Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Joseph Achron

Joseph Achron (Youssel Yulyevich Akhron) was a Russian (Lithuanian) violinist, teacher, and composer born on May 13, 1886 (Brahms was 53 years old.)  Although he was a prodigy on the violin and a virtuoso violinist in his adult life, he is mostly remembered as a composer and, particularly, as an early advocate for the incorporation of Jewish folk melody in classical music.  (Smetana, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Bloch and other composers undertook a similar journey.)  He first studied with his father at age five and later (1891) in Warsaw (at the Warsaw Conservatory with Isidor Lotto), where he gave his first public performance at age 7.  By age 10, he had already played for the Russian nobility (the Czar’s brother.)  At age 13 (1898 – some sources say 1899) he began studying with Leopold Auer at the St Petersburg Conservatory (Heifetz was not yet born.)  Composition he studied with Anatoly Liadov and Maximilian Steinberg.  He graduated from the Conservatory in 1904.  In 1913 he became head of the violin department at the Kharkiv Conservatory in Northeastern Ukraine.  1916 through 1918 he spent in the Russian Army, performing wherever he was assigned.  Achron toured Europe and Russia from 1918 until about 1924, playing more than 1000 concerts during this time.  Between 1919 and 1922, he was head of the violin department at the Leningrad Artists’ Union.  The Revolution had already taken place.  He moved to Berlin in 1922.  In 1925 (December 31, 1924), he came to the U.S. and settled in New York City.   He taught at the Westchester Conservatory, played many concerts, and wrote music for the Yiddish Art Theatre.  Achron premiered his first violin concerto, Opus 60, (1925 - dedicated to Jascha Heifetz) with the Boston Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky on January 24, 1927.  It is said to be a very difficult work.  Some sources say that his actual first violin concerto was his Opus 4 from 1899, whose manuscript is lost.  A recording (of Opus 60) by Elmar Oliveira and Joseph Silverstein (conducting) is available on the internet.  Achron moved from New York City to Los Angeles in 1934, where he composed for films, gave concerts, and played in the Hollywood studio orchestras as well.  His second and third violin concertos he premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on December 19, 1936 and March 31, 1939, respectively; both times with Otto Klemperer on the podium.  His best known work is probably Hebrew Melody, written early in his composing career (1911 – Opus 33).  (You can listen to the Joseph Hassid recording of it on YouTube.)  Jascha Heifetz was one of his benefactors, commissioning the third violin concerto in 1938 or 1939.  I don’t think Heifetz ever recorded it.  (Kreisler never recorded the Elgar concerto either, though it was dedicated to him.)  On the website of the Joseph Achron Society, Heifetz is quoted as saying: "He is one of our foremost modern composers and I cannot say enough on his behalf both as a musician and as a man."  This site also contains very detailed information on recordings (old and new) as well as published works available to the general public.  Achron eventually composed nearly 100 works – more than half of them unpublished.  The lion's share of his manuscripts are at the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL) in Jerusalem (although some sources state that they are at the University of Tel Aviv and others say they are at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In any case, they are not hard to locate.)  Hagai Shaham recorded a CD of some of his unpublished works on a British label more than ten years ago (Biddulph - B000001ZEC) but I do not know if the recording is still available from their catalog - I very much doubt it.  Something that is not well-known is that Achron wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven, Mozart, Paganini, and Brahms violin concertos - none are published.  He probably used these in his own performances.  He also edited (using the term loosely) eleven of Paganini’s 24 Caprices (still unpublished.)  A recording of these seriously re-worked Caprices with violinist Ingolf Turban (founder of the Virtuosi Di Paganini Chamber Orchestra and a recognized Paganini specialist) and Jascha Nemtsov (pianist) is available and referenced in detail at the Joseph Achron Society page. Achron was the brother of the pianist and composer Isidor Achron, who became an early Jascha Heifetz accompanist.  After Achron, only Albert Markov composes and plays his own concertos – the only one in the world to do so.  The University of Rochester Library has a website with several of Achron’s digitized scores available.   Late in life, Achron played a Giovanni Guadagnini violin (1774) but what instrument he used before then I do not know.  Joseph Achron died in Hollywood, California on April 29, 1943, at age 56.
Thanks to Bridget Carr of the Boston Symphony, Steve LaCoste of the LA Philharmonic, and Samuel Elliot Zerin of the Joseph Achron Society for providing critical details for this profile.

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