Where do composers find their inspiration? In at least one instance, the muse came to the contemporary American composer Richard Danielpour in the form of a coincidence wrapped in serendipity.
After attending a performance at the Vienna State Opera a decade ago, Danielpour decided to pay his respects at the grave of Ludwig van Beethoven. Danielpour arrived at the cemetery, and with his taxi waiting at the gate, he began walking up and down rows of graves, looking for the Master's resting place. He could find it nowhere.
"In a frantic moment, I tripped over a tree stump and fell flat on my face," Danielpour later wrote. "When I picked myself up, I found myself a few yards away from a single granite gravestone in a clearing with the name 'Mozart' inscribed on it." Danielpour's taxi had taken him to the wrong cemetery, and by complete chance he ended up in the area where scholars generally believe Mozart was buried along with others in a mass grave.
That providential incident ignited a flame in Danielpour's imagination, which eventually led him to compose Lacrimae Beati, one of several new works to receive their world-premiere recordings on the Nashville Symphony Orchestra's just-released all-Danielpour album (Naxos). As Danielpour was traveling home that evening by plane, he was naturally thinking of Mozart. And when his plane ran into violent hurricane-force winds, he naturally began hearing Mozart's darkly dramatic Requiem playing in his head.
Lacrimae Beati means "Tears of the Blessed One," and it refers to the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem. The first eight bars of the Lacrimosa are believed to be among the last notes Mozart ever wrote. Danielpour's 10-minute homage alternates between darkly ruminative passages and achingly beautiful lyrical lines. There are a few shrill, hair-raising climaxes, no doubt inspired as much by Danielpour's plane ride as by Mozart's music.
In its recording, the NSO takes its sweet time with this music, with music director Giancarlo Guerrero and his players squeezing every ounce of dark emotion out of the score. One wonders if the music had special meaning for the players at that time, since it was recorded at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center not long after the 2010 flood had caused catastrophic damage to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
The two other Danielpour pieces on the album — Darkness in the Ancient Valley and A Woman's Life — were recorded after the orchestra returned to the Schermerhorn. A romantic at heart, the composer often finds musical inspiration in a combination of historic events and literature. Danielpour, whose ancestors were Persian Jews going back 20 generations, began writing Darkness in the Ancient Valley following the Iranian crackdown on anti-government protests in 2009.
Darkness in the Ancient Valley is Mahlerian in its scope and ambition. Consisting of five movements scored for large orchestra and soprano soloist, the music is colorful, dramatic and redolent of traditional Sufi rhythms and harmonies. At heart, Danielpour is a composer of the theater, so it comes as no surprise that Darkness in the Ancient Valley often sounds like music for modern ballet. Guerrero and the NSO play this dauntingly difficult and rhythmically vital music with power and precision. In the work's finale, soprano Hila Plitmann sings the poetry of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi with bell-like clarity and just the right amount of vulnerability.
In A Woman's Life, another work for large orchestra and soprano soloist, Danielpour sets to music poetry by Maya Angelou that chronicles the life of a woman from childhood to old age. Soprano Angela Brown inhabits each song. She was all sweetness and light when singing "Little Girl Speakings," and she was openly flirtatious in "Come and Be My Baby."
The NSO has won seven Grammy Awards for its recordings of contemporary American music. This new Danielpour album may well be the orchestra's best recording yet.
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