Avner Dorman’s Compositions: Percussive Fairytales

On an unusually warm day in September, I am sitting down with Israel-born composer, Avner Dorman, at New York’s Bryant Park “Pain Quotidien” café. Before long, I am privy to a sneak preview of his freshly finished score for his latest composition, “Azerbaijani Dance”.

Based on a piano piece of the same name, Dorman’s latest composition will have its world premiere this October, with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta in Tel Aviv. This event will also ignite a season celebrating the legendary Maestro’s upcoming 50thAnniversary of his conducting debut.

Dorman tells me about his father, Zeev, a long-time bassoonist with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.

”At first, my father was concerned about me wanting to follow in his path as a professional musician. And then later, it also became somewhat of a peculiar situation that my father had a post with the Philharmonic Orchestra, and I was a composer. I had to prove my independence. Thankfully, it was only after the time I graduated from the music academy, that my father went on to become the head of the school. If this would have happened during my student years, it would have been really awkward”.

Avner’s father had also been conducting the Israeli Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, a talent forge for future IPO musicians which had been merged in 2005 with the Academy, establishing the new Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at the Tel Aviv University.

He also tells me about his grandmother, who had left Berlin/Germany on the last youth train, saving her from deportation to a concentration camp. His grandfather had left his native Leipzig, in the early days of the Zionist movement.

Growing up with his parents in Ramat HaSharon just outside of Tel Aviv, young Avner was influenced by the many different cultures around him.

“There is also some Ukrainian and Jewish Sephardic cultural heritage in my family’s background”, he says. “I think, I did get some of my darker looks from that”. And then we both marvel about the widely dispersed Jewish people and their ability to absorb all different kinds of cultures.

One of the most exciting aspects of this ability to blend into different cultural environments is the creative manifestation of this process. In Dorman’s case, the diversity he grew up with reaches right into his musical oeuvre where influences from different composers and genres – from Bach to Bartok and from jazz to Middle Eastern works – reverberate. The 2006 three-piano sonatas recording by Naxos, featuring pianist Eliran Avni, already entail the wide stylistic range, yet his highly original and individual concept. Following his studies at Tel Aviv University, Dorman completed his doctorial thesis as a C.V. Starr fellow at the Juilliard School where he had studied composition with John Corigliano. As his career developed, he joined forces with students he had studied with years ago, a few of them – like percussionists Adi Morag and Tomer Yariv – going back as far as his years at Tel Aviv University. One of his significant early works, “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins”, was based on an intense collaboration between the three of them.

Dorman explains: “We worked for 6 months together. I would bring something, we fought about it, and I went back and brought something else. They performed it maybe hundred times before it became the flagship of their later formed ‘PercaDu’ Ensemble. When a piece gets performed a lot of times, you really get a chance to get it right. Performance practice is done for a reason. It’s hard to do a premiere – so much harder than the second time around.”

Things really started to take off for Dorman when Zubin Mehta saw a performance of “Spices” on Israeli TV in 2005. He was commissioned to score a full orchestral version. “Maybe it was the Indian scales embedded in the composition that had attracted the attention of Zubin Mehta, or the great performance of the duo – who knows”, Dorman wonders.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the piece the same year, and Maestro Mehta subsequently took it to the New York Philharmonic. In 2009, Marin Alsop performed it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.”

His second percussion concerto, “Frozen in Time”, had its premiere in Hamburg/Germany, featuring Martin Grubinger and the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The event commanded standing ovations; Grubinger and the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern will be premiering the concerto in the U.S. in 2011.

When I ask the successful young composer how to best describe his music, he offers:

”Music director Michael Stern once described my music as being rhythmic and percussive, with a non-western flavor. In a way, this sums it up pretty well. ‘Percussive’ needs perhaps a bit of explanation. Maybe it is best described as bearing an effect of immediacy, not a slow approach from a distance, but an urgent attack, commanding attention”.

I was very curious to learn about the different experience a soloist might be subjected to when working with a living composer, as opposed to performing repertoire of a composer long deceased.

How does the possibility of working together, of being able to ask questions or offer input affect the process? What are the specific challenges, and what are the opportunities when working side by side?

“It is a fascinating process”, says Dorman.

”Sometimes the soloist tells me: ”I know what you mean, but it does not work here; let’s try to figure out how to make it work. I sometimes change things, when something is not that effective. Soloists know their instruments better than I ever will, so I like learning from them.”

When I ask him how soloists inform his compositions, he gets enthusiastic:

”It’s so much about the personality of the soloist. If I write a work for a soloist it is always about his or her aura. When I was working with percussionist Martin Grubinger, for example, I came to listen to him perform twice – in Salzburg and in Vienna. Recordings do not transmit enough of the personality of the performer. I then wrote a maximum and a minimum version of the score – a minimum score still full enough, and a maximum score, maybe difficult for him to handle. He is an incredible virtuoso; with one exception, where we both decided something did not work musically, he chose to play the maximum version.”

Another example is Dorman’s experience of working with Alon Goldstein, the pianist of the “Lost Souls Piano concerto”, composed in 2009. Says Dorman: “When I heard him play some Bach … the quieter he got, the more captivating he became. The second movement of the concerto is very intimate. If I would have written it for someone else, I would have written if differently.”

And what are Dorman’s plans for the remainder of 2010?

“In the November 2010 – Mai 2011 season, three orchestras – The Winnipeg and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Marin Symphony Orchestra in San Francisco will perform my “(not) the shadow (not after Hans Christian Andersen)”, named after the romantic German fairy tale about a man who loses his shadow… a dark story.

Coming attractions: (not) The Shadow – Marin Symphony – November 2010, Winnipeg Symphony- February 2011 and Nashville Symphony May 2011.

The 16th of April, a premiere by Brother and Sister Violinists Gil and Orly Shaham will be performed at the 92 Street Y in New York.

And I have a premiere with the phenomenal jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman coming up, with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. They are playing a lot of my music this season, since I am their composer in residence. Ooh, and there is one more “big” premiere to mention, “Uriah” which will take place with the San Francisco Symphony with David Robertson conducting.

“I really enjoy working with friends”, says Dorman. “I have a growing group of musician-collaborators who are also my friends. I am sure I am going to forget some, if I am going to name them …” but he names mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, violinist Arnaud Suessmann, pianist Alon Goldstein, percussionist Martin Grubinger.

His latest recording, that took place at Suny, Purchase, was an absolutely great experience, as he describes:

”The Metropolis Ensemble under conductor Andrew Cyr did not leave anything to wish for, thanks to the enthusiasm and commitment of the entire Ensemble. I could not have been happier.”

This concerto recording for Mandolin, Piccolo, Piano and Concerto Grosso, has been released by Naxos in January 2010.

Update : This article has been revised from an edition published by BlogCritics and has some corrections concerning performing dates. Also – and this is really exciting – since I happened to be in Israel just know, attending the Gala celebration for the IPO I actually heard Dorman’s “Azerbaijani Dance” live performed by no other than Maestro Zubin Metha, with the IPO ( that includes the lovely and personable Zeev Dorman, the father of our young composer) And I will say – it was a wonderful, charismatic piece, lively and upbeat. Everybody enjoyed, including the Maestro who dove into it, in full swing.    Ilona Oltuski- getclassical-


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