Sunday, January 03, 2010

What I am Listening to Today: Avner Dorman Concerti

I would surmise that the number of mandolin and piccolo concerti written in the last century or two can be counted on one hand. Both instruments have limits in sound quality, dynamics and range that present a challenge to a composer creating a concert work. The mandolin has all but disappeared from modern compositions but the piccolo of course hangs on in orchestras and especially marching bands.

Avner Dorman seemed to relish the challenge of making dramatic and coherent showpieces for these two diverse instruments and has produced a Mandolin Concerto (2006) and a Piccolo Concerto (2001). Both these fascinating pieces were recently recorded and released on the Naxos label along with "Concerto Grosso" for 2 violins, viola, cello and harpsichord from 2003 and an early Piano Concerto in A from 1995 when the composer was barely out of his teens.

Of all the works on the disc, I have turned most frequently to the colorful, almost exotic, baroque/jazzy Mandolin Concerto. Dorman lists baroque music, jazz and contemporary rock music as influences and all can be heard in this compact 17 minute concerto. There is a baroque linearity to the piece, forward motion and line are more important than harmony, even in slower movements. Dorman finds many ways to milk the unique sound and technique of this ancient instrument, tone clusters, sharp pizzicati, frequent use of the tremolo to sustain pitches over time, which the composer states leads to a central conflict over motion and stasis. (Note here, Dorman's notes to the disc are delightfully informative and shed some real insight on his creative mind.) Like a baroque composition, the piece is breezy, full of notes but mixed with the freer use of rhythm that comes from exposure to ethnic and pop music.

Frankly the piece is fun, never a dull moment here.

The Piccolo concerto is all about rock and jazz to my ear. Driving beats, forward motion, free flowing melodic figures, repetition, with a laid back "coolness" that is truly jazz inspired. This is not a swipe at the work, but it frequently took me back to the wonderful Claude Bolling Jazz Suites that were so popular in the 70's, especially the one for flute that made Jean-Pierre Rampal into a jazz sensation. One of Dorman's strengths is that he can take all these influences, cascades of notes and sounds and put them in recognizable musical forms. His recent showy Piano Concerto "Lost Souls" despite all the theatrics and conjuring of sounds and styles of past composers, had a recognizable sonata form first movement. The Piccolo concerto also wraps all the rock and jazz elements into a tight baroque concerto form. Thus instead of a muddle of sounds and styles, the concerti make complete musical sense.

The Concerto Grosso is a bit of a different animal; more weighty, a bit darker and less jazzy than the concerti. Modeled after Handel's series of Concerti Grossi, the work is still tuneful, highly approachable, frequently dramatic and a welcome addition to tradition of 20th and 21st century composers updating, as it were, older forms.

The recording ends with a breezy Bachian Piano Concerto from the composer's 20th year. Even then Dorman showed his prowess in combining baroque forms with contemporary influences, even, according to his notes, the Police and Stravinsky.

The disc Naxos 8.559620 is released January 26th, but I got to sneak a peek through the invaluable Naxos Music Library program. Worth its weight in gold, in my opinion.

As is this fine and entertaining disc.

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