Sunday 23 December 2012

Interview with composer Nimrod Borenstein (part 1)

Nimrod Borenstein

Composer Nimrod Borenstein has a number of performances coming up in the new year but perhaps the most significant are two being given by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra. This February they are performing The Big Bang and the Creation of the Universe at De Montfort Hall in Leicester, then in June they will be premiering a new piece at the Royal Festival Hall. I met up with Borenstein to talk about his new works and his attitude to writing music. In the flesh Borenstein is lively and articulate, he regularly lectures about music and, unlike some composers, clearly enjoys talking about his music and the process of composition.

In fact Borenstein is going to have a very busy Spring because in addition to the Philharmonia performances (the new piece was finished months ago), he is just putting the finishing touches to a violin concerto for Dmitri Sitkovetsky, a substantial work lasting 30 minutes, as well as writing pieces for two new CD's

The Big Bang and the Creation of the Universe was premiered in 2009 by Oxford Philomusica under their conductor Marios Papadopoulos in Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre and then at London's Cadogan Hall. It is quite a big work, 25 minutes long, and the premiere represented quite an achievement for the orchestra. The Philharmonia's performance of the work came about because Borenstein approached Vladimir Ashkenazy some years ago. Ashkenazy proved a supporter of Borenstein's work, so enthusiastic that their initial 5 minute interview turned into one lasting an hour or so with the newly qualified Borenstein driving Ashkenazy to his hotel.

The result of this networking was the Leicester performance of The Big Bang and the Creation of the Universe and an invitation to write a shorter new piece for June 2013 at the Royal Festival Hall. The new work is a concert opener and will last 10 minutes.

Borenstein is one of those composers who finds that his music goes down well when people actually hear it. His current crop of performances all seem to arise from a series of interconnecting contacts with people who have come to know and love his music.

For instance, Borenstein has known Mark Papadopoulos of the Oxford Philomusica for many years, their original contact coming because Papadopoulos asked Borenstein to arrange an existing piece of Borenstein's. The composer was reluctant, but agreed to have a go, the result is Borenstein's Shell Adagio which is probably his most performed piece.

The performances of Shell Adagio came about because the composer realised that both Elgar and Tchaikovsky had opened doors with their serenades for string ensembles. This led Borenstein to try doing that himself, he contact hundreds of orchestras all over the world. The result was 30 performances of the Shell Adagio in a single year, plus getting the composer published by Boosey and Hawkes. The Shell Adagio is a piece which is approachable by both amateur and professional performers, his more recent works are tending to be bigger and more difficult.

A case in point is the new concerto for Dmitry Sitkovetsky which Borenstein deliberately planned as a big three or four movement work. He has already got Clarinet and Bassoon concertos under his belt and is interested in writing one for piano.

But before then he has works for two new CD's. A piece for cello and piano, The Magic Mountain, was the subject of correspondence with a cellist in the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. The cellist contacted his teacher who not only performed it with some success but asked Borenstein for a piece for violin and cello for a new CD in May. He is also writing something for violin and piano for another CD.

Borenstein is the son of the French/Israeli artist Alec Borenstein. Born in Paris, Borenstein wrote music from the age of six and came to the UK at 18 to study violin at the Royal College of Music. He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music where he worked with Paul Patterson. Borenstein liked the UK so much that he stayed on and has now taken UK nationality.

He has quite definite views on writing music, feeling that a composer needs to be courageous and have rigour, never doing anything just for money. But he isn't one to simply bask in the glow of the past, he thinks art needs to be new, to renew itself, that novelty is essential to an artists.

For Borenstein, too many composers are politically correct, writing whatever music is currently in favour in academic circles. But he also points out that there are many different ways that a composer can be new. The composers that he admires all seem to be ones who have retained links with the past such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. To Borenstein the second Viennese school is simply one of the possibilities open to a composer. He has little interest in new and exotic instrumentation, he strives to do something different within the confines of the existing orchestra.

So that for the new work for the Philharmonia in June 2013, he is using virtually the same orchestra as Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony which is on the same programme. And his clarinet concerto uses virtually the same orchestration as Mozart's clarinet concerto, but Borenstein feels that he uses his own notes and rhythms to achieve his effects.

When asked to define his style his most definite that he is not a neo-Romantic. For him, Romanticism is when a composer is trying to express themselves, whereas Borenstein feels that his music is expressive, but of something else. He goes on to point out that you can't say that Bach's music is not expressive, it is just  that Bach is not trying to express himself.

Whislt Borenstein thinks that each generation has its orthodoxies against which a composer music struggle, he points out that the world is far more open than it used to be for instance when the orthodoxies of Darmstadt rules. He attributes this partly to the rise of the American school associated with composers like Philip Glass.

Conversation with Borenstein is lively, entertaining and wide ranging. Topics such as the structure of Walton's First Symphony did not fit into this article, and as a composer myself it was fascinating talking to someone whose descriptions of the way he thinks about new piece struck a chord with my own music. I will be following up this article, with a second one looking in more detail at Nimrod Borenstein's thoughts on writing music.

Borenstein's The Big Bang and the Creation of the Universe is being performed on 23 Feburary 2013 at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra. If you will, it is no dream premiered on 13 June 2013 at the Royal Festival Hall again with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Dmitry Sitkovetsky will premiere Borenstein's violin concerto in 2014 with the Oxford Philomusica, conductor Marios Papadopoulos. Further information from Nimrod Borenstein's website.

See part 2 of my interview with Nimrod

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