About this Recording
8.225033 - AVSHALOMOV, A.: Flute Concerto / Symphony No. 1

Aaron Avshalomoff (1895–1964)
Orchestral Works Vol. 1


Aaron Avshalomoff spent nearly thirty years in China, lured there by the street music, the legends and the sounds and costumes of traditional Chinese opera that he first encountered in the Chinese quarter of Nikolayevsk, the city in Siberia where he was born in 1895. After the Revolution of 1917, he escaped, travelling through North China on his way to America, where he married, settling in San Francisco. By 1918 he had resolved to return to China, but had already travelled widely. After leaving school, he had been sent by his father to Zurich to study medicine, but abandoned the subject in order to spend a short time at the Stern School of Music. Apart from this, he was self-taught in music.

In China between 1918 and 1947 Avshalomoff worked to evolve a synthesis of Chinese musical elements with Western techniques of orchestral composition. Making his living primarily as a bookseller, he composed and produced his first opera, Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy), in 1924. During a period between 1925 and 1929 spent in the United States, he managed to have this staged at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York and a second work, The Soul of the Chin, was performed in Portland, Oregon. In China once more, he continued his former activities.

As early as 1924 Avshalomoff had embarked on study of ancient Chinese classical music, folk and temple music and street cries. His own melodies were based on the various pentatonic modes and on the whole-tone scale. Around 1940 he also began to experiment with Indian modes. His Chinese-style melodies were combined with secondary melodic lines, using simple duple or triple metres. At the same time he made full use of the range of Chinese percussion instruments and ornamentation, supporting his pentatonic melodies with interesting chordal harmonies. In orchestration he followed the example of Rimsky-Korsakov and in structure the traditional forms of Western music, although experimenting with remoter modulations in order to add interest to pentatonic melodies, thus creating a highly personal musical language. His secondary aim was to encourage younger Chinese composers to develop their own musical heritage, rather than allowing themselves to be diverted into various forms of Western commercial music. During his last three years in China he conducted the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and all in all was a figure of considerable importance in Chinese music, until the changes of 1949.

Shanghai, between 1933 and 1943, saw the presentation of Aaron Avshalomoffs The Dream of Wei Lien, The Soul of the Chin, Buddha and the Five Planetary Deities, concertos for piano and for violin, his First Symphony and The Hutungs of Peking. The high point of his career in China was the elaborate performance of the music-drama The Great Wall, under the patronage of Mme Sun Yat Sen and Mme Chiang Kai Shek, sisters who ended on opposite sides in the Chinese Revolution.

During the Second World War Avshalomoff and his second wife, Tatiana, were kept under house arrest by the Japanese and in 1947 he emigrated to the United States, where his son, the present writer, and his family had settled. In my own early years in America I met leading musicians, such as Hanson, Copland and Heifetz, who would ask whether I was related to the Avshalomoff in Shanghai. While his music was performed and acclaimed in China, that reputation did not follow him to America. Although listed by Slonimsky and the subject of research at Cambridge, he lived in Los Angeles and New York largely unknown, expending his energies in the fruitless attempt to bring to America the ballet company which had staged his works in Shanghai and Nanking, or later vainly trying to create something of the same sort in the United States.

With the present set of three recordings issued by Marco Polo, the thread of Avshalomoffs career is being picked up from the recordings made in China in 1936, when Victor Records released discs of The Hutungs of Peking and Columbia Records a recording of the Piano Concerto, now for many years a collectors item. In the task of conducting the present recordings I have been joined by my son David Avshalomov, grandson of the composer, now bringing back to light, after half a century, something of my father’s achievement.

Jacob Avshalomov

Avshalomoff’s Flute Concerto, written in Hollywood in 1948, was his first major work in the United States. Robustly orchestrated, the concerto makes few concessions to the solo instrument, including in its scoring three trombones and a tuba, with pairs of horns and trumpets. The solo instrument, however, is always audible in instrumentation that makes no use of orchestral flutes.

After an exclamatory orchestral introduction, the flute takes a cadenza like flutter, as if seeking its starting-point, then embarks on its first flight, a lively excursive theme derived from the orchestral introduction. A lyrical theme follows, with exchanges between the woodwind and the soloist. In a slower mood triple metre takes over, with a static bass and harmony and an internal ostinato from violas and harp. This leads to the central development. The subsequent recapitulation includes longer orchestral interludes and in the triple-metre section the flute takes over the ostinato, embroidered with flowing semiquavers. An animated exchange between the flute and the orchestra leads to an expressive cadenza and an accelerated final return to the orchestral introduction, arrested in the penultimate bar by a cheer from the fluttery trumpet.

