The American composer Richard Danielpour has been rounding all the bases — and the basses — this season in Nashville. His music has been in constant demand here. In September, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra opened its classical series with Danielpour's A Woman's Life, a sweeping symphonic tone poem for soprano and orchestra. The Alias Chamber Ensemble followed the next month with a performance of the composer's sweetly intimate Portraits.
Danielpour will be in Nashville again next week, this time for the world premiere of his Twelve Etudes for Piano. The new cycle was commissioned by the Blair School of Music. Pianists Amy Dorfman, Craig Nies and Mark Wait will perform the etudes Tuesday at Blair's Ingram Hall.
"Richard told me about his interest in writing these etudes a few years ago," says Wait, who in addition to being a concert pianist is also Blair's longtime dean. "I thought it was a fabulous idea, and so I immediately broke out the old crowbar to open Blair's budget."
With commission in hand, Danielpour worked quickly, composing the etudes in a matter of months. But he'd been thinking about this style of writing for most of his life. Danielpour began his education as a pianist, studying with such notable concert pianists as Lorin Hollander, Veronica Jochum and Gabriel Chodos. One of his earliest commissions was for a piano concerto, composed in 1981, while he was still a student at the Juilliard School.
He knew immediately that he wanted to write exactly 12 etudes. "Twelve is a sacred number when it comes to etudes," says Wait. That's been true since at least the 1830s, when Chopin published his two books of etudes, each containing 12 studies. Chopin's groundbreaking etudes remained the last word on piano technique until Debussy published his set of (you guessed it) 12 etudes in 1915.
Traditionally, piano etudes were little more than rote finger exercises. Piano teachers in the early 19th century routinely used these dry studies in scale and arpeggio playing to torture (um, make that instruct) students. Chopin changed that. Each of his etudes addressed a specific technical issue, such as playing rapid patterns on the black keys ("Black Key Etude"), fast left-hand passages ("Revolutionary Etude") or wild zigzag arpeggios ("Winter Wind Etude"). Chopin's main contribution, however, was to elevate the etude, turning what had formerly been a mechanical exercise into a great work of art. His etudes were instrumental tone poems, masterpieces in miniature.
Danielpour's etudes are basically sonic portraits of a dozen important contemporary pianists. "These are all pianists that I've greatly admired, and their playing has had a big impact on my musical thinking," says Danielpour, speaking by phone from New York City, where he teaches at the Manhattan School of Music.
Each study suggests something about the pianism of the dedicatee. The second etude, for instance, was written for Gary Graffman, who injured his right hand in the late 1970s and now plays only left-hand repertoire. His etude calls on the pianist to play the keys with his left hand while plucking strings inside the piano with his right hand. Similarly, the ninth etude, for Leon Fleisher, who also suffered a right-hand injury, has the pianist play the melody in the left hand.
Nies, Dorfman and Wait will each play four etudes on Tuesday night. Danielpour dedicated an etude to each of them. Wait's piece is the Etude No. 1 in C major. Danielpour and the other pianists all credit Wait's management and administrative skills for making the etude project possible. Consequently, Wait's etude in five-finger arpeggios is precise and efficient, having "the logic of Bach prelude," says Danielpour.
Dorfman describes her etude, No. 11 in fast repeated notes, "as sounding very improvisational." The fast mirror-image patterns in the Etude No. 7, dedicated to Nies, are fiendishly difficult. "I play the hardest etudes in the set," says Nies. "In terms of difficulty, my etude goes right for the throat."