VC INTERVIEW | Composer Alexey Shor on Collaborating with a Competition
The Classic Strings International Competition just recently announced the winners for its Violin and Cello editions: violinist Dumitru Pocitari and cellist Michał Balas received first prize, respectively.
This year, American-Maltese composer Alexey Shor served as Composer-in-Residence. His work Phantasms, for violin and orchestra, and his Musical Pilgrimage, for cello and orchestra, were performed by the competition participants.
The Violin Channel had a chance to talk with Alexey about what it was like having his compositions included in a competition such as this one.
Tell us about the two works that were performed at this year’s Classic Strings violin and cello competitions?
As the title "Musical Pilgrimage" implies, this 3-movement cello concerto takes the listener on a "tour" of my favorite musical styles.
It has parts written in a very classical manner, parts reminiscent of Baroque and 19th century virtuosic showpieces, and it concludes with a sort of a tango (but in 3/4 and scored in a manner more classical than a listener typically expects from a tango).
The violin concerto "Phantasms" consists of 3-movements alluding to daydreams, ghosts, and apparitions.
The first movement is called "Dance of the Graces." In Greek and Roman mythology, graces are three minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility. The Three Graces have been represented in art on multiple occasions. Most famously in Sandro Botticelli's painting "Primavera" and in Antonio Canova's sculpture "The Three Graces." Unlike most first movements of concertos that are based on two principal themes, the first movement of "Phantasms" is based on three main themes representing the three dancing graces.
"The Elegy," of course, evokes feelings of profound sadness and death.
The last movement is called "The Flight of a Falcon." Falcons are the fastest animals on earth. They can dive at speed of over 200 mph.
So, fittingly, the last movement is the fastest and the most virtuosic one, with many difficult passages that require extremely high levels of technique.
What was your inspiration for the two works?
I can't name anything specific. I just enjoy writing for strings, and many of my musical ideas come to me with a string soloist in mind.
With the two works you composed, what elements were you hoping the candidates would be able to bring out? Did they successfully achieve this?
I hoped that these concertos would give the performers opportunities to exhibit various aspects of their art — there are soaring melodies, virtuosic passages, many mood changes, etc...
I feel the competition attracted some of the most promising young musicians in the world, and it was a real pleasure to hear them play my music.
You have composed 4 violin concertos and 2 cello concertos. Tell us about your experience writing for string soloists, and how you go about the process...
When I hear new music in my head, it's often with a violin or cello soloist, so I, naturally, end up with many musical ideas that are initially written down for a string instrument and a piano (sometimes for a string instrument, piano, and one or two other instruments). Initially, I write without much thought about the technical aspects of playing the instruments, but in the later stages, I always spend a lot of time and effort to make my writing idiomatic to the instruments. Often I have to consult with players regarding trickier technical aspects.
How do you approach writing a new commission? Do you prefer direction and perimeters or a completely open creative process to extrapolate an idea?
Most of the time I have complete freedom over my creative process. But on a few occasions when I did have specific restrictions, I didn't mind it.
Restrictions are not necessarily 100% negative. There is something comforting in knowing exactly what the result is expected to be.
What’s the best piece of advice you were given when starting out in this field?
I got a lot of advice from my friends on specific aspects of the compositional craft — which books to read, which scores to pay special attention to, etc... But, on a more global scale, I always knew what kind of music I wanted to write.
What would be your advice for young composers today, who are hoping, like yourself, to make a full-time career from writing music?
Beyond a few very obvious cliches, like "work hard and believe in yourself," I don't know how much useful advice can be given to a general audience. People are all different, and they all have to face unique challenges of finding their strong suits, their true interests, and, eventually, their individual voices.