The audience exploded in a rousing ovation at the performance of Avner Dorman's "Spices! Perfumes! Toxins!" by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra in 2009. The response may have been triggered primarily by the "Stomp"-like energy of the featured artists, a percussion duet known as PercaDu, but it was loud and genuine.
Dorman himself will be in town this week for the world premiere of his latest work, a cello concerto. The soloist for the first-ever performance will be Inbal Segev, noted for her attention to modern repertoire and a musician for whom several other composers have written pieces.
In a phone call last week, Dorman said the new concerto is "very personal" in that his first instrument was the cello, though composing quickly eclipsed practicing scales.
"Even then, I was 9 or something, I was experimenting. I took two tape recorders and overdubbed myself playing the piano with the cello and noise from the walkie-talkies. When I started playing the piano, I never really played what was on the page. It's my natural inclination to be a creator as opposed to recreating something else. Since age 13 or 14 I don't think there's been a long stretch of time that I did not compose music. It's kind of a bad habit."
But a bad habit that has brought him a lot of positive reinforcement. "Spices!" has turned out to be something of a contemporary music hit, with performances far and wide under the drumsticks of PercaDu. There are three other orchestras now lined up to present the new concerto after its Anchorage premiere.
Dorman described the concerto as being for "a cello that forgot it was a cello."
"It's almost like the cello got in a car accident and woke up the next morning and forgot who he is," he told me.
The first movement, with double notes, often on open strings, in a kind of off-kilter mechanical rhythm expresses the anxiety of the amnesic instrument swamped by uncertainty. In the slow movement, he said, the soloist "gets to express this very difficult situation."
The finale, marked "Soulful," "is almost like a prayer movement in a way," he said. But, in a 5/8 rhythm suggestive of Middle Eastern dance, it could almost be mistaken for a dance movement. "To me, it's an intimate movement," he said. The cello is finding itself in a new way, "finding a soul in the modern world," the world intimated by the machine-like first movement.
One of the interesting features in the piece is a piano-bass-drum set combo placed in the middle of the stage supplying an ongoing commentary, particularly in the first movement. The piano is not the familiar grand but an upright honky-tonk that is "not tuned well." Dorman said a concert grand would take up a lot of space on stage and also "sound a little too pretty, too refined." He wanted something that would hint at "someone playing in a club or bar."
"Usually we have a very limited idea about what is beautiful," he said. "But 'beautiful' is something culturally imposed on us as kids. The honky-tonk piano has an interesting aesthetic that I find very charming."
With regard to the cello part, Dorman said he didn't think the fingerings were particularly difficult, but the big challenge for the soloist would be the physicality and mental energy required.
"A lot of music depends on a pattern of tension and release," he said. "But in this the intensity starts high and gets higher." The cello is amplified, so "It's more like an electric guitar than a cello. More like heavy metal."
"I was pleasantly surprised. It's something like I've never worked on before," said Segev, the soloist.
Speaking by phone from her home in New York (and apologizing for her "rowdy" children -- a daughter age 8 and boy-girl twins, age 6 -- in the background), she said said the piece "uses the cello in a very rhythmic way. You feel like you're not playing classical music any more."
"Some passages in the first movement are tricky," she said. "Huge leaps in a very fast tempo. The second movement is gorgeous. Haunting, dark chords accompanied only by the lower strings. The last movement is all pizzicato" -- plucked rather than bowed -- "so that's a challenge, calloses and all."
Segev said she'd acquired a new top-of-the-line microphone to attach to the under the bridge of her 340-year-old Ruggieri cello. When she has to fly, she travels with the instrument as a passenger rather than as luggage and has to buy a ticket for it, a problem when trying to get a ticket online. "The computer insisted that I put in the date of birth for the passenger and it wouldn't accept 1673," she said.
Like Dorman, Segev will be making her first trip to Alaska for the premiere.
As he was working on the concerto, Dorman was also composing a large work for chorus and percussion to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. "Letters from Gettysburg" will debut in April and is completely different from the concerto. Composing two pieces at once is good early in the process, he said, "especially the stages where you're coming up with the musical material. The subconscious is what gives you the best ideas." However, when one has to work out the "tens of thousands of details" involved in actually writing down the music, it becomes more difficult.
"I find I have to dedicate one week to one or the other, or finish a section before I jump to another part or another piece," he said. "But one shouldn't complain about having too much work."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM