Close-up of cellist Inbal Segev performing the concerto she commissioned from Avner Dorman

Concerto Quest

When commissioning a new work from a living composer, one of the first tasks for an orchestra is finding the composer. But what if you are a soloist who wants to hire a composer to write a concerto for you to perform with orchestras? In that case, the critical step after selecting a composer is finding orchestras to play with. Cellist Inbal Segev accomplished something unusual when she successfully commissioned a cello concerto from Avner Dorman and found four orchestras willing to sign on to perform it this year. The concerto had its world premiere in February at Alaska’s Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Randall Craig Fleischer. Further performances are scheduled for May with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic in Poughkeepsie, New York; July with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional in Bogota, Colombia; and September with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra in Ohio.

Cellist Inbal Segev. Photo by MEReps

In his review of the Alaska world premiere, Mike Dunham wrote in the Anchorage Daily News, “The concerto was probably one of the most successful new works debuted by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra during the tenure of conductor Randall Craig Fleischer, both in terms of substance and effect. Bristly as the first movement was, it held one’s attention with its percussive persistence and drive. Soloist Inbal Segev’s ferocious energy had the listeners on the edge of their seats as if they were watching a NASCAR race in sound.”

Segev has learned a lot about the process of commissioning a concerto on the fly. She already knew Dorman’s music: besides traveling in similar musical circles, both she and Dorman are Juilliard graduates and Israel natives who have settled in the United States, Segev in New York City and Dorman in Pennsylvania, where he is on the music faculty at Gettysburg College. Dorman’s orchestral works include Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu (2012, commissioned by the Stockton Symphony in California, a project that was profiled in Symphony in 2012), Astolatry (2011, commissioned by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra), and a Concerto Grosso and concertos for mandolin and piccolo (recorded on a 2010 Naxos CD featuring the New York City-based Metropolis Ensemble). Segev had been eager to work with Avner Dorman since hearing his 2006 Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! on YouTube.

Recently, Inbal Segev took out an hour to chat with SymphonyNOW about the process of getting a new cello concerto off the ground.

Jennifer Melick: How did the idea come about to commission a new work by Avner Dorman?
Inbal Segev: The commission happened on multiple parallel paths. Avner was recommended to me by another composer, Gabriela Lena Frank. And I played the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic—where Avner’s dad, Ze’ev Dorman, is assistant conductor. Avner and I started talking about commissioning, and of course that involved money and getting orchestras to commit beforehand. I did not know this at the time, but you can’t just kind of order a piece, even if you pay for it fully, and then start shopping it out for concerts! It all has to happen before the piece is written. People like to hear something that’s very new, and once it’s not new anymore it’s on the shelf getting cold. That’s just the way the business is now.

My in-laws live in the Poughkeepsie area, so I ended up going to the Hudson Valley Philharmonic to play for Randall Fleischer. He loved the idea. He said, “I’m really interested in new music.” And I said, “That’s interesting because I am talking to Avner Dorman.” And he said, “I know Avner—I was going to commission a choral piece from him, but it’s too expensive for us.”  A cello concerto involves fewer people. With music, you pay almost by note, by how heavy the score is. This worked out perfectly, because Randy has three orchestras: Anchorage, Hudson Valley, and Youngstown in Ohio. Then I got an extra orchestra in Colombia, and I’m very excited about that.

Randall Craig Fleischer, music director of the the Hudson Valley Philharmonic and the Anchorage and Youngstown symphony orchestras

Melick: What range of responses did you get when you sought out orchestras to perform the concerto with you?
Segev: Some weren’t interested. Others were interested, but didn’t have the money, or the timing wasn’t right, or maybe their audience was too conservative. A couple of orchestras in Israel said, “Send a recording and we’ll see.” I think that we are very lucky to get four orchestras, which is great! And I think there will also be a life after, when we record it live at the world premiere in Anchorage. Overall, I’m very excited about the fact that people are playing new music more and more, and for the most part audiences are also eager to hear them. That’s a good thing.

Melick: How did you deal with the practical details and financial aspects of the project?
Segev: In business I’m not that strong, but luckily my husband is in finance, and he is very good at things like drawing up contracts with my manager and juggling between the different orchestras. Each of the orchestras had invited me to play as soloist, and they all shared in the costs of the commission. Today, even the most successful musicians have to be business oriented as well. I’m lucky because I have my husband. But even so, I still have to be on top of things. If you are a musician, you are running a business. There certainly needs to be more emphasis preparing for this kind of work, and I’m glad there is more and more of this happening now. After I finished my studies at Juilliard was the scariest time of my life. I was like, what do I do now? I did some auditions. I did some competitions; some I won, some I lost. It was a very hard time. I made $20,000 a year. That is pretty tough!

Composer Avner Dorman has written a cello concerto commissioned by cellist Inbal Segev and several U.S. orchestras

Melick: Was there anything that surprised you about the cello concerto Avner Dorman has written for you?
Segev: I had quite a different idea of what it was going to sound like—I thought it was going to be flowing Middle Eastern, Israeli-type melodies. It turns out to be extremely modern sounding, though there’s a little Middle Eastern bit at the end. Avner describes the work as a concerto for a “cello that forgot it’s a cello.” And that is so true: it’s very rhythmic, minimalist in the first movement. The last movement is all pizzicato. It’s very painful to practice! I had a blister for a few weeks.

Melick: Does the concerto call for any special techniques, like slapping or hitting the cello?
Segev: It certainly does, but not slapping or hitting—my cello is a 330-year-old Ruggieri! There is one part I wish I played on a modern cello, because Avner asks the soloist to over-force, you know how a beginner cellist makes a sound like moving furniture? It’s really cool. In another part, all pizzicato, you play kind of like a flamenco guitar, opening your fingers like a fan. That’s something I have done maybe once before. The slow movement is long chords, just a cello section holding open strings, very dark, and the cello soloist is breaking chords. It sounds like a cry, it’s very emotionally charged. It’s beautiful. In Anchorage we got a lot of rehearsals, four or even more, I think, because it’s very tricky. First, it’s very fast, and there are a lot of meter changes, a lot of fives in the meter, a few bars of 7/16, and so forth.

There’s another thing I like about the piece. When I was growing up in Israel, a lot of composers were writing very folk-based music. It was Israeli music. Today it’s much more subtle. You might not know when you hear it that it’s Israeli music, but it still has a Middle Eastern quality. It’s very modern. It’s our country, and we are proud of it, but we don’t have to shout as loud today … how do I say it? It reflects the more modern Israel that I grew up in, and that’s wonderful.

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Below, view an excerpt of the first movement of Avner Dorman’s cello concerto, recorded at the world premiere in Anchorage in February.

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