When he was 7, Brian Thornton fell in love with his uncle’s guitar. His parents wouldn’t let him take up the guitar, though. They were sure he’d become a long-haired, drug-addled rock musician! The cello looked a little like a guitar, so he thought he’d give it a try. "There was also this really cute girl named Becky in my orchestra class," Brian says, "and she played violin." (Brian ended up marrying someone else in 1994, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Woda. They have two daughters.)
Brian Thornton studied with Lev Aronson from age 14. But had it not been for Aronson’s remarkable strength and keen survival instincts, he might not have lived to coach Brian – or for that matter such other notable cellists of our time as Lynn Harrell and Ralph Kirshbaum.
Lev Aronson was born in Germany in 1912, while his Latvian parents were traveling there. He took to the cello early, studying with one of the greats, Gregor Piatigorsky. By the time he was 20, Aronson was principal cellist of Latvia’s Liepaja Philharmonic. He was well on his way to his own solo career.
But it was not to be. In the 1930s, Adolph Hitler was flooding Europe with his toxic brew of jingoism and fascism. Many musicians, including Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati, slipped away to safer turf. But Aronson’s family was in Riga, so he stayed.
Hitler’s army trampled Latvia in 1941. Aronson was forced into slave labor and sent to concentration camps, including Kaiserwald, Buchenwald, and Lauenberg. His parents and sister were killed.
Aronson’s captors confiscated his bows and his precious Stradivarius cello, but they couldn’t take away his musicality. Although he couldn’t play for the four years he spent in captivity, Aronson held the music in his heart and mind. It helped him endure the horrific camps.
In captivity, Aronson had nothing to his name, not even a watch. He counted the hours by singing cello concertos to himself – 20-minute works by Haydn, Saint-Saens, Boccherini, and Tartini. This internal musical clock once saved his life, when Aronson was ordered to unload rocks from a truck in an hour or be killed.
In 1945, the Russians liberated Lauenberg, but not Lev Aronson: they held him on suspicion of being a German spy. A year on, though, he made his escape, pushing on through Poland and Germany to the American Zone.
In 1948, Aronson’s former teacher Gregor Piatigorsky helped him connect with conductor Dorati, then music director of the Dallas Symphony, and get another cello. Aronson soon landed a gig playing in the Dallas Symphony. A year later he became the orchestra’s principal cellist.
Lev Aronson spent two decades playing for the Dallas Symphony. After he left, he built his legacy teaching at Baylor University and Southern Methodist University.
Aronson died in 1988. Of his beloved teacher, cellist Brian Thornton says, "He was all about telling stories with the music, always making statements when playing – a metaphorical approach." In addition to his work in the Cleveland Orchestra – he’s been a part of the orchestra since 1994 – Brian passes on Aronson’s legacy by teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Because Aronson lost his chance at a high-profile solo career to the Nazis, it’s mostly just his former students who remember him today. When Thornton visited Southern Methodist University, he found that few of the current faculty or students knew of him.
Hence this program, part of Thornton’s effort to shine a spotlight on his former teacher’s legacy. Brian’s campaign has given birth to a CD; a concert tour of synagogues and temples; coordination with a book tour by Frances Brent, author of The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson; and an Aronson scholarship and annual music festival at SMU.
Tonight’s program (on 10 November 2013′s In Performance) was recorded at Hudson’s Christ Church Episcopal on 20 October 2013, as part of the Music from the Western Reserve chamber music series. It includes previously unperformed compositions and arrangements by Lev Aronson. Brian Thornton is accompanied by pianist Elizabeth DeMio.
Ernest Bloch: Abodah, A Yom Kippur Melody. Although Swiss-born Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) wasn’t sure he was keen on any organized religion, he found himself drawn to his Jewish heritage. Alongside obviously secular classical works – symphonies, concertos, chamber music – Bloch reached down to his roots for several works. By 1920, the year he became the first music director of the newly founded Cleveland Institute of Music, Bloch’s publisher Schirmer was emblazoning the covers of his scores with a Star of David and his initials.
Bloch originally composed Abodah in 1928 for violin and piano. It’s based on a Yom Kippur tune, traditionally used during an afternoon service on the Day of Atonement.
Brian Thornton introduces us to Lev Aronson and Bloch’s Abodah:
An-Ski: Mipnei Ma. Folklorist, author, and playwright An-Ski (Solomon Zainwil Rapaport, 1863–1920) founded the Jewish Historical-Ethnographical Society in 1908. He promoted the idea that Jewish classical music should be based on traditional themes.
An-Ski directed a series of ethnographic expeditions between 1911 and 1914, and it may have been on one of them that he collected the Hassidic tune Mipnei Ma. It asks the question, “Why did the soul descend from the supreme height to the deep pit?”
Brian Thornton tells of Lev Aronson’s tribulations in the Nazi concentration camps, and discusses Mipnei Ma:
Marc Lavry: Kineret. Like Lev Aronson, Marc Lavry (1903-1967) came from Riga, Latvia, and studied at the Berlin Conservatory. He conducted the Berlin Symphony and the Riga Opera before rising antisemitism drove him to Palestine in 1935.
Lavry composed over 400 works – songs, opera, symphonies, and chamber music – but most of them have never been published. Kineret is an impression of the Sea of Galilee.
Brian Thornton explains why he created SMU’s Lev Aronson scholarship and music festival, and introduces Kineret:
Lev Aronson: Hassidic Dance. "After the War," Thornton says, "Aronson found that the melodies of the cantoral tradition, Klezmer tunes, Yiddish songs, and the Jewish art music [from] the beginning of the 20th century had new significance [to him]." Hassidic Dance is based on some of those tunes from Aronson’s childhood.
Brian Thornton introduces Hassidic Dance:
Bach: Cello Suite #3 in C, S1009. Johann Sebastian Bach knew naught of the synagogue, of course. He was a dedicated Lutheran, inscribing Soli Deo gloria at the end of every sacred work. But his six cello suites are central to the instrument’s repertoire, and Brian Thornton has warm memories of Lev Aronson coaching him in their performance.
Brian Thornton introduces Bach’s Cello Suite #3:
Patrick Zimmerli: Sonata Kol Nidrei. With one foot in the world of jazz – he’s a saxophonist of Brian Thornton’s own generation – Patrick Zimmerli takes us into a world quite different from the one that shaped Lev Aronson. Or does he? The language of Zimmerli’s sonata is of our time, but its Kol Nidrei origins root it firmly in Jewish traditions: this is the text that introduces the Yom Kippur evening service. Brian Thornton commissioned this solo sonata for his Lev Aronson Legacy concerts and recording.
Brian Thornton introduces Zimmerli’s Sonata Kol Nidrei:
Brian Thornton’s CD, Kol Nidrei and Beyond, Lev’s Story, at CDBaby
Cleveland Orchestra Cellist Honors His Teacher at WKSU News