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In Remembrance Of A Cellist – And A Master Teacher

by Jerome Weeks 6 Jun 2014 7:00 AM

A week of concerts and master classes starts Monday with some of the leading cellists in the country – all in memory of a musician and teacher most North Texans probably have never heard of. Find out who he was and what he meant.


Aronson-editlev-aronsonLev Aronson in Berlin in the ’30s, left, and in Dallas. Photo outfront from Shutterstock

Some of this country’s finest cellists are coming here next week for six days of concerts and master classes. It’s all being done in the name of a musician most North Texans may never have heard of. Or simply forgot. KERA’s Jerome Weeks looks into the origins of the Lev Aronson Legacy.

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Sam Holland is the director of SMU’s music division, and he recalls when he first heard of Lev Aronson. “I arrived in Dallas in 1992,” he says, “and I saw the name ‘Lev Aronson’ on a plate outside a door in the basement of this building” –  he’s sitting in his office in the Owen Arts Center — “and had no idea who it was until I asked. And his story is one of extraordinary courage and humanity and artistry.”

Longtime Dallasites, followers of the Dallas Symphony, may remember Aronson. He was the orchestra’s principal cellist for nearly two decades. He retired in 1967 because of a heart condition. But dozens of leading cellists across America know Aronson for what he became next: a master teacher, first at Baylor, then at SMU.

Michael Coren plays cello for the DSO. A former student of Aronson, he argues his teacher wasn’t simply a great teacher: “He’s part of why America is the equal of the world.” Aronson was part of that generational and continental shift caused by World War II — the forced exodus of artists, intellectuals and scientists to America. In the case of Aronson and musicians like him, Coren says, it’s led to two generations of American musicians and music teachers being trained in “what was once a uniquely European tradition.”

Like many of those Europeans, Aronson came here a Jewish refugee — with next to nothing. Born in Germany, he grew up in Riga, the capitol of Latvia and began playing professionally when he was 13. He was establishing his career in Berlin — a student of the great Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and already a recording artist — when he and his family were forced into Nazi labor camps. Aronson lost his prized Amati cello to the Germans — the Amatis were the Italian family who taught Stradivarius his trade. He spent the rest of his life trying to get it back or to receive reparations for its loss from the German government. (Frances Brent;s 2009 biography of Aronson is called The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.)

In the end, twenty-five members of the Aronson family died in the Holocaust.

Coren recalls watching CNN in the early ‘80s with Aronson. The report was on Solidarity, the trade union movement that helped free Poland from Soviet control. The TV footage showed the ship docks in Gdansk. Aronson sat up, pointed at the TV and shouted, “There, there, there! That’s it!’ And I said, ‘That’s what?’ He says, “I helped build that dock. That’s where we were as a labor crew – from the camp that I was in.’”

But the defeat of the Nazis didn’t provide much relief. Aronson was promptly thrown into a Soviet prison camp — as a suspected German spy. With help from Piatigorsky, Aronson escaped into the American sector of Berlin — and from there to America. DSO conductor Antal Dorati, who was auditioning musicians in Europe, hired him. So he came to Dallas in 1948. A man who knew five languages and had already released records in Berlin found himself starting his life all over again in a town where  — as Coren points out — at the time, you couldn’t get a copy of The New York Times.

Yet, by 1974, Aronson had co-written The Complete Cellist, still considered by many to be an essential guide to the instrument.

brian editCellist-conductor-festival-founder Bryan Thornton. Photo credit: Jerome Weeks

In the ‘80s, Brian Thornton was a twelve-year-old kid from Plano when he began lessons with Aronson. “I think the thing that impressed me the most was that he showed how much music could mean to somebody,” he recalls. “With his experience in the Holocaust, where he lost basically everything that was important to him, even his belief in humanity, music was the one thing that stuck through for him. And he used to say that music was his religion. And for me, being a young teenager in Dallas at the time, it was really a revelation that someone could have that belief, that music could mean that much to him.”

Thornton now plays cello for the Cleveland Orchestra. He says Aronson taught him passion for the instrument and how to make it speak. Coren corroborates this approach, recalling how Aronson would make up lyrics for the music he was playing, singing “I love you, I love you” or whatever he felt the music was expressing. Essentially, Coren says, what Aronson conveyed was that music was a language, and that playing music should feel and sound as easy as telling a story.

Last year, Thornton started the first Lev Aronson Legacy, a week-long festival of recitals and classes. The second one begins Monday. It’ll feature performances by such renowned students of Aronson as Ralph Kirshbaum, who has soloed for conductors Zubin Mehta and Sir Colin Davis — and started his own cello festival, the Piatagorsky International in Los Angeles. Other performers include Emanuel Borok,, the former concertmaster of the DSO, and Mike Block, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble — he’ll be playing with the Dallas’ own world-music folk group, the Obscure Dignitaries.

At first, Thornton says, he actually didn’t intend to launch such a festival. He visited the SMU campus several years ago looking to establish a scholarship in Aronson’s name — and he had an experience that echoed Holland’s, years earlier.

“As I was walking around and talking to people about Mr. Aronson,” he recalls, “many people didn’t remember him. And I felt like, in my experience with him, he’s experienced so much loss himself.

“I couldn’t let him be lost again.”

  • Lev Aronson’s performance of Hasidic Dance:
  • Lev Aronson’s performance of Kinereth (the Hebrew word for the Sea of Galilee):