Four Biblical Tableaux

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During my father’s sojourn in Portland, Oregon, from 1926 to 1929, he was sustained by its Jewish community, to which he was introduced by his dear friend Jacques Gershkovitch, the founding conductor of the Portland Junior Symphony. My father’s associations with that community led to the formation of the B’nai Brith Orchestra under his musical direction. Shortly afterward, Rabbi Henry J. Berkovitz asked him to compose an orchestral work for the dedication of Temple Beth Israel in Portland.

Although my father had scant Jewish education or religious upbringing in eastern Siberia, he had absorbed enough of his Jewish heritage to both inspire and facilitate the composition of this work, which portrays three biblical scenes—Queen Esther’s Prayer, Rebecca by the Well, and Ruth and Naomi, followed by a Processional. Two factors are evident in this music as influences on my father in general: his interest in Chinese music and his admiration for the music of Ernest Bloch. Bloch’s influence appears in these tableaux in the occasional use of augmented seconds as melodic intervals, cadences on open fifths, and organically conceived grace notes. These features are also discernible in traditional Chinese music.

Soon after the dedication of the synagogue, my parents and I left Portland to return to China. A farewell concert was organized, at which the Four Biblical Tableaux were performed in the Little Theater of the Studio Building. The work then lay dormant for decades, until 1971, when I was invited to present a dedicatory concert with my youth orchestra for the New Greater Portland Jewish Community Center. I included this work, together with Bloch’s Schelomo.

By: Jacob Avshalomov