VC INTERVIEW | Composer Alexey Shor on collaborating with a competition

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(Photo credit: Evgeny Evtyukhov)

The International Classical String Competition has just announced the winners of its Violon and Violoncelle editions: violinist Dumitru Pocitari and cellist Michal Balas respectively first prize.

The event took place at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Music Hall in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. You can watch the final fiddle rounds here and cello endings here.

This year, the American-Maltese composer Alexei Shor served as composer-in-residence. His work Fantasiesfor violin and orchestra, and its musical pilgrimagefor cello and orchestra, were performed by the competition participants.

The Violin Channel had the chance to speak with Alexey about what it was like to have his compositions included in a contest like this.

Tell us about the two works that were performed at this year’s Classic Strings violin and cello competitions?

As the title “Musical Pilgrimage” suggests, this 3-movement cello concerto takes the listener on a “tour” of my favorite musical styles.

It has parts written in a very classical way, parts reminiscent of the baroque and virtuoso masterpieces of the 19th century, and it ends with a sort of tango (but in 3/4 and scored in a more classical way than what a listener generally expects from a tango).

The violin concerto “Phantasms” consists of 3 movements alluding to daydreams, ghosts and apparitions.

The first movement is called “Dance of Graces”. In Greek and Roman mythology, the Graces are three minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility. The Three Graces have been depicted in art many times. Most famous in the painting “Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli and in the sculpture “The Three Graces” by Antonio Canova. Unlike most concerto first movements based on two main themes, the first movement of “Phantasms” is based on three main themes representing the three dancing graces.

“The Elegy”, of course, evokes feelings of deep sadness and death.

The last movement is called “Flight of a Falcon”. Falcons are the fastest animals on earth. They can dive at over 200 mph.

So, fittingly, the last movement is the fastest and most virtuosic, with many difficult passages that require extremely high levels of technique.

What was your inspiration for the two works?

I can’t name anything specific. I just like to write for strings, and a lot of my musical ideas come to me with a string soloist in mind.

With the two works you composed, what elements did you hope the contestants could bring out? Did they do it successfully?

I hoped that these concertos would give performers the opportunity to exhibit various aspects of their art — there are soaring melodies, virtuoso passages, many mood swings, etc.

I feel like the competition attracted some of the most promising young musicians in the world, and it was a real pleasure to hear them play my music.

You have composed 4 violin concertos and 2 cello concertos. Tell us about your experience writing for string soloists and how you do it…

When I hear new music in my head, it’s often with a violin or cello soloist, so I naturally end up with many musical ideas that are originally written for string instrument and piano (sometimes for a string instrument, piano, and one or two other instruments). Initially, I write without thinking too much about the technical aspects of playing the instruments, but in later stages I always spend a lot of time and effort making my writing idiomatic to the instruments. Often, I have to consult the players regarding more delicate technical aspects.

How do you approach writing a new order? Do you prefer a direction and perimeters or a totally open creative process to extrapolate an idea?

Most of the time, I have complete freedom over my creative process. But a few times when I had specific restrictions I didn’t mind.

Restrictions are not necessarily 100% negative. There is something comforting in knowing exactly what the expected outcome is.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given when starting out in this field?

I received a lot of advice from my friends on specific aspects of the art of composition — which books to read, which scores to pay particular attention to, etc. But, on a larger scale, I always knew what kind of music I wanted to write.

What advice would you give to young composers today, who hope, like you, to pursue a full-time career in music writing?

Beyond a few very obvious cliches, like “work hard and believe in yourself”, I don’t know how much useful advice can be given to a general audience. People are all different, and they all face unique challenges in finding their strengths, their true interests, and eventually their individual voices.

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