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Jeremiah Symphony


Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
1037 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205


Celebrate the 100th birthdays of Leonard Bernstein and PJS/PYP’s second Musical Director Jacob Avshalomov, with master works by each composer. Opening with Johannes Brahms’s powerful Tragic Overture, the program continues with Avshalomov’s exhilarating tone poem, The Taking of T’ung Kuan, inspired by one of China’s most famous poets, Li-Po (701-762). Mr. A. grew up in China and this work commemorates one of many battles at this well-known mountain pass site. 

 Concluding the concert is Bernstein’s deeply emotional Jeremiah Symphony, sung in Hebrew by mezzo-soprano soloist Laura Beckel Thoreson. Take the plunge on a journey from wild exhilaration to a place of profound depth as the orchestra explores the emotions of tragedy and lamentation.

Hearing is believing. Discover for yourself why The Chicago Tribune called the orchestra “brilliant in all departments!”


  • Brahms: Tragic Overture

  • Jacob Avshalomov: The Taking of T’ung Kuan

  • Bernstein: Jeremiah Symphony
    With vocal soloist Laura Beckel Thoreson, mezzo-soprano


The Tragic Overture, Op. 81 by Johannes Brahms is one of a pair, the other of which is much more well-known: the Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80.  Brahms composed them while on summer vacation in 1880, writing his publisher that he was not sure whether to call it “Tragic” or “Dramatic” or something else.  He explained that the celebratory Academic Festival overture ‘led him’ to write the second one, as “I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy.”

The work is traditional sonata form (exposition-development-recapitulation)—but within that form, the piece pulls us through a whirlwind of emotions.  Heroic proclamations that are sometimes agitated, sometimes confident give way to quieter, wistful and watchful melodies and later to unsettled dotted-notes and syncopation, never able to rest in one mood for too long until the hammered, final, fatal chords.

Critics have debated whether it was intended for a specific tragedy, e.g. a production of Goethe’s Faust.  The temptation is understandable because of Brahms’s statement above, because the ‘sturm und drang’ (storm and stress) of the work recalls Goethe’s work, and German literature to that time had no more archetypal tragic figure than Faust.

Brahms asserted, however, that it was not connected to any particular narrative.  Rather, it evokes the tragic hero’s battle and journey in general, leaving space for listeners to enter and experience it rather than assign specific allegorical meaning. Until recently it wasn’t as popular on orchestral programs as its counterpart, and PYP has performed the Academic Festival twice as often as the Tragic, possibly because, as Brahms put it, “one weeps while the other laughs.”

Jacob Avshalomov: The Taking of T’ung Kuan

Born in 1919, Jacob Avshalomov spent the first 18 years of his life in China. He grew up learning music from his Russian-Jewish composer father, who had chosen to dedicate much of his career to bridging western and Chinese idioms. Upon relocating to the US for college, Avshalomov played percussion and cello with Portland Junior Symphony (later PYP) while studying conducting with Jacques Gershkovitch and attending Reed, before leaving for Eastman School of Music and service as an interpreter in WWII.

For Avshalomov’s own first major orchestral composition in 1943 (revised in ’47 and ’53), he followed in his father’s footsteps and took inspiration from a pair of anti-war poems by the treasured 8th century Chinese poet Li Po describing an epochal rebellion that nearly destroyed the Chinese empire to create The Taking of T’ung Kuan [modern Tongguan].  Avshalomov called it ‘a battle piece’ that ‘sort of screams’.  While most of the piece does convey war’s chaos and violence, the more pensive middle section may reflect the image of woman depicted in the poems worrying over her soldier-lover, “only to learn how futile all her tears are.” Musically, it bears many hallmarks of Chinese influence such as pentatonic scale, counterpoint lines rather than a single melody supported by harmony, and foregrounded use of percussion.

When Avshalomov took over as Musical Director of PJS/PYP in 1953, he programmed The Taking of T’ung Kuan the very next year, and twice more over the course of his 41-year tenure. This season marks a new era: the first time PYP will have performed The Taking of T’ung Kuan under the baton of anyone other than the cherished “Mr. A.”


After graduating from Harvard in 1939, Leonard Bernstein began composing what he called a “Hebrew Song”.  It involved verses from the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, which are, as Bernstein described them, “the cry of Jeremiah as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged, and dishonored after his desperate attempts to save it”.

He put the piece aside when he began graduate study at Curtis to focus on piano and conducting. In 1943, he brought it back as his First Symphony, with the first two movements added, for a competition that he didn’t win.  Fritz Reiner, then conductor of the Pittsburgh Philharmonic and one of Bernstein’s mentors, gave his protégé the opportunity to conduct that orchestra in the First Symphony’s wildly successful premiere.  Bernstein’s career as composer as well as conductor was underway.

The three movements form a rough exposition-development-recapitulation sonata form.  In “Prophecy”, the first movement, Bernstein hoped to “parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people.”

The second movement, “Profanation”, which is ironically tempo-marked “Scherzo” or joke, deploys syncopated, jazzy rhythms to create, as Bernstein said, “a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people.”

After the aching vocal part of the finale, “Lamentation”, thematic echoes from the first movement complete the circle of prophecy, fulfillment, and mourning.

Bernstein reflected years later that this youthful work began his exploration of the “struggle that is born of the crisis of our century: a crisis of faith….I wouldn’t say that it’s God up there watching over me, as much as me down here looking up to find Him – I guess you would call that a chief concern of my life.”