Saturday 4 September 2021

Composing is not something that you decide to do, it chooses you: I chat to composer Richard Danielpour about his new work which arose directly out of the events of 2020

Richard Danielpour
Richard Danielpour

Like many creative artists, last year's events affected composer Richard Danielpour both personally and artistically. One of the results of this has been the creation of a striking sequence of piano pieces, An American Mosaic, which he wrote for pianist Simone Dinnerstein and which she premiered (online) last year and the recording of which came out earlier this year. It is a work which, in both its subject matter and the manner of its arising, comes directly out of last year. Richard intends it as a work of consolation, many of its individual movements are named for those who worked (and are working) hard to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. 

But there is much else going on musically in Richard's life, including plans for a new opera and I spent an engaging hour chatting to him last month via Zoom. We spoke at a time conditioned by the time difference; Richard has lived in Los Angeles for four years, having spent 35 years as a New Yorker. 

Richard explains that An American Mosaic's genesis arose from unique circumstances. During March 2020 he had trouble sleeping; he is asthmatic and had been warned he needed to avoid contact and so was isolated for 40 days. Not surprisingly, he suffered problems with anxiety and sleeping. He was usually awake in the early hours, and having had an idea for an opera at the beginning of 2020 he used the time to start work on an opera libretto (of which more anon). He found that listening to Simone Dinnerstein playing Bach helped him get back to sleep, notably her recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (which legend says were written to help an insomniac aristocrat). 

Richard Danielpour: An American Mosaic - Simone Dinnerstein - (Image from IMG Artists)
Richard Danielpour: An American Mosaic - Simone Dinnerstein - (Image from IMG Artists)

This listening became something of a ritual for around a month, and he wanted to write to Dinnerstein to thank her. She was unknown to him, but when his choral work, The Passion of Yeshua had been premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival in 2018 Dinnerstein had also appeared at the festival; she and Richard had only missed each other by a day, So Richard got into contact with the festival's then director of artistic adminstration, Michael Anderson.

At the time, Richard was finding it too stressful to watch the news on television, but he kept abreast of events via the New York Times, and he felt that he wanted to write a piece that reflected the times. And when he contacted Michael Anderson at the festival, Richard told him about the idea for the piece, and it was Anderson who suggested that Dinnerstein might perform Richard's new work. So contact was made by email, then they Facetimed and she loved the idea; Oregon Bach Festival commissioned what would become An American Mosaic.

Richard wrote the work in two intense months from 5 June to 5 August 2020. He was written quite a few piano cycles, but felt that this one was his most significant, and felt that they should record it. The work was not quite long enough for a CD and it was Simone Dinnerstein who suggested to Richard that he do some Bach transcriptions for her to play alongside An American Mosaic. At first, he thought that this might be a chore, but he found it a fantastic experience.

The piece was live-streamed last year and released as a recording in March 2021 on Supertrain Records. It has now had over 2.5 million streams on Apple Music, which is entirely unexpected, all Richard had wanted to do was to give comfort to people. 

The work is in 15 movements, some tiny others longer and within these are a set of four labelled Consolations. The idea for these arose in a dream when he was being embraced by an angel and Richard felt that this was something he could use. Hence the four Consolations, the first is monodic, the second a two-part invention, the third a three-voiced fugue and the fourth a four-voice chorale. Effectively they make a piece within a piece. And he feels that they form structural markers within the cycle, very much like the role of the G minor variations in Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Whilst some of the movements are small, others are quite substantial so that Visible Enemy (which is about President Trump, who was another anxiety at the time) has its own structure. Richard thinks that the sound-world of the piece also links to Bach, particularly the four Consolations, and that you can hear that at the time he had 'Bach on the Brain'. Bach's was the only music that he was listening to at the time he was writing An American Mosaic, though he has known the music for 45 years and it just seeps in. Not only Simone Dinnerstein's recordings but he listened to the St Matthew Passion in Otto Klemperer's recording, which is not at all historically informed but which Richard calls 'emotionally right'. It was hearing this work when he was 17 that kick-started him into becoming a composer.

Richard Danielpour: Margaret Garner - Denyce Graves, Eric Greene (Photo Jim Schmid / Opera Carolina)
Richard Danielpour: Margaret Garner
Denyce Graves, Eric Greene
(Photo Jim Schmid / Opera Carolina)
Whilst Richard has written several major works for piano, he has written for a wide variety of genres. He sees himself as a theatre composer, having written a significant body of ballets and operas. And many of his concert works, such as the Cello Concerto and American Requiem, are what he refers to as 'secret operas'. But he started out as a pianist, and it is in writing for the piano that he feels he can reveal his intimate thoughts. His Preludes are very much a musical journal, many arising out of his dream life; he comments that a lot of his music comes from his dreams.

He loves composing and unlike a couple of his contemporaries whom he mentions as finding composing agonising, Richard writes fast. Though he admits that he starts fast and finishes slow; once a piece is written he hangs on to the score and tweaks it. He writes by hand in manuscript (and he shows me the beautifully neat manuscript of a new song-cycle he is working on). In the old days, he had copyists, and now he has a person who converts the manuscript into computerised scores. This person is a composer in his own right, and Richard comments that it is good to have a right arm. 

He finds that there is something focusing about writing by hand. Also, when he sees the work engraved it looks like someone else's work which makes it easier to take a fresh look and to criticise it. For Richard, the most important thing about writing a piece is re-writing and editing, he does this a lot. And he wishes that some of his colleagues would go back and re-do pieces, as he feels their work is not finished. In the 2000s there were several works that he produced quickly, and he found himself redoing the works after their premieres.

