Acclaimed composer Alexey Shor is a well-traveled man, and his works have been heard all over the world. He is composer-in-residence for the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra Academie, the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, the Salomé Chamber Orchestra, and the Malta International Piano Festival and Competition. His music have been performed by many distinguished soloists and ensembles. The Overture to his ballet Crystal Palace was heard at the 40th Gramophone Classical Music Awards ceremony in London in 2017.
His Travel Notebook concerto perfectly symbolizes the citizen-of-the-world side of the Kiev-born, Maltese-American composer. The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sergey Symbatyan is about to bring this powerful work to some of the most prestigious halls in the U.S., along with music by Shostakovich and Maltese composer Joseph Vella.
Shor spoke with us about his life, his working methods, and the music he loves.
You write music that’s melodic and beautiful. Do you see yourself as an heir to the Romantic tradition?
I don’t really think of my music in such programmatic terms. I think it’s a combination of what I like in music and my own life experiences. Roughly speaking, what I like is 19th and 18th century music. But I am a person who grew up in the 20th and 21st centuries. So what comes out is music that pays a lot of homage to the 19th and 18th and is extremely recognizable as such, I hope, but it’s still written by a modern person. There are lots of things that I do that were not done back then.
You’ve said that you don’t have formal training in composition, but that you attend so many concerts you feel like a “professional audience member,” and the desire to engage the listener shapes your approach to composing. Are there certain composers, either past or modern, who particularly engage you as a listener, or that you take especially as inspirations?
It’s a very predictable list. To me Bach is like a god of music, there’s absolutely nobody who even comes close. Most of what he wrote, after the first 10 seconds of listening I have goosebumps. And then it continues from Bach in a predictable fashion. I like Haydn and Mozart. I actually like Haydn an awful lot – to me he is on par with Mozart in many ways. And Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin. I also have a few people that I really like who are not as famous compared to how much I like them, like Clementi and Hummel.
The closer we get to our time the less I connect with music emotionally. The word “interesting” comes to mind more than the words “touching my heart.”
The movements of Travel Notebook were inspired by your visits to different parts of the world. What’s your process of transcribing your impressions of a place into music?
It varies. Sometimes there is a very clear connection between some place and some music that starts playing in my head. And sometimes it’s more intellectually induced – after a visit to Ascot I felt like writing something that evokes running horses. In general, it’s a pretty predictable process. I jot down some musical ideas and then when I’m back home I see if it’s worth pursuing further.
I think the audience that attends classical music concerts is somewhat similar from country to country. The bulk of what people like is still the same. Superficially the audience is very different – in Japan you can hear a hairpin drop, in other places people fidget more – but at the end of the day the people you find in concert halls have pretty similar tastes and reactions.
You have a background in mathematics. Yet your music feels emotional and warm rather than calculated and rules-based. Can you comment on this?
Actually, I don’t find a lot of connection between music and mathematics. I think the myth about this connection is mostly due to the fact that Bach and after him many other composers used to encode cryptograms and other combinatorial curiosities into their scores – the most famous example is Bach encoding his own name. But you can enjoy the music of Bach and not know any of that. I wouldn’t even really call it mathematics, I would call it numerology.
I’ve known a lot of mathematicians who were also skilled performers. But that’s different from composing.
Yes, I think it’s simply that you find that with people with high levels of education tend to be interested in music.
Many of your works are piano compositions. Was the piano your own primary instrument?
The way I play the piano is not even remotely useful for the composition process. I write a lot for the piano because it’s sort of a default instrument. If I have some musical ideas, piano is the instrument that allows you to write both melody and harmony, so things get written down first for the piano. If I feel strongly that what I’m hearing in my head is, for example, for violin, then I would write it for violin and piano accompaniment. Everything else falls into place later. So lots of pieces start their life by being piano pieces.
Writing for piano or other individual instruments is one thing. How did you learn orchestration without formal musical education?
It’s pretty much how I learned everything else: from books. In the case of orchestration I actually find it somewhat easier to learn from books than anything else, because a lot of it is just information, like the ranges of instruments, so you just memorize these things. And then a lot of it is rules of thumb, like these two instruments sound good together. Processing and memorizing concrete information goes much faster than acquiring more vaguely defined skills.
There are actually excellent books written about it. Tchaikovsky has a book on harmony, and I find that book very dry and not terribly useful. But Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a book on orchestration that I think is amazing. There are a lot of resources. So between books and reading other people’s scores, there’s a lot of information.
I also think I have pretty good natural intuition. When I start orchestrating I get pretty strong feelings about what instruments should play what roles, what kind of textures to use, etc. – it kind of all falls into place.
The program also includes a work by Maltese composer Joseph Vella, who died earlier this year. Did you know him?
Yes, we met a few times after concerts where his music was played. He was a lovely, lovely person. He was full of life, he loved what he was doing, he was extremely nice, and complimentary about my music, I wish I had known him better.
You have an international background. You’re described as Maltese-American or American-Maltese, but you were born in Kiev. How do you describe yourself?
Well I don’t really know! I left the Soviet Union in 1991, when I was 20 years old. Since then I’ve moved around a lot, which is kind of typical for a person from the Soviet Union who left in the early ’90s – the country was a mess, people were leaving with all kinds of strange documents. I spent time in Israel, I spent time in Malta, in Canada, but for most of my adult life I lived in the United States, so in terms of where I live I’m more American than anything else.
How did you become associated with the Malta Philharmonic?
I happen to be a Maltese citizen, and so I guess that attracted their attention to my music, and they liked it and it went from there.
Your music has been played by many different performers and orchestras around the world. But you are composer in residence at the Malta Philharmonic and its affiliated academy. Does that make a performance by the MPO special for you?
These concerts are special on many levels. First, the music is coming to the most important concert halls in the U.S. It’s played by the MPO with whom I have a relationship for years. And it’s conducted by Sergey Symbatyan, a great champion of my music who has conducted it many times. Also the pianist, Ingolf Wunder, is absolutely wonderful, and I hope the audiences fall in love with him and with Maestro Smbatyan!
Alexey Shor’s ‘Travel Notebook’ will be performed by the Malta Symphony Orchestra led by Sergey Smbatyan with pianist Ingolf Wunder in three upcoming U.S. concerts. Visit these links for tickets:
– The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on 27 November
– The Music Center at Strathmore near Washington D.C. on 29 November
– Carnegie Hall in New York on 1 December