Richard Danielpour is fast becoming Nashville's unofficial composer in residence. His music, it seems, is everywhere. Last month, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra performed his symphonic song cycle A Woman's Life, which sets to music the poetry of Maya Angelou. This December, the Blair School of Music will present the world premiere of his Twelve Etudes for Piano. The composer is understandably thrilled by all the attention.
"There's an enormous amount of energy in Nashville's classical music community," says Danielpour, who teaches composition at both the Manhattan School of Music and Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. "I've been making periodic trips to Nashville in recent years, and as a composer I definitely feel appreciated there."
Danielpour is about to feel even more love, courtesy of the Chamber Ensemble. On Tuesday, Alias will open its 2012-13 season at the Blair School of Music's Turner Hall with one of Danielpour's most effective chamber works, Portraits, another song cycle featuring the poetry of Angelou. Alias often collaborates with other local performing arts groups. The presence of Danielpour's music on next week's program, however, was completely serendipitous.
"We had no idea the Nashville Symphony and Blair School were performing Danielpour's music this fall," says Matt Walker, a composer and cellist with Alias. "Our programming of Portraits this time was just a happy accident."
In fact, Lea Maitlen, a vocalist with Nashville's Portara Ensemble, and Zeneba Bowers, Alias' artistic director, had been talking about performing together for quite some time. They just needed the right piece of music to make it happen. While doing some research, Maitlen came across Portraits.
"It was actually hard at first to find any information about this piece," says Maitlen. "Very little has been written about it, and there are no commercial recordings of it. But I did find a sample of the score on the Internet and loved it, because it is such an incredibly emotional piece."
Portraits had its origins in 1993, when cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax asked Danielpour to write a new piece of chamber music. The initial idea was to create an educational piece for younger listeners that would consist of different "portraits" of one heroic woman. After Angelou was invited to write the poetry, the project evolved. Instead of writing about one woman, Danielpour and Angelou opted to write a series of portraits about different anonymous yet heroic women throughout history. Angelou wrote five poems, four of which were ultimately set to music.
The women in Angelou's poems are not always in control of their destinies. Nevertheless, they are all brimming with dignity, and they have their eyes fixed on the future. The protagonist in the opening piece, "The Chinese Bride (18th century)," has bound feet and can barely walk. Still, she has hope, singing, "My child, my child will know freedom." Things are not much better for "The War Widow," a survivor of the U.S. Civil War who is surrounded by death and destruction. This woman sings about her children looking for safety in the seams of her skirt. "As a mother, I can honestly say that image really gets to me," says Maitlen.
"The Plains Woman," the third poem, is written from the perspective of a mid-19th century Native American woman whose husband was killed during a hunt. She, too, must persevere for her children. Angelou proved in her famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that she is a master of the memoir, which perhaps explains why her final poem, "Afro-American Woman," seems so autobiographical. "I will forgive much," sings the speaker in this poem, "and forget nothing."
Danielpour has a genuine gift for writing idiomatic music for the voice, and his melodies in Portraits are both memorable and appealing. His choice for the instrumental forces — clarinet, violin, cello and piano — is the same that Messiaen used in his Quartet for the End of Time (1941). Suffice it to say no more colorful combination of instruments has ever been devised. Danielpour's harmonies are sometimes jazzy (most notably in "The Afro-American Woman") and occasionally impressionistic (the big, misty suspended chords in "The Chinese Bride" call to mind Debussy). They are always prismatically beautiful.
Alias is justifiably renowned for its performances of contemporary music. That said, the ensemble's repertoire spans more than 400 years. Bowers has become a devotee of 17th century virtuoso violin music, so next week's program will also include Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's Sonata IV for violin and continuo (1664). Francis Perry, a member of Music City Baroque, will accompany on theorbo, a kind of long-necked lute. Walker will provide additional support on cello. "The accompaniment is very sophisticated for its time," says Perry. "The violin part is incredibly virtuosic and ends with what I refer to as an orange bloom of blazing violin arpeggios."
Next week's program will also feature Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 1. Britten is one of the 20th century's best-known opera composers — Peter Grimes was recently staged at the Met — and a popular orchestra composer — his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is routinely played by orchestras around the world. His chamber music, however, is seldom heard.
"I think musicians have become so fixated with the quartets of Bartok and Schoenberg that they've overlooked Britten's masterpiece," says violist Christopher Farrell. "Alias is going to correct that oversight."