In 2006, the American composer Richard Danielpour paid a visit to his old friend Maya Angelou, the famed author and poet. Danielpour wanted to compose an ambitious new orchestral song cycle that chronicled the life of a woman from childhood to old age. Would Angelou be interested in writing the verse?
"I've already written it," Angelou told the surprised composer.
Nashville classical fans will get the chance to hear Danielpour and Angelou's serendipitous collaboration next week, when the Nashville Symphony Orchestra presents the symphonic song cycle A Woman's Life Sept. 20-22 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The program, featuring soprano and Metropolitan Opera star Angela Brown, will be recorded for future release on the Franklin-based Naxos label as part of an all-Danielpour album.
Angelou, of course, hadn't read the composer's mind. But she had spent considerable time thinking and writing about the lives of women, and her published collection of poems already included a lifetime's worth of reflection on the subject. Angelou grabbed a volume, and with Danielpour and his wife Kathleen seated at the kitchen table, she began to read.
"Ain't nobody better 'n my Daddy / you keep yo' quarter / I ain't yo' daughter," recited Angelou from her poem "Little Girl Speakings." She continued with yet another poem. "Some people wrap their lives around a cocktail glass / And you sit wondering / where you're going to turn/I got it. / Come. And be my baby." Danielpour remembers being spellbound.
"Maya gave positively the greatest impromptu performance I'd ever heard," he recalls during a recent phone call. "She read with a lot of emotion, and interestingly she often repeated lines for emphasis that were not repeated in the text. So I left her house with a good sense of exactly how to set her poems."
For A Woman's Life, Danielpour selected seven of Angelou's poems, and he set them to a shimmering orchestral score. Brown, the soprano, remembers the first time Angelou heard the finished piece. "She had tears streaming down her cheeks," Brown says, "and she let us know that we'd gotten butter from a duck."
Danielpour's music is fast becoming a fixture in Nashville. Last season, music director Giancarlo Guerrero led the NSO in the world premiere of Danielpour's Darkness in the Ancient Valley, an expansive five-movement essay for orchestra and soprano soloist. This fall, Nashville's pre-eminent ensembles and soloists will once again be lavishing attention on the composer.
ALIAS Chamber Ensemble will open its fall season on Oct. 30 with another Danielpour-Angelou collaboration, 1998's Portraits for mezzo soprano, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The 17-minute piece, written at the request of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, paints sonic portraits of several anonymous yet heroic women throughout history. The concert is at the Blair School of Music's Turner Hall.
Then, on Dec. 4, Blair School of Music pianists Mark Wait, Craig Nies and Amy Dorfman will present the world premiere of Danielpour's
Twelve Etudes for Piano. These works found their inspiration in the etudes of Claude Debussy, whose sesquicentennial is being celebrated this year. Like Debussy's etudes, each of Danielpour's pieces provides the pianist with a different technical difficulty to conquer. "All of these etudes are beautifully and expressively written for piano," Wait says. "I suspect pianists will be working on these pieces for years to come."
Sept. 30: Music City Baroque Nashville's premier period-instrument group presents a concert called "Fairest Isle," celebrating chamber music from merry old England. The program will feature the music of Elizabethan England's usual suspects Henry Purcell and Thomas Campion. 3 p.m. at Woodmont Christian Church, 3601 Hillsboro Pike
Oct. 2: Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait After recording two outstanding albums devoted to 20th century Russian music, the duo of violinist Huebl and pianist Wait revisit the core repertoire. Their recital includes Beethoven's Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2, Ravel's Sonata No. 2 in G major and Schubert's Fantasie in C major. 8 p.m. at Turner Recital Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave.
Oct. 4-6: Nashville Symphony plays Haydn, Beethoven and Paulus Music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the NSO's deep commitment to contemporary American music comes to the fore, this time with performances of composer Stephen Paulus' Three Places of Enlightenment String Quartet Concerto and "The Veil of Tears" from To Be Certain of the Dawn. The performance also features Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Haydn's "Hornsignal" Symphony. 7 p.m. Oct. 4 and 8 p.m. Oct. 5-6 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center
Oct. 11, 13: Nashville Opera presents Madama Butterfly Puccini's masterpiece about the Japanese geisha Cio-Cio San and her faithless lover Lieutenant Pinkerton was years ahead of its time. Madame Butterfly's famous aria "Un bel di" remains timeless and is guaranteed to melt hearts. 7 p.m. Oct. 11 and 8 p.m. Oct. 13 at TPAC's Jackson Hall
Oct. 20: Blair String Quartet The Blair School of Music's premier ensemble in residence mixes old music with new surprises. Its program opens with Haydn's Quartet in C major, Op. 33 No. 3 "The Birds" and closes with Beethoven's Quartet Op. 59 No. 1 "Razumovsky." In between, the ensemble will present contemporary American composer Karel Husa's delightful String Quartet No. 4 "Poems." 8 p.m. at Ingram Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave.
Nov. 1-3: Nashville Symphony plays Berlioz Guest conductor Jun Markl leads the NSO in Berlioz's Romantic blockbuster Symphonie Fantastique and Messiaen's Un Sourire. Violinist Stefan Jackiw solos in Korngold's Violin Concerto in D major. 7 p.m. Nov. 1 and 8 p.m. Nov. 2-3 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center
Nov. 9-11: Nashville Opera and ALIAS Chamber Ensemble present David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field Nashville Opera is billing this production as an improbable cross between Gone With the Wind and The Twilight Zone. An antebellum plantation owner crosses a field and disappears before the eyes of his family, neighbors and slaves. Everyone has a theory about what happened. 8 p.m. Nov. 9-10 and 2 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Noah Liff Opera Center, 3622 Redmon St.
Nov. 15-17: Nashville Symphony with Ingrid Fliter Fliter, an Argentine piano phenom, solos in Saint-Saens' dauntingly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. Guest conductor Hans Graf also leads the orchestra in Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye (Mother Goose) and Schumann's Symphony No. 2. 7 p.m. Nov. 15 and 8 p.m. Nov. 16-17 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center
Nov. 29-Dec. 1: Nashville Symphony with Terrence Wilson
Guest conductor Bramwell Tovey leads the NSO in his own Urban Runway, while pianist Wilson solos in Gershwin's urbane Concerto in F. William Walton's Symphony No. 1 rounds out the program. 7 p.m. Nov. 29 and 8 p.m. Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center —JOHN PITCHER