Jacob Avshalomov ’43, pictured with his wife, Doris Felde Avshalomov ’43, in 1973.
Composer, conductor, and mentor to thousands of young musicians, Jacob was born in 1919 in Tsingtao, China, the son of musician and composer Aaron Avshalomov, who fled Russia at the outset of the Revolution, and Esther Magidson, whom Aaron met on a sojourn in San Francisco. Growing up in China, Jacob attended more than a dozen schools; learned to speak fluent English, Chinese, Russian, and French; showed early promise in music; and was the fancy diving champion of north China.
When Jacob was 14, his parents separated. Having already graduated from high school, Jacob took a job in a Chinese factory to help support his mother. In 1937, Japan invaded China and he enlisted with a British volunteer corps for a time before escaping with his mother to San Francisco. Through family connections, he began his studies with composer Ernst Toch in Los Angeles and connected with Jacques and Lucia Gershkovitch, who led the Portland Junior Symphony. The Gershkovitches invited Jacob to live with them in Portland, where James Hamilton [admission director 1934–58] admitted him to Reed on the strength of his “Why Reed?” essay. “I had no high school graduation papers—they were all left in war-torn China, and I’d been out of school for a lifetime,” he said in an interview in 2008.
Although Jacob’s early training focused on the piano, Jacques Gershkovitch started him on percussion in the Junior Symphony and then switched him to cello. There he made friends with oboist Bill Lamont ’41. At a postconcert session with Bill at violist Max Felde’s home, Max’s sister arrived—a “beautiful girl in a crimson dress.” She was Doris Felde ’43 (MA ’63), fellow musician, poet, and printer, whom Jacob married in 1943. Highlights of Reed for Jacob included time with Doris and classes and projects with Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English & art, 1929–69], who also introduced them to the joys of calligraphy; Prof. Rex Arragon [history 1923–62]; Prof. Kay Stuurman [English and drama 1938–42]; and Prof. Harold Sproul [music 1938–43]. Jacob was paid 50 cents an hour to compose and revise music for Stuurman’s theatre productions (notably, Cues from the Little Clay Cart) and for Sproul’s classes. “Another of my favorite professors was F.L. Griffin [mathematics 1911–54]. He made things so, so clear that you wondered why you hadn’t thought of it yourself.”
Jacob never forgot his time on campus. “It gave me a feeling of intellectual solidity. The two years that I had there, the humanities courses that I took—it made me feel as though I knew what civilization was about. I knew where to look for what I needed. I never felt at sea.” He left Reed after his sophomore year to study with composer Bernard Rogers at the Eastman School of Music. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in London (where he somehow found time to conduct English madrigal groups and an international chorus). He later transferred to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Office of Strategic Services as a translator. He briefly considered a career in that field, but chose to pursue music after receiving a fellowship at Columbia University and a position on the music faculty (1946–54). There he taught theory and composition and founded the Collegiate Chorale, with which he presented some notable premieres. Over several summers, he taught at Reed, the University of Washington, Tanglewood, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, and the Aspen School of Music. Summers were also his time for composing his own works. Jacob and Doris welcomed two sons, David and Daniel, in New York. Both became professional musicians.
In February 1954, Jacob came to Portland to conduct the Junior Symphony’s 20th anniversary concert. Four months later, he accepted the post of music director, succeeding Jacques Gershkovitch, who had died. Jacob led this fine youth orchestra, later renamed the Portland Youth Philharmonic, for an astonishing 41 years. The orchestra recorded many works and made tours of Europe, Japan, and Korea, in addition to bringing an appreciation of the rewards and discipline of making music to thousands of young players in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. A, as he was known, worked with more than 4,000 students, heard over 10,000 auditions, and conducted 640 concerts. He saw the work as a way to make a contribution to and create involvement in a community. He commissioned works from many distinguished composers and invited many of the Pacific Northwest choruses to perform with the orchestra. Jacob pointed to his years at Reed as providing “a great sense of strength” for his teaching at Columbia and his work with the symphony. He was a perfectionist in his role as mentor, and young musicians thrived within the setting. He instilled discipline and dedication in keeping with a favorite saying: Res severa est verum gaudium. (“Serious things are the true joy.”) When it came time to perform, he always encouraged the musicians to “respond to the moment.” Members of the Portland Youth Philharmonic issued a statement at the time of Jacob’s death, noting that no single person cared more or did more to preserve the orchestra for future generations than did Jacob. “His legacy includes not only the alumni who performed with him, but all of those who have followed and will continue to follow.”
Jacob wrote several books, including Avshalomovs’ Winding Way: Composers out of China—a tale of father and son composers as they pursued their ideals in the Far East and across America—and Tripping on Oriental Rugs: A Fifty-Year Passion, which described his enchantment with hand-woven and hand-knotted Oriental rugs through the five decades he spent searching, buying, selling, swapping, and restoring them. (He viewed his collection of rugs as works of art and noted their relationship to the designs of classical music.) He also produced two versions of Music is Where You Make It and The Concerts Reviewed. Building on the musical training with his father, Toch, and Gershkovitch, Jacob also worked with Bernard Rogers and Aaron Copland. He served on the National Humanities Council (1968–74) and the Music Planning Section of the National Arts Endowment (1977–79). His compositions have been heard throughout the world and brought him a Guggenheim Fellowship, the New York Music Critics Circle Award, the Naumburg Recording Award, and the Alice M. Ditson Conductor’s Award, among others. He was recognized as a Portland First Citizen and honored by the Portland Center for the Performing Arts Foundation for his outstanding contributions to Portland’s art community. He also received the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s highest honor, the Mary V. Dodge Lifetime Achievement Award for Alumni.
Reed recognized Jacob’s many achievements and contributions by conferring on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1973. Commissioned by Prof. Herb Gladstone [music 1946–80], Jacob wrote a composition for the 75th anniversary of the college and performed it at Reed with members of the orchestra. Jacob’s compositions included chamber music and music for orchestra, chorus, keyboard, stage, and voice and piano. His choral music achieved national recognition. His work, which has been described as eloquent, thrilling, finely wrought, inventive, and full of vitality, contains within it “the presence of that deeper spring from which a real creative gift draws life.”
Survivors include Doris, David, Daniel, and grandsons Jesse and Zachary (also trained musicians). The Portland Youth Philharmonic concert Celebration of Life will be presented in honor of Jacob on October 13 in Kaul Auditorium.