Classical Album Review: Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 90th(!) Recording — Orchestral Works by Grammy-Winning Composer Avner Dorman
By Ralph P. Locke
The Israeli-born composer, a professor at Gettysburg College, composes music that intrigues the mind and glistens with fresh sounds.
Avner Dorman: Siklòn and Four Other Works for Orchestra.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, cond. Gil Rose.
BMOP Sound 1090—66 minutes.
I’m always intrigued to discover a major composer I have somehow missed. That was the case with Jonathan Berger (b. 1954), whose powerful one-act, one-singer opera Mỹ Lai I praised here a few months ago. Now I’m pleased to let people know about the much younger Avner Dorman (b. 1975), an Israeli-born and -trained composer who came to America, did further studies at Juilliard (with John Corigliano), and teaches composition and music theory at Gettsyburg College.
I first got to know Dorman through his bouncy, kaleidoscopic, seven-minute long Tanyaderas, for orchestra, a work that received its premiere this past April by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under Andreas Delfs, as part of a wide-ranging concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. (The program book, to which I contributed descriptions of the works performed, other than the one by Dorman, which he wrote about himself, is here.) Tanyaderas was inspired by the singing and dancing of Sephardic women, i.e., women from Jewish communities, in places such as Turkey, whose ancestors lived in Spain until the Christian rulers, beginning in 1492, expelled all Jews and Muslims who would not submit to conversion. I was delighted to encounter a new piece that could capture the attention and imagination of almost anybody in a concert audience, while still offering enough richness to hold the interest of listeners alert to complexity and surprise (such as constantly changing meters). Two months later, Tanyaderas received a well-received European premiere in Hamburg, in a version with somewhat reduced orchestration.
Well, I just received an entire CD devoted to five other orchestral works by Dorman, starting with his intense and remarkable Ellef Symphony (2000), completed when he was 25 and was eager to hail, though not without moments of dread, the imminent arrival of the new millennium. (“Ellef” means 1000 in Hebrew.)
Also included is a symphonic poem in five movements (played without pause), none of which is longer than seven minutes. The piece’s intriguing title is Uriah: The Man the King Wanted Dead (2009). The reference here is to King David, who committed adultery with Bathshebah, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and who made sure that Uriah would die in battle, as a result of which David was not permitted by God to build the Temple in Jerusalem. The whole package is a fascinating exercise in program music; and, like the best examples of program music from the past, such as Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (which he labeled an Overture-Fantasy), one can listen to it on its own with complete satisfaction or choose to connect various moments in it to the story that is being told.
My favorite of the five works is perhaps Astrolatry (2011): two seven-minute movements — again, with no pause between them — that glory in a nearly unimaginable range of glittering and cheerily blasting orchestral colors and combinations, often glittering, sometimes, as the booklet-essay by fellow-composer Clifton Ingram puts it, “full of ground-stomping and pounding.” The title of the piece, taken with the titles of the two movements (“Celestial Revelations” and “The Worship of the Stars”), may evoke a wide range of associations for listeners. I couldn’t help but note that the word “Astrolatry” seems to invoke “idolatry,” and this led me to think about how the search after some kind of out-of-this world guidance or some ideal of absolute or superhuman perfection has often been misguided and destructive. (Indeed, God, in the Hebrew Bible, specifically warns the Israelites not to seek answers from the heavenly bodies — Deuteronomy 4:19.) Still, Dorman himself stresses that the first movement evokes the “beauty and mystery” of the cosmos. So maybe this whole work can be taken as a vision of the possible, not just the forbidden or mistaken. Who is to say, finally, where insight might come from?
The shortest work on the disc is the one-movement Siklòn (2015), an eight-minute symphonic poem described by the composer as having been inspired by a visit to Miami, a city whose energy and cosmopolitan cultural mix reminded him of his native Tel Aviv. “Siklòn” is the Haitian word for hurricane, deriving from the French word “cyclone.” In English, the word “cyclone” is used differently, to mean a tornado. There’s a great image of a dust-swirling tornado on the front cover of the CD box, but a hurricane photo would have been more apt.
The piece indeed seems to parallel the course of a hurricane: it begins full-intensity (including some skittering scales using the archetypal Middle Eastern augmented second), then comes a calm episode at the center, the “eye,” followed by a return of the perpetual-motion feeling, though now drawing on rising major-mode scales. The composer has described this final section as evincing “a joyful energy,” and commentator Ingram extends this: “it is easy to imagine the city of Miami picking up the pieces and rebuilding.”
The second shortest work here is Dorman’s own orchestration of a set of three pieces that he composed for pianist Orli Shaham, entitled After Brahms. This work will immediately engage lifelong classical-music lovers, because the first two movements incorporate, in imaginative ways, phrases and gestures from two beloved late piano pieces by Brahms: the Intermezzi Op. 118, no. 1, and 119, no. 1. Sometimes various elements in the original pieces are extended quasi-mechanically, or notes that would have been released in the original are held over (as if with the pianist’s sustaining pedal), creating an intriguing blur. The wisdom and sorrow that Brahms knew how to convey so well resonates in all three movements of After Brahms, including the third, even though this one does not refer to a specific Brahms piece. The orchestration, as in the four other works, is luminous and inviting. If we think of a composer as a kind of narrator, Dorman comes off as an inviting and confiding one here, never overbearing or hectoring.
The performances by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under their founder Gil Rose, are assured and, as is so often appropriate in Dorman’s music, glistening and vividly recorded.
I should add that BMOP has become in recent years the most-frequently recorded orchestra in North America. The Dorman is release 90, and ten more are scheduled to appear by December 2023, making a round 100!
The informative and thought-provoking booklet is available as a free download, which will help fans who choose to stream the pieces instead of purchasing the album directly.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).