Rachel Neiman
March 12, 2009, Updated September 14, 2012

Israeli composer Avner Dorman, a rising star on the international modern classical music scene, is about to premiere his work Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! in the US with percussion duo PercaDu. (Photo credit: RR Jones)

Modern classical music may be a paradoxical term but Israeli composer Avner Dorman revels in such contradictions. An Israeli transplant to Los Angeles, Dorman is a fan of Prince and Beethoven, John Cage and Shalom Hanoch, and is perhaps the only person to create an arrangement of the Israeli national anthem for mandolin, singing saw, prepared piano, oboe and Tibetan ting sha bell.

He is also a rising young star on the international music scene. His work has been performed by the Israel Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic, the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, Nashville Symphony, the Hamburg Philharmonic, and the Cabrillo Music Festival, among others, under world-famous conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Marin Alsop, Asher Fisch and Simone Young.

This month (March 18-21st), the New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Mehta, presents the North American premiere of Dorman’s Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, a work that puts Middle Eastern drums, rock drums and percussion front and center before a large classical orchestra. It was first performed in 2006 by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mehta, followed by premieres in Europe and the Far East in 2006 and 2007.

Nothing sums up the contradictions of today’s Middle East – modernity versus tradition, overindulgence contrasted by austerity, extreme summer heat broken by chill winter rain – more than the three substances named in Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!. All, in small doses, can be beneficial, but in excess the results can be dangerous, even deadly.

“I think it’s very much connected to the old Middle East but also the modern world,” says Dorman. “We wanted the piece to be very representative of young Israeli culture. Many people have told me that it sounds very Israeli, which I’m proud of.”

A variety of Influences

Dorman was born in 1975 to a musical family. “My dad is a classical musician. He plays bassoon and is a conductor with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO). My mother teaches literature but we were a family that appreciated music. My father’s mantra was, ‘As long as you listen to music that’s good, it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is.'”

His father’s open-minded attitude shaped Dorman’s approach. “He bought me a radio-tape player when I was about four years old, and from a very young age we all had access to our own kind of music. As a kid I was very much into Prince, Led Zeppelin — I think those two are representative of the hard rock and funk influences that have stayed with me. And I really like Indian music.”

Growing up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, Dorman studied cello. “I wanted to learn drums but my parents really didn’t like that,” admits Dorman. Then came piano and by the age of 14 Dorman took up composing.

The school music program was also very encouraging. “The jazz department isn’t separate from the classical, so that also sort of encouraged this mixture – and I think that in hindsight this was very helpful to me,” he admits.

Dorman spent his army service in the IDF culture division, where he began composing arrangements for the military orchestra. He then attended a select interdisciplinary program at Tel Aviv University where he majored in music, musicology, and physics and studied with Israeli composer Josef Bardanashvili.

The go-to guy for marimba

It was also at TAU that Dorman began working with Tomer Yariv and Adi Morag, who were forming Percussion Duo, also known as PercaDu. “First of all, we were just buddies and they were looking for new pieces because they were building a repertoire. One of the problems in the percussion world is what do you play? At the time, I had a rock band and they thought that I would be the right person to write something for them,” says Dorman.

Funnily enough, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! harkens back to his student days at the TAU music academy, when PercaDu pegged him as their go-to guy. “I didn’t like marimba so much then – which is ironic since I’ve written so much for it today – but the moment of revelation for me was when I started to write Indian music for marimba. The sound of felt cloth hitting wood… there’s something about the mid-low that sounds like the tabla. And that’s when I wrote the pieces that form the basis of the first movement.”

His first professional encounter with Mehta was around that time when the IPO was presenting a piece by modern composer George Crumb, which uses a mandolin, singing saw, prepared piano, Tibetan instruments and oboe. “They realized they couldn’t play Hatikva [the Israeli national anthem]. But the pianist had played some arrangements of tangos that I’d done, and she recommended me,” says Dorman. “Overnight I wrote an arrangement of Hatikva for this bizarre ensemble.”

Also at that time, Dorman began winning major awards. In 2001, at age 25, he became the youngest composer to win Israel’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for his Ellef Symphony. That same year he was awarded the Golden Feather Award from ACUM (the Israeli Society of Composers and Publishers). In 2002, he won the Israeli Ministry of Culture prize for best performance of Israeli music.

In 2003, he was again brought to Mehta’s attention when the conductor auditioned PercaDu, and the band played a Dorman work. At the same time, the IPO’s new music committee decided to premiere a Dorman composition. “Zubin [Mehta] looked at it and said, ‘Oh, I’ll do it,'” says Dorman.

Having completed both BA and Master’s at TAU, Dorman went on to study for his doctorate at the Juilliard School, where he studied with well-known composer John Corigliano.

Since that time, Dorman has also received several international awards including ACUM Best Composition of the Year Award 2004, top prize at the Asian Composers League Festival 2004 and the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Awards 2003-2005. He served as composer in residence for the Israel Camerata from 2001 through 2003 and was a composition fellow at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center.

Jerusalem Mix & Hollywood Bowl

He also developed a reputation for his innovative use of percussion and two of his percussion concerti quickly became staples of the repertoire. He has also made significant contributions to the repertoire of other unique instruments and ensembles, with compositions such as Mandolin Concerto, Piccolo Concerto, Saxophone Concerto, Concerto for Violin and a Rock Band,and Boaz, for soprano, harp, and two pianos.

On the more conventional side, Dorman has composed two string quartets, a violin sonata that premiered in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, Jerusalem Mix, a piano and woodwind quintet that was commissioned by the Jerusalem International Music Festival and the Chicago Chamber Musicians, two piano trios, and numerous piano solo works. Signing with music publisher G. Schirmer has brought in more offers, he says. “Orchestras are more willing to take a chance because they trust a reliable source.”

He is currently completing a piece commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, another for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and – in a new venture – did the orchestration for feature film Street Fighter that was just released in the US. “I like that combination of high art and popular culture,” he says.

Like many of his peers, Dorman finds residing outside Israel a necessity in building an international career (“Hopefully at a certain point it won’t matter anymore but that point hasn’t arrived yet”). His work is also performed by many Israelis on the concert circuit who are asked to play new Israeli works.

“For me, at least, the fact that there are so many Israeli soloists and instrumentalists has been very helpful,” he says. “I’m writing a concerto for a pianist named Alon Goldstein, [pianist] Eliran Avni has played my music quite a bit, Asher Fisch has conducted my music in America, [pianist] Einav Yarden, [violinist] Itay Shapira… we’re such a small country so it’s amazing for a composer to have so many world-class performers and conductors. I think Israel probably has one of the highest ratios of great musicians to population.”

Eliran Avni and the Metropolis Ensemble conducted by Andrew Cyr perform the first movement of Avner Dorman’s “Concerto in A”

More on People

Fighting for Israel's truth

We cover what makes life in Israel so special — it's people. A non-profit organization, ISRAEL21c's team of journalists are committed to telling stories that humanize Israelis and show their positive impact on our world. You can bring these stories to life by making a donation of $6/month. 

Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

Read more: