The 2019-20 season is stacking up to be a milestone experience for composer Avner Dorman, with three major ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, presenting regional premieres of his music.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will offer the first American performances of his percussion concerto, Eternal Rhythm, on Oct. 3-5, with Cynthia Yeh as soloist. In addition, on April 5, the Dortmund Opera will present the debut of his children’s opera, The Children of the Sultan, a co-commission from three opera houses that serve four cities in Germany. “So you are basically guaranteed 40 performances for a new opera, which is unheard of,” said Dorman, 44, who serves as associate professor of music theory and composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg (Pa.) College.
His Double Concerto for Violin and Cello will receive its Canadian debut Nov. 27 by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. (The Boston Symphony Orchestra presented the work’s U.S. premiere Aug. 3 at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass.) The concerto was co-commissioned by three orchestras (those two, plus the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in Australia) to mark the 70th birthday of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who often performs with his wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth. “They wanted a piece that would be a new vehicle for them,” Dorman said.
Any discussion of such a work is impossible without a nod to the most famous piece for this combination: Brahms’ Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102. Dorman said that he made no reference to the earlier piece in the first movement, which ventures into its own sound world, but he does quote it in a “sort of twisted way” in the third movement. “By the time I got to the last movement, I felt this piece had enough of its own character and personality that I could refer back to the Brahms,” he said. “But at first I was wary of doing anything that would be too similar to the Brahms. Not only is it the one big double concerto, but also it’s also basically his last symphony. It’s such a great work.”
An Israeli native, Dorman moved to the United States in 2002 for doctoral studies at the Juilliard School with composer John Corigliano. Among the works that got Dorman noticed early on was the cleverly titled Variations Without a Theme, which he finished after moving to the United States. It was premiered by conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in 2003 and won an award for best composition the following year from the Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers in Israel. The success of that piece led to a commission from Mehta, the Israeli percussion duo PercaDu and the Israel Philharmonic for Spices, Perfumes and Toxins!, a concerto for percussion duo and orchestra.
In all, Dorman has written three percussion concertos. “It’s kind of been a central aspect of my writing,” he said. He feels an affinity for percussion, which he attributes in part to once having a rock band and writing percussion parts. When he wrote his first percussion piece, Udacrep Akubrad (it became the basis for the first movement of Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!), for fellow students at Tel Aviv University, he worked with them to gain an in-depth understanding of the instruments. “It’s just a big interest of mine,” he said. It helps that the demand for such works is high, because there are no percussion concertos by famous historical composers like Tchikovsky or Brahms. “It’s a field that is in its infancy in terms of the classical repertoire,” he said.
Eternal Rhythm was written at the behest of percussionist Simone Rubino, who won the ARD International Music Competition in 2014 with a performance Dorman’s oft-played first percussion concerto and wanted another. This new work was commissioned by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Hamburg, Germany, and the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, Romania. The former presented the world premiere in October 2018.
The concerto is built around the spiritual notion of rhythm being an innate part of life. “If you think about the Big Bang or other theories of the universe, rhythm is in everything,” he said. “The model of the atom is a cyclical rhythm. We can’t really think of the world in time, without cyclical rhythm being at the core.” The composer chose to write the work in five movements — an unusual choice for him — to allow for more exploration of this basic principle.
The work begins with a short introduction based on a harmonic series of overtones. “Each of the movements echoes the general idea of the harmonic series — an infinite series of oscillations — in a different way,” he said. “The soloist alternates between a variety of percussion instruments, including vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel and crotales [a kind of cymbals], as well as a melodic set of tom-tom drums and a variety of tin cans and cowbells.”
Guest conductor James Gaffigan suggested Frozen in Time for the Oct. 3-5 concerts. But that work had already been previously performed in Chicago in 2012, so Dorman’s agent was asked if the composer might have anything else. And the newly completed Eternal Rhythm fit the bill ideally. Dorman is thrilled at the booking: “It’s very early in the life cycle of a piece to have another soloist and such a prominent orchestra take it on.”