Review: Programmatic works at SF Symphony: Avner Dorman (2010) vs. Paul Dukas (1897) | Aaron Gervais, composer

Review: Programmatic works at SF Symphony: Avner Dorman (2010) vs. Paul Dukas (1897)

Mickey Mouse

Like virtually all San Francisco Symphony concerts, I attended because there was a new work being played, in this case Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman‘s Uriah: The Man The King Wanted Dead. A programmatic work based on a gruesome Old Testament story, Uriah complemented the other programmatic work of the evening, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, made famous by the Disney animation—but which I had never heard performed live, maybe also because of Disney.

Despite my inherent dislike of late Romantic music, hands down the Dukas was a better piece than the Dorman. Before the Dukas, I expected to be bombarded by Mickey Mouse imagery and that catchy 9/8 melody in grating repetition. Instead, I was surprised by the subtly of the score. A qualification: This is late Romantic program music squarely in the mythical tradition beloved by the period, so it is what it is, and you either love it or hate it. But even the harshest critic would have to begrudgingly appreciate its artfulness. Complex layers of melody intertwine at different tempos, large dynamic swells and unusual orchestrations dominate; it’s just an engaging piece on a lot of levels. Add to that a catchy tune and you see why it became so popular.

Dorman also displayed a striking command of orchestration and an appreciation for the need to keep the audience’s attention. His piece, however, lacked the cohesion and compositional mastery that made the Dukas stand out. Understandably (and thankfully), Uriah avoids the incessant, motif-based approach of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, yet Uriah doesn’t fill that gap with an equally evocative alternative. Certain moments in the piece strongly evoked John Corigliano, Dorman’s teacher at Juilliard, but not consistently. Other moments evoked Dorman’s interest in non-classical music—for instance, Middle Eastern–sounding drum riffs (presumably to reference the setting of the story) or a brief, 5-second jazz piano interlude in the Lento movement—but again these elements appeared fleetingly, as if he had forgotten he had intended to use them.

One consistency in Dorman’s piece was the frequent use of sudden shifts from relatively traditional, consonant harmonies to massive clusters. This didn’t strike me as particularly artful, unfortunately. It seemed as if, whenever faced with the challenge of making an intense, extreme moment in the music, Dorman would simply revert to the “dissonant = intense” cliché. I love me a good cluster as much as the next composer, but music just isn’t that formulaic. Dorman’s approach seemed heavy handed and awkward, and I felt a tiny bit embarrassed for him at points.

That said, let’s end with the positive. Dorman’s piece, despite a lack of compositional vision, was an orchestrational pleasure. He also managed to write in such a way as to create an engaging experience on first listen. Uriah is not one of those pieces where you squirm and look at your watch the whole time; it kept my attention to the end, although maybe not for the right reasons. And the audience seemed to like it, dissonant textures and all, which isn’t anything to scoff at in the world of contemporary orchestral music.

Perhaps the biggest problem was in programming. As I’ve said before, pairing a new work with a similar masterpiece from the past always casts the newer work in a bad light. Dorman had to compete with (let’s face it) a masterpiece of the programmatic Romantic tradition, and an extremely well-known and beloved one at that. Even on our best days as composers, it’s hard to measure up to that. Nevertheless, I hope that in future Dorman pieces I’ll hear a more evolved compositional structure that offers something beyond surface orchestrational fireworks.

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