Nimrod Borenstein

Whether he was named after Elgar’s Nimrod or not, Nimrod Borenstein’s name brings to mind that memorable melody from the Enigma Variations, perhaps indicating that his destiny was to become a composer. Borenstein's compositions are frequently performed, especially in the USA, England and Eastern Europe.

Borenstein was born in Tel Aviv but grew up in Paris, the cultural centre of France. His father, who was a child prodigy artist, married an Italian woman. Nimrod essentially became a world citizen, with Jewish parents and being raised in France before moving to London to study. His accent in English has been described as a unique blend of French, Polish, Hebrew and West London. He is now married to an Italian woman and they have two children and reside in London.

At the age of six, Borenstein was already composing music, which he was inspired to do through the music of Beethoven. Already as a child, Borenstein found his passion for music and ‘wanted to write something that was great…[he] wanted to be like Beethoven’. The next year, Borenstein began writing 12-tone music, but not in the conventional way—the young composer had never even heard of Schoenberg or serialism. Instead he developed his own system for arranging the 12 notes of the scale, but stopped promptly upon hearing that this had already been done by other composers.

Borenstein’s professional training took place at the Royal College of Music from 1986, after becoming a Laureat of the Cziffra Foundation in 1984. Borenstein first pursued violin with Itzhak Rashkovsky, which he completed successfully, earning the highest scholarship offered by the Leverhulme Trust, allowing him to study composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Paul Patterson.

A desire for originality has been an important factor in Borenstein’s compositional evolution. His output has progressed from using pre-existing 20th-century techniques, including 12-note and serial techniques and sound clusters, to a personalized approach to tonality and tonality systems. His need for individuality is so strong that during his studies he became completely distraught when he discovered that a composition he had just completed contained facets of Gustav Mahler’s style.

In a panic, Borenstein called his father from a red telephone box, who was able to reassure him and give him valuable advice. His father suggested listening to the work and seeing if it was as reminiscent of Mahler as feared. Borenstein was reassured to learn that his work did not, in fact, sound like Mahler. While there were some influences from Mahler, the work was much more modern, even more than the music of Shostakovich, and completely original as a whole. In this way, Borenstein gradually discovered his own compositional voice.

Another fun anecdote from Borenstein’s student years occurred when he first arrived at the Royal College of Music in London. His fellow students kept whistling an unknown tune whenever they saw him, leading to his discovery of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’, which was not well-known in Israel or France during his childhood.

Borenstein’s family suffered tragic losses during World War II because of their ethnicity. On his paternal side, his grandmother was one of the only two survivors of 11 siblings. She survived by fleeing to Russia in response to her husband’s claim that ‘even Stalin was better than Hitler’. Later they moved to Israel.

Nimrod believes that his family’s history greatly impacts his music, though he refuses to define his Judaism by the many deaths in his family during the war, as he has learned from his father that this is a negative definition; since Jewish people have done great things, this is what should define their people. He applies this same thought process to music, ‘saying that you can’t do something, you can’t use tonal music, is not healthy. It’s better to define yourself through the positive: what you are trying to do, rather than what you are not’.

Though it seems obvious to Borenstein that his music is Jewish, he still receives the question, ‘What is Jewish about the work?’, to which he responds, ‘What’s Jewish about it is that I am Jewish! If you want great music from great composers like Beethoven and Mozart, then you have to let them write as the people they are…If they are Jewish, there will be something Jewish in their work, just as there is something German about Beethoven and something French about Debussy. It’s part of you. It shouldn’t be that you use little themes from folklore; that’s not the real thing’.

Borenstein’s output covers a broad range of genres from orchestral to chamber music and from vocal works to ballets. He already has more than 70 compositions to his name and has held the composer-in-residence post with various orchestras and festivals.

The most popular work from Borenstein’s output is the Shell Adagio for string orchestra, which has been performed at least 30 times already.

Some of his more recent works that have been premiered include the 2015 premiere of his ballet Suspended (2015) Op. 69, which was written for Gandini Juggling’s ‘4 x 4: Ephemeral Architectures’ and performed at the Royal Opera House. The ballet has since been performed worldwide after a 23-show run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer of 2015.

The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe (2013) which was performed in 2013 by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of the legendary pianist and composer Vladimir Ashkenazy, who proudly champions Borenstein’s music. Ashkenazy also conducted the world premiere of If you will it, it is no dream (2012), again with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Other premieres have taken place in prestigious concert halls such as the Royal Opera House (London), Royal Festival Hall (London) and Carnegie Hall (New York). His music is performed frequently across the globe and has been featured at a number of festivals including It’s All About Piano in London, the Burgos International Music Festival in Spain, the Belgrade Cello Fest in Serbia, the Evmelia International Music Festival in Greece and the Rencontres Musicales Internationales des Graves in France. Further, his music is often chosen for competitions, which have included the International Jeunesses Musicales Competition.

Borenstein is particularly interested in composing concertos and has already completed concertos for the violin (2013), cello (2012), and saxophone (2015). He is currently working on a concerto for guitar for virtuoso guitarist Costanza Savarese. More concerto commissions are also on the horizon.

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