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Frozen in Time

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Avner Dorman
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Dvorák's "New World" Symphony, plus Mozart and an NSO premiere with Martin Grubinger, percussion Jan. 23 - 25, 2014
© Thomas May

When Frozen in Time received its world premiere in Hamburg in December 2007, Avner Dorman was only 32 years old but enjoyed the kind of enthusiastic audience response of which many composers dream in vain throughout their careers. Instant and vociferous audience approval is, incidentally, a theme shared by all three works on our program. In fact, this remarkable percussion concerto soon went on to enter a rare league of its own, appearing on programs across several continents-fittingly, given the global subtext of Frozen in Time. Dorman himself has had a hard time keeping track of the total number of performances given of this work to date. (These National Symphony concerts bring the tally up to the high sixties.)

Dorman was recognized for his talent early on by his native Israel, which had already showered him with numerous prestigious awards before he resettled in the United States. He obtained his doctorate from Juilliard (having previously combined music and physics at Tel Aviv University), with John Corigliano as his mentor. Dorman writes so colorfully for orchestra that his music has won several prominent conductors to champion it-Christoph Eschenbach, Zubin Mehta, David Robertson, and Riccardo Chailly among them-and Dorman, too, has more recently embarked on a conducting career alongside his work as a composer and a teacher.

The sizeable catalogue of works Dorman has already written includes concertos and other symphonic works, film and dance scores, and a good deal of chamber and piano music (his first CD, on Naxos, was devoted to piano compositions). Of recent vintage are large-scale choral works: Letters from Gettysburg (commemorating the 150th anniversary of that decisive battle) and a new commission for the Grand Rapids Symphony for an oratorio that will be based on the Jewish-Neoplatonist Dialogues on Love (by the Renaissance philosopher and poet Judah Leon Abravanel).

Frozen in Time originated as a commission for the Austrian multi-percussion wizard Martin Grubinger, who is responsible for an impressive array of recent percussion-centered works tailored specifically for his extraordinary talent. Dorman was eager to hear Grubinger perform in person, "since I don't feel we can get a real sense of a soloist's personality through recordings." (Dorman remarks with amusement that the Austrian pronunciation of his first name is essentially the same as that of the Mozart symphony we just heard, minus the "h": "Ahf-ner.") The composer became intrigued by the sheer miscellany of instruments in Grubinger's collection and their enticement to new sonic possibilities: hence the prominence of the cencerros (a keyboard comprising cowbells) in the first movement, for example.

"Martin said that I'm a citizen of the global village in my music," Dorman recalls, "and wanted the piece to have a global orientation." Within its overall design, which follows the classical three-movement pattern, Frozen in Time overlays an idea drawn from the earth sciences and referring "to imaginary snapshots of the Earth's geological development from prehistoric times to the present day." Dorman elucidates: "Although we cannot be sure what the Earth looked like millions of years ago, most scientists agree that the separate continents used to be one mega-continent (as most agree that mankind descended from one prehistoric womb). Each movement imagines the music of a large prehistoric continent at a certain point in time."

Note that this prehistoric geological imagery serves as a metaphor and should not be exaggerated into a programmatic narrative. Everything that "happens"-and each movement evokes a dramatically different world-is contained within the music itself. Nor is the association of each movement with a region (IndoAfrica, Eurasia, and the Americas, respectively) simply schematic. Aspects of American music, for instance, can be heard in the first movement.

"I feel that the classical concerto idea is such a powerful one that it still works," says Dorman, who gratefully remembers one of his teachers remarking that he understood how to write "a real concerto, not a symphonic poem with a solo obbligato." Still, he points out, the final movement of Frozen in Time is shorter than in most traditional concertos. "The heart of the piece is the second movement. When I listen to certain Mozart concertos, I sometimes almost want them to end with the slow movement. And

Mozart also showed me how to end with a shorter last movement. What I wrote is more of a playful idea than a serious drama in the finale-it's a kind of rondo of the Americas."

Dorman had actually previously written a concerto for duo percussion-Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! (2006)-but Grubinger's style required an entirely different approach. A significant challenge in attempting any percussion concerto, he points out, is the counterintuitive one that "you have to be careful that you hear the orchestra, which is exactly the reverse from writing any other concerto. The percussion is the loudest set of instruments in the orchestra, and the soloist is now sitting up front." The score calls for about two dozen percussion instruments for the soloist-though some are deployed as if to create a single giant instrument-while the orchestral ensemble includes two sets of timpani as a kind of "latch" linking the orchestra and soloist. "Everything needs to be built off the percussion sound like in an African drum circle."

Dorman has provided the following description of Frozen in Time:

I. IndoAfrica: The piece opens with a grand gesture, like an avalanche, which is followed by a "time freeze." The main theme of the first movement is based on South Indian rhythm cycles (ta¯las) and scales. The range of the theme is gradually expanded like a spiral, as it would in classical Indian improvisation. The second theme is based on the inner rhythm of the ta¯las, which is also found in some traditions of West-African music. As the solo percussionist starts playing the theme on the marimba and the cencerros (a keyboard of cowbells), it becomes more similar to Gamelan music of Southeast Asia. The soloist then returns to the drum-set and takes the music back to its African origins building the movement up to an ecstatic culmination. At this point, the opening avalanche returns as a burst of emotions rather than a natural phenomenon. After a short cadenza, the movement wraps up with a fugue that recaps the themes of the opening section.

II. Eurasia: The second movement is an exploration of the darker sides of the mega-continent of Eurasia where emotions run deep but are kept quiet (the movement mainly deals with the traditions of central Europe and Central and Eastern Asia). The opening bass drum rhythm (which is borrowed from the siciliana) and the long high notes in the strings separate this movement from the outer ones in terms of geography and climate. Also, the fact that the soloist only uses metal instruments in this movement makes it colder and more northern in character. The melodic materials of this movement are inspired by Mozart's sicilianas which appear in some of his most intimate and moving movements (Piano Concerto K.488, Sonata K.280, Rondo K.511, and the aria "Ach, ich Fühl's" [from The Magic Flute]). One can hear that war is brewing under the surface throughout the movement although it only erupts briefly in the form of central Asian bells and modes that invade the introspective mood of the siciliana. The movement ends with a long meditation on the opening theme-with many moments frozen in time.

III. The Americas: The final movement is a snapshot of the present (The Americas are, in fact, still one continent). Moreover, the mixture of cultures is a staple of modern America. The final movement is constructed as a rondo. The refrain represents mainstream American styles (Broadway at first, American symphonic style in its second repeat, mellow jazz in the third, and grunge music-Seattle style rock-in its final repeat). The episodic sections explore other sounds of the Americas: the tango, AfroCuban jazz, swing, and minimalism. As American music is by nature inclusive, the movement includes a recapitulation of African, European, and Asian music, tying the piece together.