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Collaborations in composing

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

Richard Danielpour finds himself well-established as a classical composer. The 47-year-old has written works for the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Orchestre National de France and numerous other leading orchestras. Danielpour’s music has found a particularly comfortable home in Aspen: When the Aspen Chamber Symphony, with conductor Michael Stern, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson, performs his concerto, “In the Arms of the Beloved,” this Sunday, July 19, it will be the fourth time in five summers that Danielpour’s music has been performed here. He also has a fairly easy time getting his works recorded. In 1996, Danielpour became only the third composer signed to an exclusive recording contract on the Sony Classical label; his two predecessors were Stravinsky and Copland (That relationship with Sony has since ended). Danielpour has a list of honors that runs from his Grammy Award-winning Cello Concerto (recorded in 1997 by Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman) to a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters to two Rockefeller Foundation grants. And how does a composer achieve such an elevated spot in classical music? Danielpour is not sure; there’s no formula he knows of. “I don’t know how it all happens. If I knew how, I’d probably start an agency,” said Danielpour by phone from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he is in residence at the Yaddo artists’ colony, working in the very studio where Copland composed his Piano Variations and “Dance” Symphony some 70 years ago. But just as quickly as he claims no knowledge of how a composer makes his mark, Danielpour reveals some of the things that underlie his success. First among those has been ambition – not just professional ambition, but the kind of artistic ambition that can be heard in the music.”There is a tendency for people who get their work out there, that they are of a certain common ilk,” said Danielpour. “They tend to be composers who deeply believe their work is worth hearing. And that urgency, and their desire to share it, is in the music, in the actual hearing, music that says, `Listen to me.’ That music tends to cut through the slough of anonymity that many young composers face today.”Danielpour has little trouble finding that sense of urgency. That has not only given his music an air of significance, but has also spurred him to be a prolific composer. His output is extensive and wide, ranging from symphonies, chamber music and solo piano compositions to two major ballet scores and his “An American Requiem.” “This life is so short,” said Danielpour, who is scheduled to appear in Aspen for this weekend’s performance, marking only his second trip here. “It goes by so quickly, and you never know when it will end. So if I have the choice between writing music and not writing music, I usually choose to write.”Raised mostly in his native New York City and the Palm Beach area – with a year at age 7 in Iran, where his parents were from – Danielpour began his musical studies on piano. From the time he began playing, at the age of 13, until he was 16, he was entirely self-taught, by ear, never laying eyes on a score. Somewhere in the course of his formal training, at the New England Conservatory and The Juilliard School, Danielpour moved from performance to composition. Once again, it was a transformation made not of definitive decisions, but of a gradual realization.”Honestly, I don’t think anyone who is a composer really decides to become a composer,” said Danielpour, who describes his family – his mother, the Florida sculptor Mehri Weil; his late father, a part-time poet; and his sister, Debbie Chapel, a nonfiction writer and Harvard professor finishing her first novel – as one of “nonmusical artists.” “I think it chooses you more than you choose it. I was clear at 16 that music was going to be my life. But it’s not like somebody deciding to go into medicine. This musical energy, this musical frequency, is passing through you all the time, and you either accept it or you shut it out entirely. If it’s strong, it’s hard to turn away from it. The act of creating can be intoxicating.” In 1981, Danielpour had the first performance of one of his orchestral works, a piece for orchestra and piano. To do so, Danielpour had to travel to Argentina, where the piece was performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Caracas. The work was “written before I sounded like myself,” he said.It wasn’t until 1988, when members of the New York Chamber Symphony played his “First Light,” that Danielpour really thinks his career started taking off. “That made a lot more people aware of what I was doing,” he said.Over the next two years, Danielpour would make two of his most important musical associations. In 1989, he met current Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman, who would record Danielpour’s Grammy-nominated Concerto for Orchestra as well as the Grammy-winning Cello Concerto. The next year, Danielpour met Yo-Yo Ma, and another ongoing partnership was born. In such collaborations, Danielpour found not only high-profile artists to champion his music, but also the joy of sharing ideas.”Music is a very personal venture. It’s made by human beings, with other human beings,” he said. “So there’s a constant interdependency. It can be quite a pleasurable experience if you’re making music with people you like to be around.”At a very early stage I started to welcome relationships with other musicians that were based on a real respect and sense of getting along. It’s such hard work to write one piece, so the bottom line is, you want to do it with people you like and respect.”Danielpour’s “In the Arms of the Beloved” is an example of creating music out of friendships. He composed “A Child’s Reliquary” for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in 1999. When conductor Michael Stern and the Tennessee-based Iris Orchestra offered Danielpour a commission, he jumped at the chance to extend his collaboration with members of the trio. In the summer of 2001, Danielpour composed “In the Arms of the Beloved.” The timing coincided with the 25th anniversary of the wedding of Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson, and Danielpour wrote the piece with that relationship in mind.”I’d been reading a good deal of poetry by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi,” said Danielpour. “He was a mystic, one of the first Sufis. His belief about the love relationship was that love between the two was a kind of divine energy. Looking upon the face of your beloved, you’re looking as closely as possible at the face of God.””`In the Arms of the Beloved,'” continued Danielpour, “charts the trajectory, the stages, of relationships, from the initial discovery and courtship to the trial and the resolution. And in this case, the resolution is an immersion in Rumi’s beliefs. So it’s a piece about couples, and I thought it was a perfect piece for this couple. They’re almost like characters in a secret opera.””In the Arms of the Beloved” and “A Child’s Reliquary” will be paired on a CD due out this fall. Taking up most of Danielpour’s attention at the moment is his first opera. “Margaret Garner,” with a libretto by poet Toni Morrison, is based on the true story of a slave, living on a Kentucky plantation just before the Civil War. After escaping to temporary freedom in Cincinnati, Garner and her children were caught by the plantation owner, Gaines. While riding the riverboat back to Kentucky, Garner tried to drown herself and her children. Her children died, but she survived, and when Garner was brought to trial, the central judicial issue was whether she should be tried for murder or destruction of property. It was a significant issue: If tried for murder, there was the implication that her children were human beings; if for destruction of property, the slaves were considered chattel.”Margaret Garner,” commissioned by Michigan Opera Theater, the Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, is scheduled to have its debut in May 2005 in Michigan. Like much of Danielpour’s professional life, the opera represents an ongoing collaboration, this time with librettist Morrison. The two composed a song cycle for soprano Jessye Norman that premiered in 1997. A year earlier, Danielpour and Morrison had started talking about creating an opera together. When they met to discuss concrete ideas, both brought up the same subject matter, the story of the slave Margaret Garner.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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