VC BLOG | Composer Avner Dorman on Creativity and Collaboration
The Violin Channel recently caught up with Avner to discuss learning to write for string players and on winning the Azrieli Music Prize
My first instrument was the cello. I loved it as a child and by third grade, I started taking lessons. My cello playing did not inspire listeners, but it did provide inspiration for my very early attempts at composing. I sat patiently recording myself on one mono tape recorder and then playing that back and overdubbing another layer using a second tape recorder. The following year my family moved to London, and I abandoned my cello lessons. When we returned to Israel when I was in fifth grade, I started studying the piano, which ultimately became my main instrument.
Even though I am not a string player, writing for strings is central to my work as a composer. I have written four violin sonatas, four violin concertos, a concerto grosso, a cello concerto, a double concerto for violin and cello, string quartets, trios, and many orchestral pieces. One of my violin concertos, Nigunim, received the Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music in 2018 and has received premieres in multiple countries since.
I have learned a lot from orchestration books, score study, and my wonderful composition and orchestration teachers, most particularly John Corigliano and Josef Bardanashvili. But I especially value the knowledge I gain through working directly with string players. I always encourage my own students to collaborate with instrumentalists and learn through these collaborations. Personally, I find it allows me to understand the physicality of the instrument, the psychology of playing it and gives me the freedom to explore new ways for using the instrument.
In high school, I would write short violin pieces and ask friends to read them for me. For my high school graduation project in Israel, I assembled a group and wrote a short concerto for piano, strings, electric guitar, and drum-set. I wrote many arrangements for string quartets and chamber orchestra during my mandatory army service in Israel, sometimes with little to no notice. I heard these arrangements performed almost immediately, allowing me to grasp very quickly what works and what doesn’t.
The first time I worked extensively on a solo violin piece was with violinist Eyal Shiloach for my Concerto for Violin and a Rock Band. As we rehearsed and performed the piece, I continued to finesse the solo part based on our discussions about the work. The collaboration was so successful that we formed a band and continued to tour the piece and other works for several years. The first time I wrote a 'proper' concerto for violin and orchestra, it was for soloist Ittai Shapira. Ittai was just starting to compose large pieces himself at the time. We would meet and exchange ideas and knowledge about our respective areas of expertise.
This type of collaboration has repeated itself in many contexts. I believe that when composers and performers collaborate, everyone benefits. For example, writing my Third Violin Sonata for Gil Shaham and Orli Shaham led to a delightful friendship with both of them. I learned so much from their approach to chamber music that I was inspired to orchestrate the piece as a concerto. This is the concerto that went on to win the 2018 Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music. I have written several new pieces for Orli since. When I wrote an encore piece for Hilary Hahn, her input encouraged me to make the piece more challenging and virtuosic than what I had originally imagined.
Perhaps the most surprising collaboration emerged when writing a double concerto for Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth. Growing up in Israel, I attended the Israel Philharmonic concerts regularly, and I came to greatly admire Zukerman’s playing. I went to hear him play as often as I could. I did not expect him to be too involved in writing the piece and was pleasantly surprised to discover how collaborative he is in his approach. After I sent him and Amanda the first movement, Pinchas and I started speaking on a regular basis. We would Facetime and go through sections of the piece bar by bar. Hearing him play the music I was writing, discussing its intricacies, was an incredible experience - one I will forever cherish.
Life sometimes has a funny way of coming full circle. While I didn’t continue learning the cello, my 10-year-old daughter is quite serious about her violin studies. I help her practice every day and am truly enjoying her lessons with the wonderful Peter Sirotin. Now I get to learn violin technique systematically, step by step. I love every moment of it.
The Azrieli Music Prizes present three categories, Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music, Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, and Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music.
The next edition will take place in 2022 and composers can apply for the Jewish Music Prize until August 1.