Joseph Achron in Saint Petersburg © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.
Arnold Schoenberg firmly believed that Joseph Achron was the most underrated composer of his generation. Schoenberg praised his originality and claimed Achron’s music was destined for eternity. Yet, despite his enthusiastic praise, Joseph Achron never became a household name.
Violin buffs no doubt know his Hebrew Melody, a much loved encore of many violinists, starting with Heifetz.
Hebrew Melody, here played by Josef Hassid:
Hebrew Melody is inspired by a theme Achron heard as a young boy in a synagogue in Warsaw. It is one of his earliest compositions, dating from 1911, and his first “Jewish” work. In the year he composed it Achron joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music.
Joseph Achron as a child in Warsaw
But let’s start at the beginning. Joseph Achron was born in 1886 in Russia and died 57 years later in Los Angeles. His mother was an estimable singer, and his father was a cantor who also played the violin. Joseph received his first violin lessons from him, but soon he was replaced by professional teachers. At age eight he gave his first performance, and by the time he was eighteen, he had finished his first compositions.
© Milchen Archive
His career as a composer properly started in the twenties of the last century. In Saint Petersburg, Achron joined the composers of the “New Jewish School.” Several years later he moved to Berlin, where he got acquainted with the works of the French impressionists, and the Second Viennese School.
In 1924 he made a trip of several months to Palestine. He not only performed there, but also collected a huge variety of folk music he discovered there. The notes he took during this trip were later used for several of his compositions. In his Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 60 (1925) several Yemenite themes can be heard.
Joseph Achron (right) with members of the cast of The Golem. H. Leivick (center), New York.
Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.
In 1925 he moved to New York where he was invited to compose music for the Yiddish theatre. Achron wrote the music for several of their productions, including Stempenyu, a play by Sholem Aleichem about a Jewish violinist.
The Stempenyu Suite, performed by Karen Bentley Pollick and Jascha Nemtsov:
In the thirties Joseph Achron moved to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.
Joseph Achron with Otto Klemperer (right). Klemperer conducted the premieres of Achron’s second and third violin concertos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection
Much of Achron’s music still awaits discovery by wider circles, although numerous attempts have been made to rekindle interest in it. Since the nineties of the last century two CDs came out with compositions for violin and piano. Different as they are, both interpretations are highly valuable, if only for the opportunity they provide to finally get to know – and appreciate – his compositions.
On the ASV label we hear Miriam Kramer, a young English violinist, once named ‘United Kingdom’s Performer of the Year’. Her CD starts with a slightly hesitant rendition of the 1ère Suite en Style Ancien from 1906 ( a world premiere recording). From Sonata No. 1, Op. 29 onwards her tone gets steadier and in Children’s Suite it is possible to enjoy her without any reservations. Her pianist, the Dutch Simon Over, provides excellent support. The reason I am not overenthusiastic lies not with Kramer, but with Hagai Shaham, the soloist on the second Achron CD.
(Joseph Achron: Music for Violin & Piano; Miriam Kramer, Simon Over; ASV CD QS 6235)
Hagai Shaham (not related to Gil) is an Israeli from the school of the famous violin teacher Ilona Feher. His tone is warm and dark and he plays with bravura and agility, and plenty of schmaltz when necessary. Unashamed enjoyment from start to finish! If you do not fall in love with this CD, then I give up.
Shaham’s regular accompanist is Arnon Erez, also from Israel. The textbook is in two languages: English and Yiddish (Stempenyu. The violin music of Joseph Achron; Hagai Shaham, Arnon Erez; Biddulph LAW 021)
Fifteen years after their Biddulph recording Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez turned their attention to Achron’s music for a second time. In 2012 they recorded the Complete Suites for Violin and Piano for Hyperion, including the Stempenyu Suite and, of course, the Hebrew Melody (Hyperion CDA67841).
English translation Remko Jas
© Simon Fowler /Decca
Joseph, finalmente mio!
An unconventional opening of an interview, perhaps, but I had good reasons for it. Our Amsterdam appointment was cancelled twice, leaving Facebook and Skype the only remaining option. Even that way, it took me quite a while to finally get hold of him.
© Simon Fowler/Decca
Him being Joseph Calleja, one of the famous tenors of his generation, with a busy current schedule and an even busier future. He was born in Malta, and had turned thirty-five just before our interview in the last week of January 2013.
“January is an outstanding month for tenors,” he laughed. “Mario Lanza, Domingo, my teacher, me…. There must be something special in the January air.”
To settle all disputes: his name is pronounced ‘Kaleja.’ Not the Spanish way, or the Italian or Portuguese way. Well, that is easy for the Dutch to get right then, I say, which makes him laugh again.
Calleja has close ties to the Netherlands. After all, his international career started in this country. At age nineteen (sic!) he sang Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for the Nederlandse Reisopera. Quite a feat, with which he impressed a lot of people. His voice was very light and sweet at that time; his high notes supple and pure, almost like Tagliavini.
Calleja as Leicester in Bergamo in 2001:
In 2004, at the age of twenty-six he made his debut with the Dutch National Opera as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. He had already sung the part before, in 2001, at an open air performance in the port of Rotterdam.
He still has a lot of friends from his Dutch period, and even remembers a sentence in Dutch: “eet mijn konijn niet op” (Do not eat my rabbit),
He laughs heartily at this. The anecdote is well known in the meantime, but he does not mind repeating it once more. He was seeing a Dutch girl at the time. When he visited her, he told her little sister that it was a Maltese custom to eat a lot of rabbit. The little girl grabbed her rabbit in shock, exclaiming ” eet mijn konijn niet op!” He has always remembered the phrase since.
