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Shor in Seoul: The rise of an unusual composer

Alexey Shor
Alexey Shor
Composer Alexey Shor may be considered an enigma of sorts, a composer whose relatively late emergence onto the landscape of classical music has been marked by performances of his works at some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls and by renowned artists from across the world. This year will see further performances of Shor’s works in locations around the world.

Described as neo-romantic and neo-classical, Shor’s works present a penchant for traditional harmony and compositional devices, with arguably more in common with works of the 18th and 19th centuries than with much of its fellow contemporary repertoire. Popular classical recording artist and Professor of Piano at Seoul National University, Hyoung-Joon Chang describes Shor’s music as following: “Alexey Shor‘s piece not only has musical depth with lyrical singing-lines, but also is technically demanding.”

New York-based composer Alexey Shor has become known for his unashamed use of rich, tonal, traditionally-constructed harmonies and melodies, a far cry from the angular properties of the avant-garde that dominate much of today’s modern classical repertoire. Another interesting point to note about Shor’s output is his preference for composing programme music, taking inspiration from various places he has visited, for example, or from events, whether real or imagined. As In Mee Park, Professor of Piano at Chugye University for the Arts, and President of the Piano Duo Association of Korea, says: “Each one of the [Shor’s] works is lovely and beautiful, sometimes nostalgic of the past.” Shor’s Travel Notebook, for example, may be read as a ‘musical journal’ of sorts, with the various movements in the work inspired by various places the composer has visited, including Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Ravenna, Venice and Ascot.

From his initial compositions focussed on duos, trios and other small ensembles, his output now consists of concertos, tone poems and even a full-length ballet. Indeed, Shor’s Crystal Palace ballet represents a significant shift in the composer’s output, producing a full-length original ballet score for a production featuring extravagant set design, costumes and an original storyline. The ballet was first premiered in 2017, soon after being performed at the 40th Gramophone Classical Music Awards ceremony in London.

Winner of the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels and Bronze Medallist of the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Korean violinist Ji Young Lim, performed Shor’s Seascapes at the InClassica Malta International Music Festival in 2018. Speaking of her experience playing the composer’s work, and noting the programmatic nature of his writing, she said: “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.”

While a change from the ordinary with regard to normal concert repertoire, Shor’s music has found popularity across the world, in notable concert halls including the Kennedy Center, Salzburg’s Mozarteum, Berlin Philharmonie, Carnegie Hall, Kremlin Palace, Wiener Musikverein, Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, Wigmore Hall, Smetana Hall, the Barbican and Mariinsky Theatre amongst others, with audiences enjoying its tonal, traditional construction and focus on melody. Noting this and speaking of her support for his work, Hae-young Kim, Head of Piano Studies at Chugye University of the Arts, comments: “In my personal opinion, nowadays in concert halls...we need to listen more tonally, melodically and rhythmically-based contemporary music like his music.”

Shor’s most recent release is a CD recording of his Images from the Great Siege, a large-scale orchestral work in thirteen movements recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergey Smbatyan. The work is a continuation of the composer’s programme repertoire, depicting various imagined scenes that follow the experiences of a young man present for the real-life events taking place in Malta in 1565. The CD is released on the Naxos label and also includes Shor’s Verdiana, a reworking of melodies by Verdi in samba, bossa nova and tango styles.

In addition to Shor’s favouring of works for the concert hall, he has since diversified into other mediums, including a project involving the adaption of his music for the film Just Noise. Filmed in Malta and penned for release this year, the film contains works by Shor, rearranged for use in the project.

Earlier this year, Shor’s work was featured in the Korean Piano Open, taking place at the Chugye University for the Arts in Seoul. Speaking of his enjoyment performing Shor’s work and noting his further understanding of the composer’s style, the competition’s winner, Minsung Lee, said: “This work was very interesting. It was an opportunity to fully feel the composer’s music.”

Shor’s scores are understood to have made quite the impression on the jury members, with Hae Won Chang, pianist and President of Ewon Cultural Institute, noting that: “The music by the composer Alexey Shor is really very beautiful and sweet. Each piece has its own character and is very attractive.”

Shor’s output provides concert goers a unique new experience: offering contemporary works that while a product of the modern experience, pay homage to the masters of the past, presenting original music that is nonetheless accessible and in a musical language appreciated and understood by many. Indeed, the popularity of Shor’s music has been noted by many performers of his works, and is a reflection of an audience fascination and proclivity for those defining features of music often neglected in many contemporary works, namely relatable melodies supported by tonal harmony. What is clear is that despite his considerable successes to date, Shor’s journey as a composer seems far from over, consistently going from strength to strength as both the volume and popularity of his musical output increase, and matched only by his drive and determination to continue to forge a career in something he clearly is most passionate about.

For more information on Alexey Shor, please visit his official website.

By Ki-yoon Li