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ClassicsOnline Home » AVSHALOMOFF: Piano Concerto / Symphony No. 2 / Elegy
Aaron Avshalomoff spent nearly thirty years in China, lured there by the sounds
of its street music, its ancient opera, costumes and legends, all encountered
as a child in the Chinese quarter of Nikolaïevsk, his Siberian birthplace.
At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 he escaped, travelling through
North China en route to the USA where he met and married Esther Magidson in
San Francisco. Finding life there hard, however, and with the sounds of China
still in his head, he decided to return to China in 1918. Between then and 1947
he worked to evolve a synthesis of Chinese musical elements with Western techniques
of composing for symphony orchestra and theatre.
Making his living in Peking primarily as a bookseller, Avshalomoff composed
and produced his first opera, Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) in 1924. During
a sojourn in the USA from 1925 to 1929, he was able to get a production of it
at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York. Returning to China, he continued
composing in the Chinese vein while studying not only ancient Chinese classical
music, but also folk and temple music, as well as street cries. The music he
composed was based on the various five-tone (pentatonic) scales as well as the
whole-tone scale and Indian modes. He was very much taken with the 'plaintive
and curly' qualities of Chinese melody and he adopted the full panoply of Chinese
percussion instruments and ornaments, such as grace-notes and slides.
Almost all his compositions, however, involved the Western orchestra. Although
he was self-taught as a composer, he developed a fine skill at orchestration
- brilliant and evocative. As to form, when writing symphonies and concertos,
he followed the classic/romantic models, but later used unforeseeable shifts
of key (modulation) to avoid the potential monotony of the oriental scales.
With this palette and a temperament both romantic and poetic, he created between
1933 and 1949 a considerable output which included The Dream of Wei Lien,
The Soul of the Ch'in, Buddha and the Five Planetary Deities, a Piano Concerto,
Violin Concerto, the First Symphony, and The Hutungs of Peking, all of which
were successfully presented in Shanghai.
All the while he encouraged Chinese composers to cherish their own musical
heritage, and to avoid jumping on the various Western band-wagons, but to evolve
a new kind of Chineseness. Many of those Chinese musicians are leading figures
today. During his last three years in China Avshalomoff conducted the Shanghai
Symphony. All in all, he was a major figure in the cultural life of China up
to the time of the Revolution of 1949.
The high point of that career were the elaborate productions of his music-drama
The Great Wall which received 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. Gala performances (more than thirty) of Avshalomoff's
masterpiece were given for the galaxy of foreign residents and visitors then
shining in China, not to forget the Chinese musical community.
During World War II Avshalomoff and his second wife, Tatiana, were kept under
house arrest by the Japanese, along with many of his associates, In 1947 he
emigrated to the USA where I had established myself and my family,
Despite his acclaim in China, when he came to America that eminence did not
translate into a career there. He lived in Los Angeles and New York largely
unknown - notwithstanding performances of his works by Stokowski, Monteux and
a commission from Koussevitzky. His attempts to bring to the United States the
ballet company in Shanghai were continually frustrated; nor was he able to create
its like in the USA.
With this set of three CDs being issued by Marco Polo, Avshalomoff's works
are now brought back into the light. In conducting them I was joined by my son
David, grandson of the composer.
Piano Concerto in G, on Chinese themes and rhythms
This first of Avshalomoff's three concertos was inspired by the gifted young
pianist and composer, Gregory Singer. It was composed in 1935 during a six week
stay at Hangchow - the famous resort about which the Chinese say, "above
there is heaven, below there are Suchow and Hangchow". Near the shores
of the beautiful West Lake, in a peasant's cottage, Avshalomoff used a portable
harmonium to compose this expansive and brilliant vehicle for piano.
The introduction starts with a grinding orchestral gnash, followed by a declamation
by the piano. The first movement then settles into a bi-thematic exposition.
The first theme is perky, the solo piano playing antiphonally against the orchestra.
The second is broad and lyrical. Following the development, the piano embarks
on a stupendous cadenza - wide-ranging in its swings of moods and its technical
The second movement is based on an ancient Chinese melody given out by the
solo flute and then taken up by the piano. With an enchanting orchestral setting,
together they produce a serene meditation.
The Rondo Finale is a romp, a fusillade of repeated notes, at first
single and then in fifths. This movement also has a cadenza - alarmingly accompanied
by percussion - after which the repeated notes return to drive to a climactic
chord almost as grinding as the very opening one.
Symphony No. 2 in E minor
"Although the Symphony No. 2 had been brewing in my mind for a
long time," wrote Avshalomoff, "I actually began to put it into shape
after a stimulating visit from the conductor Thor Johnson" (June 1949).
Before long, the Koussevitzky Foundation was encouraged by Leonard Bernstein
to commission the Symphony, and Johnson led the première in Cincinnati
on New Year's Eve of that same year.
