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 demands.
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 final harmony.
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 Bernstein.
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.