The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Israeli composer Avner Dorman’s “Azerbaijani Dance” at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday. But it will not be the first time the conductor, Zubin Mehta, one of the world’s most prominent maestros, collaborated with Dorman. In fact, Mehta essentially gave Dorman his start.
In an interview, Dorman, 35, explained how Mehta first came across his work. Fourteen years ago, Mehta was about to open the Israel Philharmonic’s season with a modern piece by George Crumb. The piece used only non-traditional instruments like a singing saw and mandolin, “but the night before the premiere,” Dorman explained, “they realized they couldn’t play ‘Hatikva’” with that instrumentation. As Israel’s national anthem, the orchestra traditionally opens each season with the tune.
“My friend was playing in the orchestra” that night, Dorman continued, “and asked if I could figure out a way to play ‘Hatikva’ with those instruments. Essentially, I did it over night. It sounded like a Tibetan, Chinese version of ‘Hatikva,’” he added. But it worked. Mehta liked it and continued to play it before every concert featuring Crumb’s piece.
Today Dorman is rising star. Based in Los Angeles, his works have been performed by orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and championed by Mehta, Marin Alsop and other renowned conductors. Before receiving his Ph.D. from Juilliard a few years ago, Dorman became, at 25, the youngest composer ever to win the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award.
But Dorman’s career is still closely linked to Mehta. An even more significant collaboration between the pair came in 2006, Dorman said. “Mehta was just watching [an arts program] in his hotel late one night and got really excited” when he heard a piece Dorman composed for the show. His music drew as much from rock and jazz as it did from Hebrew poetry and Bach, but it was Dorman’s heavy Indian rhythms that grabbed Mehta’s attention.
The next day, Dorman said, Mehta asked the group that played on the show to perform the work again, and within days Mehta asked Dorman to write a full-length symphony. The result was “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!,” a concerto for double percussion that evokes the whirling melodies of an exotic Indian bazaar.
“Spices” has become something of a contemporary classic, with orchestras from Belgrade to Thailand having performed it. “It’s very rich and opens the music to so many new sounds,” Dorman said of his penchant for Indian music. But he credits Hebrew, the Bible and contemporary Middle Eastern music as equally important influences.
“In a sense,” he said, “Hebrew is a very musical language.” He explained how the Hebrew language is based on very small number of roots — “probably a 10th or a 12th the number of what you hear in English.” But that limited number of roots requires an endless number of variations to accommodate the complexity of human speech.
Dorman believes the ingrained habits of native Hebrew speakers, including himself, come through in the way he composes music.
He uses only a small number of melodic motifs or harmonies in any given piece, but twists them in an infinite number of ways. “People say it’s very Israeli what I do,” Dorman said.
Of course there are more blatant elements that betray his origins, too. Many compositions have Hebrew verse, both biblical and modern, woven into the music. In January, the San Francisco Symphony gave the world premiere of “Uriah: The Man the King Wanted Dead,” a vocal score based on a biblical tale. It tells the story of King David’s nefarious ploy to marry Bathsheba, the wife of his general Uriah, by sending him to war. David’s treachery would spell near-certain death for Uriah, but it would allow Bathsheba to become David’s wife.
Coming up in April at the 92nd Street Y, the renowned Israeli siblings Gil and Orli Shaham (he on violin, her on piano) will perform a newly commissioned piece inspired by Hebrew niggun, or wordless vocal chants. “They asked me to do something with Jewish melodies,” Dorman said of the collaboration. But rather than use klezmer tropes or the lugubrious moans of the violin, he used the basic concept of niggunim. Like the prayers, Dorman’s score circles around a single note, repeating a few distinct melodic patterns throughout. “That ties it in to the Jewish music tradition,” Dorman said of the piece.
But perhaps Dorman’s best-known Hebrew work is the “Ellef Symphony,” which had its debut in 2000. A dark and haunting score, it incorporates Hebrew poetry from the 10th through 20th centuries in three distinct movements.
Each section evokes a stage of war: fear, in the first, with music set to words by the Spanish Talmud scholar Shmuel ha-Nagid (993-1056); slaughter comes next, using verses from Israel’s national poet Haim Nacham Bialik (1873-1934); and the third section is an elegy, set to a poem by the contemporary Israel writer Yuval Rappaport (b. 1975).
“Everything I do ends up having a Jewish or Israeli element to it,” Dorman said. “I think it’s better not to have to force it,” he added.
But he admitted that the work the Israel Philharmonic will perform on Feb. 22 at Carnegie Hall — “Azerbaijani Dance” — isn’t exactly his own. “There’s nothing Hebrew or Jewish in it,” he explained. “I just heard a traditional Azerbaijani folk dance and couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
That was about six years ago. But when Mehta recently offered Dorman a new commission to open the current Israel Philharmonic season — its 75th — the folk music came back to mind. Dorman said he wanted to avoid traditional Western harmonies, and instead focused on the distinct instrumentation and rhythmic patterns of Azerbaijani dance.
“I really didn’t want to sound like a Western composer or a Jewish composer abusing their sounds,” he said. So he loosely interpreted a few hallmark Azerbaijani dance sounds and refashioned them for the scores’ basic elements — the harmony, melody, rhythm and color. “They’re all emulating different elements you hear in Azerbaijani music.”
Dorman’s eclectic influences make him hard to pin down. But he expressed few of the reservations common to Jewish or Israeli artists have when others label them as such. “When I was in Israel, they called my music minimalist, like the American style. When I came to America, all of a sudden I’m classified as Middle Eastern.
In a way,” he added, “it’s a bad thing because you don’t want to be pigeonholed. But on the other hand, at least it means people are listening to you.” n
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs for one night only in New York on Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m., at Carnegie Hall. (212) 247-7800. Located at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue. Program includes Dorman’s “Azerbaijani Dance,” Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major,” featuring Yefim Bronfman, and Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor.” Tickets $41-$129.