(1895-1964): Orchestral Works, Vol. 2
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
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
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
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 slowly fall.
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 Orchestra.
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
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