Born December 4, 1883, son of a bandmaster, Simeon Bellison began studying clarinet with his father at age 9. About a year later—age 10—astonishing though it may seem, he joined not only his father’s Voluntary Firemen’s Band but also several military bands.
When conservatory director and future New York Philharmonic conductor Vasily Safonov heard 11-year-old Simeon play, he arranged for the young prodigy to join the Moscow Conservatory clarinet class of Professor Joseph Friedrich. After seven years Bellison graduated with honors and began his lifetime career of performing and teaching. He quickly began winning first-clarinet positions in top symphony and opera orchestras.
In about 1902 Bellison began touring, organizing several chamber groups and venturing in ever-wider circles. His short novel, Jivoglot, a work of autobiographical fiction, and now serialized in 2010 issues of The Clarinet, recounts the adventures of an itinerant musician buffeted by an array of contractors, impresarios, and booking agents—a tale gigging musicians of every epoch, at least since the troubadours of the 14th century, seem to relive. The ultimate value of Jivoglot, however, may be its cultural window into late-tsarist Russia.
In about 1918, Bellison embarked on a world tour with Zimro, a chamber group he’d organized with string quartet, clarinet, and piano. In retrospect the tour seems brilliantly timed, dodging the unsettled politics and economy of his post-revolution homeland. In 1920, as the tour swung through the United States to good reviews, Simeon Bellison was named first clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, a post he held until the spring of 1948. During these more stable years the energy of his youth did not diminish, and he became associated concurrently with a wide array of chamber groups in the United States and Canada, also soloing with respected conductors in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia. It has been suggested that Bellison may be the only clarinetist whose résumé as a soloist includes appearances on the concert stages of three continents: American, European, and Asian.
Immediately after the Bellisons set up housekeeping in New York in 1920, Simeon began teaching, attracting top students from the U.S. and Europe, eventually including swing legend Benny Goodman. As Bellison’s pupils opened their own teaching studios, they would wax eloquent about their days as students of the great Bellison. And so to this day, musicians lucky enough to trace their clarinet genealogy back to the master proudly claim for themselves a Bellison pedigree.
A widely published arranger for the clarinet and the organizer in the mid–20th century of a pivotal New York clarinet ensemble that grew from about 6 to 75 members, Simeon Bellison is an important pioneer in the growth and popularity of the larger ensembles made up of instruments from the clarinet family.
An excellent example of the Bellison pedigree is the late clarinetist Kalman Bloch, a student and colleague of Bellison who went on to have a long and stellar career. Bloch was part of a tier of students Bellison felt were extra gifted. After playing first clarinet in Bellison’s famed New York ensemble, he secured the first-clarinet chair in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, playing for many years under a series of legendary conductors. He then passed the Bellison influence and sound along to his daughter, Michele Zukovsky, the current principal clarinetist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ms. Zukovsky is said by Bloch and others to be today’s major clarinetist who sounds the most like Bellison. Her tribute CD, Simeon Bellison: His Arrangements for Clarinet, on Summit Records, is an affectionate group of recordings tracing that sound from Bellison himself, to Kalman Bloch, and then on to Michele Zukovsky.