When he looked up and saw the stars over Gettysburg, internationally acclaimed composer Avner Dorman knew he had come to the right place.
For the lifelong urban dweller, accustomed to premieres of his work in New York, Tel Aviv, or Munich, the unobscured night sky was an inspiration. Literally.
Now, amid his duties as a professor of theory and composition at Gettysburg College's Sunderman Conservatory of Music, Dorman is focused on a new symphonic poem about ancient people's ritual worship of the stars. "Astrolatry" is one of six compositions by Dorman that will have their world premieres over the next few months, with orchestras like the Israel Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony.
Of course, heavenly beauty isn't the only sign that Dorman has found a harmonious fit in Gettysburg. Instead, there's a constellation of evidence ranging from the practical — he doesn't have "a big city in my face all the time," yet Gettysburg is only 90 minutes from D.C.'s Dulles Airport — to the profound: the liberal arts, the moral duty to teach, and the future of classical music.
But first, who is Avner Dorman and what kind of music does he write?
Dorman is a rising star. At the age of 25, he became the youngest composer to win Israel's prestigious Prime Minister's Award. He holds a doctorate of musical arts in composition from the Julliard School in New York. Champions of his work include internationally renowned conductor Zubin Mehta, who has conducted premieres and performances of Dorman's music by the New York Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic orchestras.
As for his music, the New York Times said this in a review of Dorman's piccolo and mandolin concertos: "Themes with a modal, Middle Eastern accent often weave through sharp-edged, modernist harmonies; and the influences of jazz, pop and Indian music often crop up as well. Consistent hallmarks are the vigor of his writing and the virtuosity it demands of its interpreters." A recording of the mandolin concerto was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Such an eclectic mix isn't surprising from a composer who majored in physics as an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University, became the lead algorithm developer at a software startup, and produced some 4,000 ringtones for a major cellphone service provider in Israel. The ringtones included not only American hits, but also Israeli pop that Dorman described as "a mashup of modern western pop and Arabic music." He has written and orchestrated for films and television as well, in styles ranging from Russian folk to slam-bang action. The latter was for the silver-screen version of the video game "Streetfighter."
A similarly wide-ranging atmosphere is what Dorman most appreciates about Gettysburg College's Sunderman Conservatory. "My students have majors like computer science and music. I can relate," he said. "Because of the liberal arts philosophy, it's much more open-minded than some schools. My colleagues are into everything from ethnomusicology to jazz, all the stuff I like." Such intellectual expansiveness makes perfect sense to a composer whose latest works include a symphonic poem based on a literary fairy tale with deep psychological implications: "(not) the shadow (not after Hans Christian Andersen)" will have its world premiere this November.
Teaching in a liberal arts environment is exciting, Dorman said. "You have to sharpen your mind all the time while teaching. When you have to explain something very basic, you have to answer the most difficult questions. And when you see a student get over a hurdle, and suddenly hear what they can do, it's a great satisfaction. I learned so much from my teachers (including prominent American composer John Corigliano) it would almost be immoral for me not to pass it on. Books can't carry it. If people don't learn from the previous generation, our knowledge will be lost."
From his own mentors, Dorman learned two key principles of teaching. The first is rigorous commitment: "If you don't do your work, don't bother coming to me." The second is learning through creating: "My teachers would always point out examples from the literature for absolutely everything, so nothing stays in the theoretical realm. The experience of music is as important as the analysis."
To prove Dorman's point, works by six of his students were performed by the renowned Da Capo Chamber Players during the ensemble's recent campus residency. "It's a very terrifying thing to write something and present it to the world, but you can't let fear stop you," Dorman said. "Most of the students hadn't composed before, but the ensemble was genuinely impressed."
Dorman had a similar experience when his percussion concerto, "Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!," was premiered by world-famous conductor Zubin Mehta. "Early on in rehearsal, he turns to me — he's conducting the Israel Philharmonic, this is where I grew up (Dorman's father, Zeev, played bassoon in the orchestra), this is my dream — and he says 'Is this OK? Is this the way you want it?' And all I could think was 'You're asking me?' But I've found that, the greater the conductor, the more they go to the composer to find out what they had in mind."
Such engagement with new music is the key to a continuing resurgence in the classical tradition, Dorman said, noting that orchestras around the world are winning over a new generation by reaching beyond familiar works that have been recorded countless times. For example, when "Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!" premiered in New York, Dorman asked that it be marketed as "a percussion event" in more urban and less upscale publications. The strategy worked perfectly, he said. "It sold out because it wasn't marketed as a fancy event only for the very few. I've never seen so many young people at the New York Philharmonic."
As an educator, Dorman is nurturing young musicians with a lesson he learned from his own teacher, composer John Corigliano. "He told me 'You have to go deep inside to see what you want to do.' I still cherish those words. It's the most natural thing in the world to keep spitting out what worked before, but you've got to go in deep or you're going to go nowhere."
Dorman is definitely going somewhere. Many orchestras around the world will perform new and existing compositions over the next year. His world premieres alone make for a long list:
• Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic premiered "Azerbaijani Dance" in Jerusalem in early October. It is an orchestration of a solo piano piece by Dorman, featuring folk elements and strong rhythm.
• The Alabama Symphony Orchestra, where Dorman is the composer-in-residence for 2010-11, planned two world premieres: Dorman's Saxophone Concerto in October this year, featuring renowned jazz soloist Joshua Redman; and "Astrolatry" in March, 2011.
• Also in November, 2010, the Marin Symphony and conductor Alasdair Neal plan to premiere "(not) The Shadow."
• January will bring the world premiere of "Uriah," an anguished piece depicting the mind of a Biblical figure who was fatally betrayed by King David, by the San Francisco Symphony and conductor David Robertson.
• Dorman's friends, Orli and Gil Shaham, siblings who play piano and violin respectively, will present a new violin sonata at New York's 92nd Street Y in April.
Also, the Gettysburg College Symphony Orchestra will perform Dorman's "Ellef Symphony" and other works Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. in the College's Majestic Theater.
In addition, Dorman will complete a one-year residency with the Stockton Symphony in California, including the commission of a new work based on an Israeli children's story with the goal of encouraging kids to read and learn about conflict resolution. The Music Alive residency, funded by Meet the Composer and the League of American Orchestras, was announced in October.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition that includes Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate and other distinguished scholars among its alumni. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Contact: Jim Hale, senior staff writerPosted: Tue, 26 Oct 2010
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