Although ethnically Russian, Jacob Avshalomov was the first Chinese-born composer to establish an orchestral work into Western concert literature. Jacob Avshalomov is the son of Russian composer Aaron Avshalomov, who was active for several decades in China as one of its foremost composers of orchestral music and opera in the pre-Maoist period. Jacob got his first working experience in music through helping prepare his father's scores and inRead more working on mounting one of his father's ballet productions. In late 1937, Jacob Avshalomov arrived in San Francisco with his mother and went to study in Los Angeles with composer Ernst Toch; he later continued his education with Aaron Copland and Bernard Rogers. He made his conducting debut in a U.S. Army uniform and worked as a translator during the Second World War; Avshalomov's Slow Dance (1942) was his first concert work to be heard in public, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in August 1945.
Slow Dance was one among a number of orchestral pieces that Avshalomov had under his belt by the time it was premiered, though it was another early piece, The Taking of T'ung Kuan (1942), that established his reputation. It gained the attention of conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was always looking for exciting, colorful, and different pieces to help add variety to his concert programs. While Stokowski was notorious for premiering works and not repeating them, he programmed The Taking of T'ung Kuan often, no doubt attracted by its exotic, oriental flavor; rhythmic flair; and big, virile orchestration. Avshalomov joined the staff at Columbia University in 1946 and remained there until 1954, during which he founded Columbia's chorus and won a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1954, Avshalomov returned to the West Coast and assumed directorship of the Portland Junior Symphony, now the Portland Youth Philharmonic, which he led for the next 41 years. Avshalomov's long tenure in this position was essential in establishing the Portland Youth Philharmonic as the longest continuously running youth orchestra in America; he took it on six international tours. In March 1999, Avshalomov's 80th birthday was observed in a gala that brought together the then-current Portland Youth Philharmonic with its past alumni.
As a composer, Avshalomov eventually established a preference for cantata, narrative, and vocal works over purely instrumental ones, and he has consistently stated that his favorite among his own works is the cantata Inscriptions at the City of Brass (1957). However, The Taking of T'ung Kuan should not be underestimated, as it remains a popular concert work, particularly in China, where it is performed with nearly the same frequency as the Rimsky-Korsakov that partly inspired it. Avshalomov has written two symphonies, The Oregon (1962) and Symphony of Songs (1992), along with many songs and cantatas. He has recorded as a conductor in his own work for Albany and in the LP era did so with frequency for CRI in his works and those of others, usually with the Portland Youth Philharmonic. Avshalomov has written a book, Avshalomov's Winding Way: Composers out of China (2001) and his son David is a conductor and composer, whereas his son Daniel is the violist in the American String Quartet. Read less