When it comes to opera, this process is humbling; being able to cut something is a victory. And he quotes composers such as Gershwin with Porgy and Bess, where the finished work was significantly shorter than the first run through. The same happened with Richard's first opera, Margaret Garner, (which premiered in Detroit in 2005) where he made significant reductions. 

He has found this has happened with the way he writes music too, as he concentrates on writing just the necessary notes. Here he mentions Mozart, who he calls the supreme prophet, and the way he only wrote just the necessary notes. Richard also feels that he learned writing for the voice from Mozart, particularly the three operas with Da Ponte.

He is aware of his musical style (which has changed over the years), but he does not think consciously about it. But when he was in his 20s and 30s he was willing his music into being 'like a war' whereas now it is a more relaxed process and he feels he is receiving it. As he has got older his music has got simpler on the surface, but more complex in the interactions underneath. And here he mentions Mozart and Copland as great examples, along with Shostakovich and Britten. Composers whose music is fairly easy to grasp on first hearing and is memorable yet has complexity underneath.

He talks about an exercise he does with students comparing works so that comparing songs by Korngold (which are good) with Strauss' Four Last Songs (which are great), or Cherubini's Requiem (another good work, which Beethoven admired) with Beethoven's great Missa Solemnis. And he asks the students to work out what makes the works great, and sometimes there is only a little bit of difference. And this can make all the difference in the world. He goes on to talk about Leonard Bernstein, with whom he studied during Bernstein's final three years, and how Bernstein's West Side Story is similar to a piece by Mark Blitzstein. When Richard taxed Bernstein with this, the composer replied 'I do it a little bit better'. And for Richard, it is that little bit that makes all the difference in the world.

Richard Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua - JoAnn Falletta - Oregon Bach Festival
Richard Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua - JoAnn Falletta - Oregon Bach Festival

I first came across Richard's music through his oratorio The Passion of Yeshua, which conductor JoAnn Falletta premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival and was released on Naxos [see my review]. The work retells the passion story but uses Hebrew as one of its languages. Richard wanted to take the story back to its origins, to Palestine and to see Jesus from a Jewish perspective. He points out that for the first 300 years, most Christians were Jewish, it was only after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the Roman state religion that it became European, and this process Richard feels distorted things. His idea with The Passion of Yeshua was to separate the barnacles and accretions from the original message.

He comes from a Jewish background with some Christian strands, and he loves setting Hebrew. For a start, his parents were born in Iran and spoke Farsi which is similar to Hebrew. And Richard has also set works in Farsi.

Richard assembled the libretto for The Passion of Yeshua from existing texts, and this is a process that he has done for other works. But the opera libretto that he started writing in those dark days back in March 2020 was, in fact, his first original opera libretto. Since completing that libretto, he has been aided by a colleague at UCLA (where Richard teaches), Peter Kazaras, to revamp the libretto and Kazaras will be directing the new opera when it is performed in Los Angeles. During January this year, he started setting the first scene, and found that there were lines to be taken out and lines to be added, and for once he didn't have to ask the librettist!

When I ask whether he always wanted to be a composer, he tells me about when he was tiny and his mother found him watching television and asked him why he was singing something different to the music on the television programme. Richard retorted that he had just found something that goes better! Deep down he knew he liked composing, and he wrote music from the age of 12 but it was neither conscious nor directed until he was 19. A lot of his training was devoted to the piano, and a lot of time was spent giving concerts but he still knew that his calling was as a composer.

He is still in love with the music of the past and feels that this is important. He is not just a composer. You need to be a real musician and you become the composer you are meant to be. Composing is not something that you decide to do, it chooses you.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Quite an occasion: Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts early Handel and Bach for his 60th appearance at the BBC Proms - concert review
  • Surprisingly satisfying: Bach's The Art of Fugue from Les inAttendus (accordion, bass viol, Baroque violin) - record review
  • Unsettling and distinctive: Gregory Brown's new work for vocal sextet and electronics, Fall and Decline - record review
  • Against the odds: a fine musical performance triumphs over unseasonal weather and an unsympathetic sound system in ENO's venture south of the river - opera review
  • Rich orchestral textures, vibrant performances, political engagement: Max Richter's Exiles from Baltic Sea Philharmonic & Kristjan Järvi - record review 
  • Creating the musical language that belongs to the film: I chat to composer Benjamin Woodgates about writing for film, notably his first feature film score for Dream Horse interview
  • A complex mix of dance, text and music: William K.z.'s The Growth of Silk at Camden Fringe - opera review
  • Strong impact: Handel's Alcina from Ensemble OrQuesta at Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival - opera review
  • Chineke! Orchestra returns to the BBC Proms with a programme of discovery, four late-Romantic works by composers of African ancestry - concert review
  • Folk ritual and drama: Mozart's Don Giovanni at Nevill Holt Opera rises to the challenge - opera review
  • 'Caro nome' from a balloon and laughing with her voice: I chat to soprano Hila Fahima about performing Gilda and Zerbinetta, along with her discovery of lesser known Donizetti operas - interview
  • Chamber music for the King: François Couperin's Concerts royaux from American flautist Stephen Schultz and friends - record review
  • Technicolour dreams: Anita Rachvelishvili's Élégie on Sony Classical - record review
  • Home


No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month