as grace-notes and slides, which he used to create a considerable
body of highly personal works, brilliantly scored.
During his last three years in China, Avshalomoff conducted the Shanghai Symphony
Orchestra. Throughout his thirty years' residence there he encouraged emerging
Chinese composers to cherish and develop their own music heritage. All in all
he was a major figure in the cultural life of China.
Now, half a century later, we rejoice to bring some of his works back into
the light - my joint effort with our son, David, the composer's grandson.
The Soul of the Ch'in
Composed in 1925-26 in Peking, the ballet from which this Suite is drawn was
first produced by the International Arts Theatre of Shanghai in 1933. The outlines
of its libretto are. I. Guo Chai's War Cry. Brass instruments sound the
rebel's victory over the Emperor, Yien Wang. To cut off his retreat Quo Chai
lies in ambush by the lake shore. II. Ming's Despair. The Emperor has
abandoned his castle, accompanied by Kinsei. This aged favourite musician has
brought as a gift a thirteen-stringed Ch'in harp, which has the power
to enchant. In their desperate straits he urges the Emperor to escape across
the Lake. III. The Fight (Not in the Suite). IV. Sai Ho's Dance.
On the troubled waters of the lake, the Soul of the Ch'in appears as a girl
dancing in a robe with long scarved sleeves. She lures Guo Chai into the lake
and he sinks. V. The Death of Kinsei. In the starlit silence, the wounded
spirit of the forlorn musician is portrayed by a melody rising like the smoke
of incense. As Kinsei falls, the Emperor comforts him. Kinsei reveals that it
was the Harp that saved him from Guo Chai. As Kinsei dies, the Emperor's tears
Violin Concerto in D major
Aaron Avshalomoff's Violin Concerto was composed in 1937 when, in July,
Shanghai was under Japanese aerial bombardment. The radiant, often serene beauty
of the work belies the conditions of its creation. Its chamber-orchestra accompaniment
is generally transparent, but sonorous in the tuttis. Like several others, it
is dedicated "To Kotka" (kitten), his second wife, Tatiana. Mario
Paci led the première on 16 January 1938, with the Shanghai Symphony
The generous first movement is in sonata form. After an announcement in the
woodwind and xylophone, the solo violin plays a short cadenza, leading gently
to the cheerful first subject, with several contrasting episodes. A brief shift
to a minor pentatonic precedes the next subject made of dotted rhythms on double-stops
in the solo. A dialogue between soloist and orchestral choirs follows, closing
with the violin playing brilliant descending figures which lead to the second
theme group. This lyrical slower section, with a triplet pulse, yields to a
taxing passage of double-stop string crossings and high tessitura, followed
by a new melody with Sicilienne rhythms. A return of the first subject
leads into a long cadenza which develops the main ideas. The recapitulation
runs into the quick coda, with a surprise landing on the dominant.
The second movement, Andante, in three-part form, has a lovely, peaceful
start, slightly melancholy. An ornamented flute melody is answered by solo clarinet.
The violin enters low and velvety, varying the flute melody in octaves and in
light tracery .A ceremonial staccato motif in bassoon and pizzicato cellos punctuates
a series of shorter violin phrases answered by woodwinds. A unison phrase sets
up a contrasting episode with the soloist playing a sequence of dissonant double-stops.
The accompaniment then slides to a more amiable harmony, and the solo voice
disappears in rising harmonics.
The Finale's first subject springs dance-Iike, with a repeated triplet
tom after a brief opening in unison woodwinds. A bouncing octave-Ieap motif
is tossed about: the violin takes it up to start the lilting second subject.
The slower third subject on solo violin is like a lullaby. First stretching
an octave, it then turns hypnotically around five tones, the accompaniment swaying
slowly. In an orchestral transition, this melody becomes a fanfare. The development
includes a slow whole-tone variation on the second subject in the woodwind,
answered by solo harmonics. At the recapitulation the soloist ornaments the
dancing subject with brilliant figurations, leading to the cadenza, where all
the themes are freely treated. Above the orchestra's reprise of the dancing
music, the violin lullaby soars bravely in octaves, and the coda makes a light-footed
dash to the end.
The Hutungs of Peking
The sounds and images of old Peking are evoked in the tone-poem The Hutungs
of Peking as we are led through its byways and broadways, from dawn to dusk.
The ancient city awakens gradually to the cries of street-vendors, the signals
of itinerant barber and knife-grinder, and the sing-song of tradesmen at their
booths - all growing louder as they intertwine.
At one turn an old popular opera-tune is heard (harp, violins), followed by
another melody. Approaching a market-place, drapers shout the qualities and
cheap prices of their wares (French horns). The waxing cacophony suddenly stops
and the great and solemn sounds of a funeral procession are now heard: long
notes coming from horns twelve feet long - with men blowing the instruments
and boys well ahead to shoulder the tubing (trombones and tuba). In another
abrupt change a group of Chinese wind instruments and small percussion punctuate
the day, intended to ward off evil spirits while the catafalque is set down
and the bearers rest.
Picking up again, a lament, with curling ornamentation, is heard (E flat clarinet,
oboe, cor anglais). A quiet section evokes the peace of the temple. All the
accumulating strands grow again in intensity and complexity until the lament,
lifted by all the highest instruments, soars over the funeral bombast. Then
everything subsides, like emotion spent. The quiet musical atmosphere of the
beginning returns, this time as dusk.
The American première of this work was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra
under Stokowski in 1935. It became Avshalomoff's best-known work.
The violinist Rodion Zamuruev was born in 1969 and studied under Irina Botchkova
at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, from where he graduated in 1993 and
where he now teaches. He made his frrst concert appearances at the age of seven
and is now actively engaged in a career as a soloist and in chamber music, with
performances in major cities in Russia and throughout Europe. In 1997 he was
declared Laureate of the National Violinists' Competition and enjoyed similar
success at the Swiss town of Sion in the 1998 Tibor Varga Competition. He holds
the David Oistrakh Grant of the Mstislav Rostropovich Fund. With impeccable
technical command and musicianship, Rodion Zamuruev boasts an extensive and
varied repertoire and has a particular interest in music of the twentieth century.
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AVSHALOMOFF: Violin Concerto / Soul of the Ch'in /...