The Andante sostenuto has a serenity typical of Avshalomoff’s slow movements. Four orchestral bars set the background for a lovely flute melody, spun out of its low register. A second section, proposed by the orchestra, welcomes the flute’s next thought, now in the middle register and making much of the violins’ casually-given first figure. The accompaniment is transparent, with violins in light, off-beat octaves, repeated until tapering off into the distance. The flute returns, low again, in a flurry of notes, as if seeking again and then finding the ravishing first theme. The movement ends with the flute taking over the wispy opening figure of the violins.

The final Allegretto begins with an innocent dance motif in the upper strings and woodwind, highlighted by the xylophone and light percussion, followed by the flute. There is a shy sally from solo cello and clarinet and the oboe responds to the flute’s comments. Spurred by snarls in the brass, the flute embroiders the dance motif so enthusiastically that the brass is diverted into an alla marcia, culminating in another Avshalomoff snarl. The tempo slackens, now allowing some flute pyrotechnics. Goaded by the orchestra, the flute takes off in frenzied flight and the orchestra, emboldened, comes into its own in the recapitulation of the dance motif, followed by the ebullient march-like interlude, brought to an end by a brass chord and a chime-tone. There is now room for unexpected and beautiful reminiscences of quiet moments in the earlier movements and a calm, dream-like passage, before the final dash to the end in a duple-metre Presto, as the rhythmic energy of the dance coalesces in a final statement of its motif.

Avshalomoff’s Symphony No.1 was written about the year 1940 in Shanghai and was first performed there by the Municipal Orchestra. The dramatic slow introduction presents four ideas that return throughout the symphony, a high, fanfare like whole-tone motif in the violins and trumpets, a woodwind phrase in quavers, a wailing solo clarinet call and a repeated rising bass figure. The bland first subject is first heard from the cor anglais, while the second subject is a wistful, descending melody, harmonised by muted trumpets and violins. A whimsical interlude, like the entrance of a clown, announced by a repeated staccato trumpet motif, leads to the romantic third subject, rising to a climax under throbbing accompaniment. The first subject returns, interrupted by the fanfare in the lower strings. After the development and recapitulation the coda begins with the fanfare motif and closes with a full peroration, with the first subject, augmented, in the low brass, under busy figures in the higher voices. This dissolves into the mood of the introduction, settling on a gloomy low C.

The second movement suggests a scene at a mountain shrine. After a tinkling of triangle, harp and celesta, a wispy phrase in violin harmonics and a flourish in the flute, a slow tread of low open chords begins. The cor anglais states the first plangent melody and a second tune pulls at the heartstrings. Harp and celesta trace a tender motif, before a later passage recalls the first movement.

Low strings and bassoons begin the Scherzo with a rapid 5/4 ostinato. The clarinet is answered by flutes and both elements are repeated in various keys, together with the first melody from the slow movement. Short high chords are answered by outbursts in low brass and the ostinato returns. A unison woodwind transition, with fast repeating notes alternating with a Chinese music-box melody, turns into a sad quasi-waltz for solo viola and oboe. Four subjects are combined in the returning ostinato, proceeding to a wild Presto ending.

The fourth movement is a grim march, starting with a plodding ostinato, a wavering bass-line punctuated by a bitter horn chord. Piccolo and bassoon restate the opening motif of the Scherzo, adding a new warble, echoed by dotted rhythms from the clarinets and distant calls from the trombones. An oboe melody is continued by the violins and these ideas, repeated and combined, give way to dotted rhythms in the horns and trumpets. Like some invading army, the orchestra builds in volume. The ostinato shifts into the whole-tone scale, drums pounding, gongs clashing. Horns and trumpets proclaim the fanfare, in a triumphant major, to be cut off, leaving violin tremolos and then a sudden swoop to start the Finale.

The last movement opens with a happy Chinese dance, with the ostinato of the march accelerated and a bright sonority in the woodwind. The solo oboe second subject echoes the dotted rhythm of the march and the third extends the first. The warbling tune of the march is heard over a timpani tattoo and the development leads to a hearty new march from the brass. Interchange between orchestral sections in the recapitulation, recalls Tchaikovsky, as does the coda: a grand pause, a pompous march pattern, and the hearty march melody in the violins. There is a final peroration, with the trombone subject of the slow movement augmented in the low brass under a busy wind and string texture. The movement closes with a solemn unison phrase and a cadence on a monolithic E-flat.

David Avshalomov

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