The score calls for a large Western orchestra, with a percussion section augmented
by a battery of ethnic Chinese cymbals, gongs, drums and wood-blocks. The motif
which unifies the entire Symphony is from an ancient Chinese melody -
a turn on three notes, then a drop of a fourth.
In the fIrst movement the low instruments intone the unifying motif which leads
to a serious melody in the solo bassoon. Muted strings make a gentle transition
to the quicker first subject, stated by the English horn and oboe over an ethereal
background. The second subject follows in the cellos. After development and
return, the movement comes to a dramatic end with a grand overlay of both subjects
in the brass, against a mosaic of the first-subject fragments in winds and strings.
The opening of the second movement evokes a peaceful ornamental garden, with
tinkling temple bells, and a tender lullaby in the solo flute. After going through
variations, with gentle responses in the strings, it is taken up joyfully by
the orchestra, over a slow tread of trombones with drums, gongs and piano tone-clusters,
like a Chinese New Year's procession. A passage of high emotion then winds down
to the opening flute melody and its tinkling bells.
Brusque, snapped open-fifth chords start the third movement, a Scherzo,
with a tarantella-like dance; the opening subject is in the clarinet. Sprays
of instrumental colour and quick episodes lead to a brooding middle section.
Here the bassoon announces a new melody in a subdued mood. A reprise of the
dance rounds out the ABA form, leading directly to the Finale.
In the fourth movement that new bassoon melody becomes a cheery march of liberation,
ringing out in trumpets and trombones. Cellos introduce a soaring second subject.
The development builds to a proclamation of the unifying motif. The introduction's
second melody makes a poignant return in the solo cello. The mood then whirls
back to the cheery march, and a series of spiky brass chords leads to the joyous
Elegy for Strings (1989)
The Elegy for Strings grows out of its soulful opening melody, arching
up and falling gently down. The first of five sections spins out the tune in
the first violins, gradually adding accompaniment, then cadencing on a 'farewell'
harmony. The second is a solemn chorale in the lower strings, which turns to
major. Next, a high sweet melody (memories and hope) becomes more impassioned.
An unexpected bluesy 'stomp' hits deliberately 'sour' notes and adds jazzy harmonies
in the plucked accompaniment, building, climaxing, relaxing. The fifth section
re-works the opening, now fully harmonized, more bitter, reaching a 'death'
chord and the 'farewell' harmonies. In the closing plangent phrases the violins
are left hanging high above a deep bass note, followed by a dulcet harmony of
acceptance, fading away. The Elegy is dedicated to the memory of Leonard
Born in Baku in 1952, the pianist Larissa Shilovskaya completed her studies
at the Moscow Conservatory in 1976, a year after her triumph in the Lisbon Vianna
da Motta International Piano Competition. Her career has brought appearances
as a soloist with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and with distinguished orchestras
throughout the world and she is a regular participant in the Moscow Autumn Festival
in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory. She has given first performances of
works by a number of contemporary composers and her recordings include releases
of music by Rubinstein, Liszt and Shariha Sharhede.
Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Established in 1989, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra includes prize-winners and
laureates of Russian and international music competitions and graduates of conservatories
in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev who have played under such conductors as Svetlanov,
Rozhdestvensky, Mravinsky and Ozawa, in Russia and throughout the world. In
addition to its extensive concert programmes, the orchestra has been recognized
for its outstanding recordings for Marco Polo, including the first-ever survey
of Malipiero's symphonies, symphonic music of Guatemala, the complete symphonies
of Charles Tournemire and Russian music by Scriabin, Glazunov, Rachmaninov,
Tchaikovsky and Nikolay Tcherepnin. It has also embarked on a survey of classic
film scores from Hollywood's golden age.
The son of Aaron Avshalomoff, Jacob Avshalomov was born in Tsingtao in 1919
and studied with his father, as well as with Emst Toch, Bernard Roger and Aaron
Copland, and at Reed College and the Eastman School of Music, after settling
in America in 1937. He taught at Columbia University between 1946 and 1954 and
in summer courses at Reed College, Tanglewood, Northwestern and Illinois Universities
and the Aspen School of Music. The recipient of a number of awards as a composer
and conductor, he has, in the latter capacity, undertaken a series of international
tours and conducted a number of important American premières. His large-scale
compositions include the 1957 Inscriptions at the City of Brass and his
1962 Symphony: the Oregon.
Aaron Avshalomoff's grandson, David Avshalomov, was born in New York City in
1946 and, with his grandfather's encouragement, studied music at Harvard, later
taking a doctorate in conducting at the University of Washington. He studied
with Otto-Werner Mueller at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, with Herbert
Blomstedt at Aspen and at Tanglewood with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.
His career has brought engagements with orchestras and choruses on the West
Coast of America and in 1980 he founded the Santa Monica Chamber Orchestra,
which he led for a decade. He has toured as a conductor in China, Japan and
Eastern Europe and enjoys a parallel career as a composer.
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