Joseph Calleja sings “To the canals of Amsterdam I have pledged my whole heart” at the 2013 rendition of the Grachtenfestival (Canal Festival) accompanied by the Royal Concertgebouworchestra directed by Antonio Pappano:
Nine years ago you told me that of all current tenors the voice of Pavarotti felt closest to yours. You said: “If I were to die tomorrow, and could listen to one voice, the final voice of my life, that would be Pavarotti. He is my biggest favourite, my true idol. There have been, and there are, other big and beautiful voices, but Pavarotti remains number one for me.” Do you still feel the same?
“Yes, I do, in fact, although I have to admit I admire Jussi Björling more and more every time I listen to him. It is very well possible this has something to do with how my own voice develops.”
Your voice is often compared to that of great singers of the past In addition your career develops in an astonishingly rapid tempo. How do you feel about that yourself?
“It is true. It can be a little scary at times, everything happens so fast, which can be a burden. The audience expects you to be in top form every evening, which is impossible because the human voice is no violin. But on the other hand I would never want to miss all these fantastic experiences.”
I was speaking to Marilyn Horne a while back. She encouraged young singers to take their time, and never to rush things.
“I know, but this so difficult nowadays! I believe you do have to rush, but in a clever way. Meaning to study like crazy and work hard, but to be cautious in choosing your repertoire at the same time.”
Coming up the next four months are several radically different roles: Tebaldo in I Capuletti e i Montecchi in Munich, Rodolfo in La Bohème in Chicago, Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera in Frankfurt and Nadir in the Pearl Fishers in Berlin. Not to mention the concert performances of Simon Boccanegra and the Verdi Requiem. How does he switch from the lyrical Nadir to Gustavo who is definitely more dramatical?
As Gustavo in Ballo in Maschera at ROH © Catherine Ashmore
“I do not believe you need to sing Gustavo in Ballo differently than Duca in Rigoletto or Manrico in Trovatore. All those roles were written for the same type of tenor. True, the orchestras were smaller then, and the tuning was lower. That does put extra pressure on a tenor nowadays. You have to sing higher and louder than intended. Every singer goes his own path, and you make mistakes on the way, but it is possible to learn from those mistakes.”
“Certainly, I made some mistakes myself. My first La Bohème came too soon, and I have also sung a few other roles too early. But like I said, you learn from that. What helps are a good, solid technique, and good advice.”
Unlike many of his colleagues you don’t mind modern stagings.
“Respect is all I demand. I do my job, a director hopefully does his. I need to trust the director, believe that he knows what he does, and why he is doing it. I leave judging a director to the audience and the critics. Singers are not supposed to do that. We do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to respect each other.”
What if a director wants to put you on stage naked? As a singer you are already vulnerable fully dressed! Would you go that far?
“I would not know, honestly. Luckily nobody has ever asked me to strip, although I did sing a Duca in my boxer shorts once.”
Kidding aside: “if you only did the things you liked, you would be out of work ten out of twelve months. So I only say no when something can harm my voice.”
In January and February 2013 Calleja toured Europe with the program of his CD Be my love – A Tribute to Mario Lanza. Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras; almost all tenors of hat generation idolized Mario Lanza and his movies. But you were not even born yet when he died. How does someone of your age got to know him?
“When I was young I played in a rock band. My uncle felt I had to listen to some good music, so he made me watch all these Lanza movies. That is how my love for opera started. What a fabulous singer! On his own, he had the charisma of four or five tenors. I also have all his CD’s. And I do not care one bit he sang with a microphone.”
“I have nothing against crossovers, especially not when done right. What does crossover even mean? For me it means having fun, making good music. I am not Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams. I am and will always remain an opera singer. But when done the way the three tenors did it, for example, I love it!”
“Why does an opera house have to be the only place where opera is sung? In the past men in Italy, and in Malta too, used to bring serenades by singing opera arias. The women stood in their open windows, like in a opera box. That is the way my teacher met his wife. Were not opera singers hundred years ago the pop singers of now? Well, on Malta they certainly were!”
I tell him I dreamt the night before our interview that we met in the lobby of a large hotel. He was sitting there with all his brothers and sisters and told me he would start to include folk songs in his recitals. Does he actually sing folk music?
“Our folk music is not really suitable for a trained tenor voice. Malta is like Sardinia: the music is raw. Italian music is part of our folk tradition. We grew up in the Italian tradition, the canzoni form part of our culture.”
© Simon Fowler/Decca
Which languages do you speak at home? English, Italian of Maltese?
“Hahaha. All of them, and all of them together at the same time!”
What do you find harder? Singing opera, or touring with a recital?
“Touring, without a doubt. You pack your luggage, unpack it, go on stage and sing, go to sleep and pack your stuff again. Sometimes you can rest for a few days in between concerts, but often you are supposed to give interviews, or show up for some event, or sing something. All of that is very tiring.”
Does that explain why I had to wait so long for my interview?
”Hahahahahaaa! I am not commenting on that!”
© Michele Agius
Why do you sing, actually?
“Why do I sing?” He ponders for a moment, apparently the question is harder than it seems. “I sing because I can express all great emotions through it: love, sadness, anger…. everything!”
English translation: Remko Jas