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The road less travelled: a profile of composer Alexey Shor

Alexey Shor and Maxim Vengerov, Germany 2020

Alexey Shor defies simple categorisation, a composer whose relatively recent debut onto the classical music landscape has been marked by enthusiastic audience receptions, endorsements from renowned soloists and an impressive roster of international performances in leading concert halls across the globe.

This year marks the tenth edition of the InClassica Malta International Music Festival, a three-week-long celebration of classical music on the picturesque Mediterranean island of Malta for which Shor will serve as Composer-In-Residence, contributing works for many of the concerts held as part of the festival including the premiere of his Violin Concerto No.1.

Born in Kiev in 1970, Alexey Shor’s life seemed set to follow a different path to the one he has since found himself on, his early life dominated by a keen interest in, and remarkable ability for science and mathematics. As he explains: “I was a maths prodigy and in fact both of my parents were scientists, so for me the only question was what sort of scientist I was going to be.”

Recognised for his prodigious mathematical abilities early in life, Shor continued to further his knowledge in this discipline as he continued his studies into his early twenties, later being recognised for some important results in Dynamical Systems and Geometry.

Though this early career dominated by the sciences seems an unlikely start for a latent composer, it is possible that these two pursuits may not be as far removed from each other as one might expect. In fact, the link between mathematics and music… including hypotheses exploring brain development in relation to early exposure to music, have long been discussed, with several factors cited in support of the claim that there is an underlying relationship between the two.

In the case of Alexey Shor, however, despite his talent for mathematics, this does not appear to be a defining characteristic of his music. By his own admission, “I try to just write what I hear and most importantly, what I like the sound of.” Indeed, Shor’s initial forays into the world of classical music were not spearheaded by analytical papers and discussions of esoteric musical theory, nor even by works of an aggressively avant-garde idiom, but rather by an honest exploration of an art form he clearly loves very much. Shor’s early writings were populated by, “short, song-like pieces just for my own enjoyment”, a far cry from the larger orchestral works which have followed in recent years.

The reserve

Photo: BirdLife Malta

The twist of fate which led to the discovery of Alexey Shor’s compositions revolve around the composer’s friendship with David Aaron Carpenter, an internationally renowned violist based in New York and the man who would introduce Shor’s music to the concert hall.

“…I certainly didn’t want to be an imposition on my friends, so for a long time it [composition] remained a secret passion,” Shor says. “This changed unexpectedly one day when a friend of mine, the great violist David Aaron Carpenter was a guest in the house; he picked up a score that was lying around, intimated that he liked it and asked whose it was. Well, at that point the game was up (laughs). I confessed the piece was mine, though I still didn’t quite understand his interest to tell you the truth — as far as I was concerned, I was an amateur and he is a worldwide pro after all! So, I resisted, but eventually he convinced me to write a piece for him.”

Since this fortuitous event, Shor’s output and the regularity of performances of his works have grown exponentially, with his music since programmed at prestigious concert halls around the world, including Carnegie Hall, Berlin Philharmonie, Wiener Musikverein, Kennedy Center, Kremlin Palace, Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, Wigmore Hall, Smetana Hall, the Barbican, Salzburg’s Mozarteum and the Mariinsky Theatre amongst others.

The pieces penned by Shor have also changed as the years have progressed, growing from the smaller arrangements favoured at the start of his career to works for symphony orchestra including concertos, symphonic poems and even a ballet. Indeed, Shor’s Crystal Palace ballet, originally premiered in Malta in 2017 and featuring performers from the Bolshoi Theatre, marked a significant point in Shor’s musical development as he faced the compositional demands of writing for such an extensive and complex art form.

Since the ballet’s initial release it has been played in various other iterations, most notably including a performance of the overture at the 40th Gramophone Classical Music Awards ceremony in London in 2017, and in its reworking for Jester’s Wedding, an internationally toured ballet adaptation performed on ice and featuring multiple Olympic gold medallists. Commenting on the compositional style in which the ballet was written, Bolshoi Theatre Conductor, Pavel Klinichev, explains that, “For me, Alexey’s music is like looking at the 18th century from the 21st, as though he had passed through that era himself — through the prism of his talent — and given it a modern reading.”

Described alternately as a neo-classical and neo-romantic composer, it is clear that Shor’s predilection for tonal, traditionally harmonic music lends credence to this characterisation, and can be considered an accurate representation of the musical language with which he chooses to express himself. His focus on recognisable melodies is arguably one of the defining factors attributable to Shor’s success and the speed at which his music has been adopted by both audiences and performers alike.

As pianist and conductor Gianluca Marciano expresses: “It is pleasant to perform modern works with beautiful melodies that remain in the memory even after the performance ends. This is music written for the public and the audience enjoys it very much.”

