Wednesday , August 17 2022
avner dorman
Photo by Bernd Seydel

Exclusive Interview: Composer Avner Dorman on New York Premiere of ‘Nigunim,’ Working Through the Pandemic, Writing Music for Kids and More

Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman won the prestigious Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music in 2018 for his Nigunim: Violin Concerto No. 2. When Analekta released the album New Jewish Music Vol. 2 including this work, I wrote that “it’s the new pieces by [Kelly-Marie] Murphy and [Avner] Dorman that make this album a standout…Mournful, perky, rollicking, dissonant, ethereal – Dorman’s vocabulary of moods is as varied as his use of modes.”

One world-changing pandemic later, Nigunim will finally get its New York premiere on July 26, as part of the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts series in Central Park. Lara St. John will be the featured soloist, this time fronting the scrappy Brooklyn-based orchestra The Knights. Also on the program is Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor (“Scottish”).

avner dorman
Avner Dorman (photo by Felix Grünschloß)

Avner Dorman studied composition with John Corigliano and Josef Bardanashvili. He holds a doctorate in composition from the Juilliard School. His debut opera, Wahnfried, was a finalist in the World Premiere category at the International Opera Awards in 2018.

The composer was kind enough to speak with us about the inspiration for Nigunim, and what he’s been doing since 2018.

How did you spend your time and energy (creatively or otherwise) during the pandemic? Have you created work that might otherwise never have existed?

The first year or so, my wife and I both taught our classes and lessons via Zoom, and we had the kids at home (my daughter did fourth grade virtually, and our son stayed at home until age two, thanks to the pandemic). I continued to write music – perhaps more music than ever. In many ways, it was challenging, but I am grateful that I could continue my creative work during these challenging times.

I wrote several pieces as part of projects to bring music to audiences online – works that also addressed social issues of our time. The most significant one is a work I wrote for the choirs, orchestra, and wind ensemble at Gettysburg College, titled A Most Sacred Oath. I took Barack Obama’s inaugural speech (the recording itself) and set it as a large-scale operatic monologue. It was designed so that these large ensembles, who couldn’t rehearse in entire groups due to social distancing, could record the piece in sections and mix the work in the studio.

barack obama

Please tell us a little about the sources and inspiration(s) for Nigunim. How did you create a work inspired by Jewish songs without actually using those melodies?

My research for this piece included listening to music from Jewish communities around the world, recalling music I had heard from different diasporas, and internalizing the styles and gestures. I also analyzed these melodies and found some surprising commonalities.

I also read literature about the Nigun, its history, spiritual significance and uses, and its musical structure.

When I started writing the piece, I wrote new melodies that incorporated these ideas and concepts but did not directly quote any of my source material.

Kids Need Music Too

Your monodrama Kundry premiered in Israel last October, and your opera for children, Die Kinder Des Sultans, premiered in Germany in March after a pandemic delay. How did you come to write an opera for children? And have you written other works for young audiences?

A group of German opera houses approached me in 2018 to write a children’s opera for them. The dramaturge and the CEO of the Dortmund Opera had attended my first opera, Wahnfried, in Karlsruhe, and they thought I would be the right person for this new opera.

The opera is a modern fairy tale about a brother and sister who go on a journey to find their father, whom they’ve never met, and who is the ruler of a mythical eastern kingdom named Sultania. The story draws upon traditional fairy tales and classic operas involving magical creatures and lands. The music juxtaposes eastern and western traditions with a modern upbeat flair.

I have written another large-scale piece for young audiences called Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu. It’s a work for narrator, percussion, and orchestra, based on a classic Israeli book by Ephraim Sidon. The book encourages children to question and bring down walls created by previous generations – walls between different factions of a family, parts of a city, different religions, different countries, and any other walls dividing us.

Finding Balance

Like many artists, you wear multiple hats – composer, conductor, educator. How do you fit all three into your schedule over the course of, say, a year?

Good question! I try to combine the different aspects of my life – so [that] doing one thing enhances the other, rather than taking away from it. So, for example, my teaching informs my composition. Often, I will give students composition assignments and complete them myself as well – as a way to generate my ideas while also creating examples for my students.

When I conduct, I try to choose works that I love, and that would inform what I am composing – so, again, studying a score for conducting also benefits my composition.

Finally, I try to compose every day. That is my passion and the one thing life’s other obligations and demands can easily take over.

You teach theory and composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College. Has your career as an educator resumed in person? How have long periods of remote studies affected your students? Have they affected you as an instructor?

I have been teaching in person during the past academic year. Teaching online has forced me to become more organized in creating my courses and materials. It also required me to provide different types of sources for my students – which I think have benefited those with varying learning styles.

During the pandemic, I was involved in the creation of an online platform for teaching keyboard harmony. This platform has made a substantial positive impact on my teaching (also [that] of colleagues who use it) – since it gives students immediate feedback, as if they are working with a tutor. It also meant that I learned a bunch of computer programming, which I enjoy.

The availability of remote teaching has also made it possible for me to maintain continuity when traveling. So I do appreciate some of the advantages that came from the pandemic.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a new orchestral piece and a chamber piece for a very unusual ensemble. I can’t say too much about the details right now.

In addition to the July 26 Naumburg concert, there are many upcoming opportunities for audiences to hear Avner Dorman’s music. Visit his website for information about concerts this summer in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and Germany.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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lara st john the knights avner dorman naumburg

Concert Review (NYC): The Knights and Lara St. John with Music of Avner Dorman and Felix Mendelssohn at the Central Park Bandshell

St. John joined The Knights for Avner Dorman's violin concerto based on Jewish songs from around the world.