Avner Dorman: Seeking the Soul of Jewish Music

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Yom Kippur is a tricky one because if you don’t go to the synagogue, there’s not much to do,” Avner Dorman was saying a few days before the solemn day in question. “But for all of the holidays I do something. I definitely identify as Jewish.”

Nor can there be any doubt of the Jewish identity of Nigunim for violin and orchestra, the composition that has earned this Israeli American the $50,000 2018 Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music. It will be heard in its revised form – the original was for violin and piano – at the Azrieli Foundation’s biennial gala concert on Oct. 15 at the Maison symphonique in Montreal. Lara St. John is the soloist and Yoav Talmi leads the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

Nigunim is the plural of nigun, a Hebrew word that can denote a wordless religious song popular among Hassidic Jews or imply, more generally, music with deep feeling.

“If you said a melody had a certain soulfulness, you would use that term,” Dorman explained from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he is a professor of composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Gettysburg College.

“It has more meaning for someone who speaks Hebrew. I say a melody has a nigun, it means it is soulful and moves you in some way. And that is for anyone, not just musicians.”

While most listeners would recognize this 2011 composition written originally for violinist Gil Shaham and his pianist sister Orli Shaham as somehow Jewish, the composer was determined to avoid stereotypical gestures in favour of seeking the organic core that binds outwardly different styles.

At one point a clarinet does what Dorman calls “a traditional flare thing” but this is the only hint of klezmer (apart from a second outburst, where the clarinet music is assigned to the cello). Multiple influences inform the work, both in terms of style and regional origin.

Minimalism is one source of inspiration. Steve Reich’s Tehillim (“Psalms”) of 1981 is a piece that suggested to Dorman how the Hebrew Scriptures might find expression in a thoroughly modern idiom.

“It’s more rhythmic, obviously, than Arvo Pärt,” Dorman said. Yet minimalist music, fast or slow, tends to return and repeat, a characteristic Dorman found in Jewish folk styles of various parts of the world, including, of course, the Hassidic idiom to which the title literally refers.

“I think if you heard a Hassidic nigun, what you would hear also in my piece is the repetitive nature, the repetition for the sake of meditation or to achieve a certain kind of ecstasy and catharsis. It’s like a mantra in other cultures.”

Nigunim might be considered pan-Judaic in its search for commonalities among different musical cultures.

“I did some research into the music of Jewish communities in various places in the world,” Dorman said.

“Obviously if you hear Polish Jewish tunes and Moroccan Jewish tunes, they don’t sound that similar, because each has the influence of the region where the community has been for generations. But there are some elements in common, especially descending intervals, the cries and laments.”

Probably the best-known “Jewish” interval is the augmented second, which Saint-Saëns (not Jewish despite some silly rumours to the contrary) used to memorable effect in Samson et Dalila.

“The augmented second in North African communities is a little smaller,” Dorman notes. “Because the third of the scale is low from our point of view.

“And it’s not just the augmented second. There is also that natural minor seventh descending by degree to the fifth.”

Dorman was conscious that a little of this sort of thing goes a long way.  His mission in Nigunim was to get the balance right.

“I never want to overemphasize the clichéd element,” he says. “But on the other hand, I was surprised that a Libyan cantor would do something that I used to hear in Yiddish songs. I didn’t expect that to be the case, that they would have so much in common.”

The Azrieli Gala will mark the first performance of Nigunim in its third and presumably final version. Dorman was not satisfied with his first attempt to make a concerto of it.

Born in Israel, Dorman “grew up secular” but can count Talmudic scholars among his ancestors. His paternal grandparents were born in Germany, his maternal grandparents in Israel. Three of his grandparents were fluent in German but Hebrew was the language of the household.

A multiple prizewinner in Israel, Dorman earned his doctorate at Juilliard under John Corigliano. He recently gained some recognition, not all of it favourable, for Wahnfried, an opera premiered in Karlsruhe in January 2017 that attempts to deal with the Wagner clan in all of its disagreeable post-Wagnerian complexities. (An interview on the subject of this opera appeared last year in LSM.)

“Not that I’m aware of,” the composer chuckles when asked whether any other company has shown interest in staging Wahnfried. Dorman is now at work on a children’s opera with an East-meets-West theme. “A new fairy tale,” he calls it, “in an imagined Middle-Eastern kingdom.” Another project is a double concerto for violinist Pinchas Zukerman and his wife, the cellist Amanda Forsyth, which will probably surface at the National Arts Centre next season.

Now for the big question. Is Dorman a tonal composer? He teaches an analysis course in Gettysburg that focuses on nontonal harmonic systems and knows his way around the alternatives.

“I do use triads, scales and what people call melodies,” Dorman confesses. “But the ways they are intertwined is a combination of traditional ways and non-traditional ways.

“I don’t shy away from having a scale in the bass and harmonizing it once in a while. But in a different context, so we are getting, I hope, a different point of view.”

It is not an easy subject.

“For me it is much easier to discuss musical elements than historical definitions of style,” Dorman said. “Those change over time.”

“I was watching a video of [Leonard] Bernstein talking about Brahms 2 [i.e. Brahms’s Second Symphony] and how some people still don’t like Brahms. Like, really?

“I think our perception of the narrative changes. For me to discuss my own music, or contemporary music, I feel I have to tread cautiously. We just don’t know how the narrative shapes up.”

The Azrieli Music Prizes Gala Concert takes place on Oct. 15 at Montreal’s Maison symphonique.
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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. Since 2019, Arthur is co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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