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Avner DORMAN (b.1975)
Letters from Gettysburg (2013) [24:01]
After Brahms (2015) [12:13]
Nigunim (2011) [19:47]
Amanda Heim (soprano)
Lee Poulis (baritone)
Gil Shaham (violin)
Orli Shaham (piano)
Tremolo Percussion Ensemble
The Gettysburg College Choir/Robert Natter
Texts included
rec. 2011-15, Christ Chapel, Gettysburg College; Mechanics Hall, Worcester; 92nd Street Y, New York City, USA

The centrepiece of this release is Avner Dorman’s Letters from Gettysburg, a 24-minute work for two singers, percussion ensemble, and large choir. Written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle it primarily takes as its text letters written by a First Lieutenant in the battle, Rush P Cady of the 97th New York Infantry. The texts cover the period after the battle, where he was grievously wounded, to his death three weeks later and Dorman’s music stands as a memorial to victims of war.

It’s a work of arc-like structure in five sections in which Cady writes to his mother. The final section sees Cady’s mother address her husband lamenting their loss. The music opens with appropriate tolling motifs on the percussion – a drum roll is later powerfully to puncture the texture - and the powerful basses intoning ‘Pray for me’. The halting sequence of words in the second section reflects the soldier’s dislocation of thought and the subtle percussive colour draws on this, adding its own reflective commentary. The throbbing and pounding intensity of the Battle music, which sits in the centre of the structure, offers a Whitmanesque scene of horror, with ‘blood’ endlessly repeated and desolate angry cries puncturing the vicious musical landscape. The baritone’s stoicism in the fourth section, ‘Since I was wounded’ is shadowed by the choral chants behind him whilst the soprano role is reserved for the final panel, ‘Dear Brave Boy’, unsettling in its unworldly quality, where marimba-like textures and music-box augur a keening chorus and renewed tolling.

With just two vocal soloists and chorus and percussion section the scoring reflects the particular strengths of the musicians at the conservatory of music at Gettysburg College. Both a litany and a warning, in which the consolation of love is outweighed by the permanence of loss, Letters from Gettysburg is a powerfully argued new work that pushes voices high or low the better to serve the dictates of textual meaning. It doesn’t shirk horror but neither does it indulge it for its own sake. It is a work of humanity and power and is performed with admirable directness and technical assurance by Amanda Heim, Lee Poulis and their instrumental and choral colleagues under the direction of Robert Natter.

The two other works here stand independently. The first is After Brahms, three intermezzos for piano. Commissioned for Orli Shaham’s solo project ‘Brahms Inspired’ each of the works ‘extends the harmonic language of Brahms while still preserving the stylistic vernacular of [Dorman’s] own music’. Thus, the first reflects on Brahms’ Op.118/1 whilst the second, slow, limpid and expressive, uses Op.119/1 as its axis point. The final piece is even slower and introspective but then generates an insistent, even dissonant quality before relaxing into the opening mood.

The other work is Nigunim, the Violin Sonata No.3. The title may make one think of Bloch, but the four-movement work spreads its stylistic and emotive language wider still, drawing on Georgian folkloric elements, Macedonian dance and melismatic paragraphs of intense vibrancy. Whilst evoking various Jewish musics, Dorman doesn’t quote from them. Add to this cantillation, full throated fast bowing and virtuoso exchanges between the violin and piano and you have a work of flair, colour, melancholy and excitement. It’s played with memorable intensity by Gil and Orli Shaham.

Dorman already has a high reputation for his music, a fact reflected in the top-ranking musicians who both commission and perform it. But as this disc shows, he works on canvasses wide and more constrained and finds in them alike new and pertinent things to say and to share.

Jonathan Woolf

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