In recent years Shor’s works have moved beyond the concert hall, enjoying broadcasts on MediciTV, Mezzo and Euronews. Additionally, in 2018 Shor adapted material from his existing repertoire for the creation of a soundtrack to the film Just Noise. This feature length film shot in Malta is due for theatrical release later this year, and features reworkings of Shor’s pieces in its soundtrack.

Since 2019, Shor has been Composer-In-Residence for the Malta International Music Festival, a post he shared in 2017 and 2018 with a selection of other Maltese composers before donning the mantle of sole composer the following year. Since his appointment to this position, he has committed numerous works to the festival’s programmes, including several premieres.

The upcoming festival this year continues this trend, with Shor’s output accounting for a considerable amount of the programme and including the premiere of his Violin Concerto No 1, performed by the young virtuoso Daniel Lozakovich.

One point of relevance that may be useful when examining Shor’s output is his lasting collaborations with many celebrated soloists, artists who have promoted Shor’s work and who continue to programme his works in concert performances. Aside from his aforementioned friendship with David Aaron Carpenter, Shor counts a number of celebrated artists amongst his supporters including legendary violinist Maxim Vengerov, renowned cellist and conductor Dmitry Yablonsky and famed pianist Denis Kozhukhin.

“When I play Alexey’s works, it’s like I am falling in love with music over and over again. It is splendid and incredibly melodious.”  — Maxim Vengerov.

Despite the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, last year was by no means a fruitless one for Shor, his Images from the Great Siege work recorded by none other than the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). Conductor and Artistic Director of the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, Sergey Smbatyan, conducted the LSO for the occasion, with Grammy award winner Christopher Alder producing. The work is divided into thirteen movements, each representing part of a narrative following the imagined experiences of a young man fighting the Ottoman Empire during Malta’s Great Siege in 1565.

Though the person of whom the sequences follow was by all accounts a real figure, the events and images laid out in Shor’s music are conceptual in nature, an imagined version of the protagonist’s part in the conflict. Due to the emphasis placed on the human experience in addition to the obvious dramatic nature of the subject matter, Images from the Great Siege is an evocative work which deftly manages to pay homage to the importance and perceived grandeur of the event, whilst presenting a nuanced and intriguing narrative.

This year continues Shor’s upward trajectory, with performances of the composer’s works planned for the InClassica International Music Festival and the Classic Piano International Piano Competition, both taking place in Malta from April to May. InClassica will see performances of Shor’s works by Martha Argerich, Stella Chen, Carmen Giannattasio, Sergei Dogadin, David Aaron Carpenter, Andrey Gugnin, Denis Kozhukhin, Andreas Ottensamer, Leonard Schreiber, Gautier Capuçon, Freddy Kempf, Maxim Vengerov and Daniel Lazokovich.

This collection of phenomenal artists is a testament to the achievements of a composer whose presence on the classical music landscape is less than a decade old, and for whose music reveals a thirst for revivalist composition in the 21st century.

Alexey Shor is a remarkable phenomenon: a former maths prodigy with no formal musical training who, since his arrival onto the classical music scene in 2014, has rapidly built a following of both appreciative audiences and major industry figures. His proclivity for, and undeniable success in promoting tonal and traditionally constructed classical music has clearly caught the imagination and attention of a public accustomed to the abstraction of the avant-garde, promoting a refreshingly simple and melodic approach to contemporary composition and rejuvenating interest in a genre that has at times risked alienation of its audiences in its relentless, albeit natural, pursuit of originality, groundbreaking technical complexity and enhanced conceptual sophistication.

It could be argued that Shor’s gift is his uncanny ability to focus attention on those features of music that have endured throughout the centuries — namely that of strong melodies, tonal harmony and intuitive rhythmic devices, and through the use of musical language demonstrating a synthesis of the major schools and epochs of pre-20th century European art music.

“The genius behind Alexey’s music is…bringing back tonality. When you think of the modern composer today you think of very atonal music…and then you have Alexey, who is actually bringing back this concept of melody typically seen in the 18th and 19th century.” — David Aaron Carpenter.

In many ways Shor’s works could be described as a mirror of sorts, conveying the familiarity inherent in self-reflection whilst maintaining novelty and originality. The relevance and popularity of Shor may be considered, in part, a response to a society predicated on the idea of almost infinite diversity and cultural meme, and one that seeks originality even at the expense of form and traditional structures. Regardless of the reason, it is clear that Shor’s popularity and success show no sign of slowing down as he continues on his intrepid musical journey, further solidifying his reputation for originality whilst paying homage to the great masters of the past.

Alexey Shor will feature as Composer-In-Residence for the InClassica International Music Festival and Classic Piano International Competition taking place from April to May this year.