This month, Southern Methodist University celebrates the life and work of cellist and Holocaust survivor Lev Aronson, who made Dallas and SMU his home after escaping a concentration camp in Latvia.
The fifth annual Lev Aronson Legacy Festival, which began last Friday, features free master classes from some of Aronson’s most prominent students, story swapping, spoken word and a film screening, among other things, all geared to impart Aronson’s memory and passion to as many people as possible.
Brian Thornton, a cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra, teacher and former student of Aronson’s, started the festival in 2012 out of a profound sense that Aronson’s story was slipping away and that it ought not be lost.
“Lev was a very special person,” Thornton says. “Every person that he taught or worked with, he changed their life in some way and sent it off in a more positive, influential direction.”
Thornton’s hope is that, through the festival, Aronson’s story would show that art can make a significant positive difference in the world and inspire people to adapt whatever they do for the greater good.
Aronson, who was born in Germany in 1913, learned to play the cello at a very early age and began to teach others to play almost as soon as he learned.
But in 1931, Nazis occupied Riga, Latvia, where Aronson was living. The Nazis stripped him of his Amati cello and forced him and his family to work as slave laborers in the Riga-Kaiserwald system.
Twenty-five of Aronson's family members died in the Holocaust. In 1944, the Nazis moved Aronson to the Stutthof concentration camp, where he survived Nazi torture.
The Russians liberated the camp in the spring of 1945, but they suspected Aronson of being a German spy because he had survived four years of internment. They deported him to another camp.
Aronson escaped from his new captors and fled to America, where, with the help of his teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky, he relearned to play the cello and built a career as a cellist in Dallas.
For Aronson, music was the anchor and refuge that kept him alive during the Holocaust. Thornton recalls a story Aronson used to tell in which the Nazis assigned him and some other prisoners one hour to load and unload a truck with rocks.
If they failed to do so, the Nazis were going to shoot them. In the face of death, Aronson sang a series of three cello concertos he knew to be roughly 20 minutes long to help pace himself and the other prisoners. When Aronson recounted this story to Thornton, he said, “Music saved my life.”
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“Right when I heard him say those words, I knew that my life was going to go in a different direction,” Thornton says. "That’s the kind of feeling we like to pass on at this festival.”
Aronson is one of the most influential cello teachers in history, not just because of the personal impact he had on his students, but also because of the caliber of player he helped to produce. Some of his students are considered among the best cello players in the world, including Lynn Harrell, Ralph Kirshbaum and Melissa Kraut.
“I want people to come away with the idea that important [artistic] work can actually make a difference in the world,” Thornton says.
The Lev Aronson Legacy Festival, through Saturday, June 17, SMU Meadows School of the Arts, 6101 Bishop Blvd., events are free-$35. For a complete schedule of events and prices, visit levaronsonlegacy.com.