Shor’s unique compositional style impresses Belgian audiences
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Shor’s unique compositional style impresses Belgian audiences

Alexey Shor

This year sees several performances of Alexey Shor’s work by notable Belgian artists including Winner of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, pianist Denis Kozhukhin; the renowned soloist, chamber musician (‘Trio Chausson’) and recording artist, violinist Leonard Schreiber, and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal De Liège.

Born in Kiev in 1970, the young Alexey Shor spent much of his time dedicated to mathematics, only taking up the composer’s pen later in life. Since his early beginnings primarily composing solo and duo works, Shor’s output has since grown prodigiously in both scale and complexity, now counting works for orchestra including overtures, concertos, tone poems and even a full-length original ballet featuring an original score and storyline.

Premiered in 2017, his Crystal Palace ballet featured the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) and dancers from the Bolshoi Theatre, and represented a watershed moment in Shor’s career, contributing almost two hours of original music for the production’s score. Following the ballet’s premiere, the overture to the work was subsequently performed at the 40th Gramophone Awards in London in September of the same year.

“He’s an amazing person, who cultivates interest in many ways” said Denis Kozhukhin when asked about his experience working with Shor. He continues: “Just the fact that he’s an outstanding mathematician as well as a composer is something quite special. I don’t know many people like that…he’s a really interesting person — I wish I had more time with him…”

Fellow former competitor and laureate of the celebrated Queen Elisabeth Competition, violinist Alena Baeva notes Shor’s uniqueness amongst contemporary composers: “There is a very clear logical structure in Shor’s music…the clarity of structure is very attractive. After all, since the middle of the 20th century, the musical language began to disintegrate into such small fragments…to split up and become fragile. And sometimes it’s difficult to perceive. And of course, it’s always interesting to see a different side of contemporary composition. I am curious to explore different facets of contemporary composition, different views, different currents. And Alexey Shor represents a very special part of that community.”

Shor’s latest offering is a CD release of his Images from the Great Siege, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and released on the Naxos label. Taking inspiration from Malta’s famous struggle against the Ottoman Empire in 1565, the programmatic thirteen-movement piece details the imagined experiences of a young man present during the conflict. The release also features Verdiana, a piece which presents reworkings of melodies by Verdi in styles including samba, bossa nova and tango.

Shor holds the esteemed position of having his works performed by many prodigious soloists from around the world, including performances of his Seascapes work by two former winners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels: violinists Ray Chen (2009) and Ji Young Lim (2015). When asked about their response to Shor’s music, it is interesting to note that both Chen and Lim draw attention to the inspirational, programmatic nature of the composer’s works, with Lim stating that, “Alexey Shor’s Seascapes consists of 4 movements and each has its own small title.

This means that Shor writes what he wants to express so I have to deliver the same feeling that he has to the audience. There are a lot of pieces where it is really hard to find out what the composer wants, but with this it’s really clear what Shor wants to convey and I then try to deliver that.” As Chen notes, “You can hear everyday life of the island encoded in his music, something intimate, authentic and, at times, you can imagine how the storm is raging on the seashore.”

Another luminary of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, Japanese violinist Yayoi Toda (winner 1993), said of her experience playing Shor’s works: “I feel like a new door in the music world has opened quickly…it was a wonderful experience performing Mr Shor’s composition with a strong sense of dynamism and rich colours.”

To examine the work of Alexey Shor more carefully, we must return to the matter of the idiom he chooses to work in and how this has affected his output. Described as neo-classical and neo-romantic, Shor’s works, while a product of the 21st century, arguably utilises those choices of compositional devices more common to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Focussing on clear recognisable melodies and tonal, familiar harmonies, Shor has made a name for himself as a composer who rejects the atonal, often angular music of the avant-garde. His output for large ensemble, for example, derives much from the conventions of traditionally-constructed Western music, utilising compositional devices such as those used by composers including Rimsky-Korsakov, whose famous Treatise on Orchestration Shor notes as, “…still one of the best books on that subject.”

October 2019 saw Shor’s works performed at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp. When discussing the repertoire performed in the event and noting Shor’s work, Sergei Edelmann, the event’s Artistic Director described the composer’s Childhood Memories as, “…both diverse and amusing, but, at the same time, one cannot escape the feeling of a much deeper philosophical meaning behind the work.”

Shor’s work was also featured at the Antwerpiano Competition in Antwerp last year. Audiences remarked about the unique use of tonal, classical and romantic elements in his work.

Having established himself as a composer of works for the concert hall, this year’s offerings present a different side to Shor’s works, with the premiere of Just Noise, an independent film shot in Malta and scheduled for release in early 2021 and featuring reworkings of Shor’s compositions.

This year also sees performances of Shor’s works by the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal De Liège, French-speaking Belgium’s only professional symphony orchestra. When asked about Shor’s works and the style his compositions are written in, Principal Conductor, Gergely Madaras, comments: “I feel that they have a very distinct style, a classical style which is very beautiful and very consumable, very digestible for the public and also for the orchestra…although Alexey Shor is a contemporary composer, his works are much closer to mainstream or even sometimes to film music than avant-garde works, so in a way there is no such danger of entering a concert hall and not liking his works because his works are very likable.”

Renowned Belgian violinist Lenoard Schreiber, speaking of Shor’s music, describes it as, “…really interesting and very refreshing for a few reasons. Firstly, I feel a huge sincerity in his way of writing. It’s very honest, pure and with a sense of wanting to give us beautiful tunes that we want to play. They’re lovely, simple and sincere.”

Alexey Shor’s relatively late-starting career is as impressive as it is surprising, his unique style of composition resonating favourably with audiences across the world. It is important to note that at a time of apathy — or even, hostility — towards contemporary composition felt by many concertgoers, Shor’s work could be described as a latent catalyst for a tonal revival and a return to tradition in the mainstream.

While not attempting to break conventions or in any way ‘deconstruct’ the genre, Shor’s music has certainly made waves in the classical music world, noted as much for its retrospective gaze as for its recognisable melodies and familiar sound-world. Shor’s journey, it seems, is far from over.

The Brussels Times