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Tribute to Brothers in Battle

Music: Richard Danielpour uses interviews with soldiers as inspiration for his 'Ameican Requiem.'


Mention a postwar Requiem that combines the Latin text of the Mass with English poetry, and most music aficionados will think of Britten's 1961 "War Requiem," which incorporates nine antiwar poems by Richard Owen, a British poet who died in battle a week before the end of World War I.

But Richard Danielpour, composer in residence with Orange County's Pacific Symphony since 1998, says that Britten's work didn't provide the model for his new "American Requiem," although it too expresses an antiwar theme and combines Latin and English. Or rather, as the composer stresses, American English.

"The Britten 'War Requiem' is one of those pieces I always felt conflicted about," Danielpour said in a recent phone interview from his studio in New York. "I love the Latin portions of the work. But I find the poems so affected. Maybe unconsciously that propelled me forward."

Danielpour's work uses poems by Whitman, Emerson, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Michael Harper, as well as texts from spirituals. The piece, which ends Danielpour's three-year residency with the Pacific Symphony, will get its first performances Wednesday and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Los Angeles Times Thursday November 15, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Poet's name--Wilfred Owen is the British author whose poems were used in Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem." His first name was reported incorrectly in a Tuesday Calendar story about Richard Danielpour's "An American Requiem."

It is the composer's most ambitious work. A bit more than one hour long, it will draw on more than 250 musicians and singers and soloists.

"I've never written anything longer," said Danielpour. "And I never spent a year and half writing anything in my life. Usually I write very quickly."

The work grew out of conversations he had with veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, discussions set up as research for an earlier piece, "Elegies," written for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and based on wartime letters from her father, who was killed in action in Germany during World War II.

"I saw a certain common thread through all these discussions, a number of things that were very surprising and very inspiring--the integrity and unbelievable vigilance of these individuals who were essentially ready to lay down their lives at a moment's notice for the guy next to them, and [who] felt, regardless [of] what was driving these situations, that what they were doing was the utmost good."

The work is meant to be "a tribute to those I had met and spoken to and to ones I would never meet."

Danielpour didn't finish the work until August, and it wasn't until September that he added a dedication. By then, the New York and Washington-area attacks had happened, and he decided to recognize that as well: "To the memory of those who died in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001; and in tribute to the American Soldier--past, present and future."

Poet Kim Vaeth edited the text. Vaeth came up with 1,000 pages to start with, which the two then edited down to approximately 70 lines. As for the huge orchestration: "If you look at works that last an hour--this is not true of all of them, by any means--there is definitely a relationship between size and length of time. A large ensemble gives more variety in combinations and colorist choices. That allows for more variety while continuing that thread of unity one wants to have."

The work will be recorded on the Reference Recordings label immediately following the Segerstrom Hall performances. Plans are to release it "within two months of the actual recording, which is incredibly fast," he said.

The speed reflects on Danielpour's place in contemporary American classical music. Although he has won many honors--Guggenheim, Rockefeller Foundation and Charles Ives fellowships, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters he is not universally accepted or praised. The composer was recently attacked in a New Republic article by Jeremy Eichler, a music writer for Newsday.

Danielpour and his peers, Eichler wrote, "are drowning in influences, and so they pretend that drowning is swimming.

"These composers write broadly tonal music that at its best uses a host of twentieth-century musical styles the way a chef uses spices: a dab of atonality here, a tone cluster there for spooky effect," Eichler continued. The result is "a featureless eclecticism."

John Corigliano, Lowell Lieberman and Christopher Rouse were included in the attack, but Danielpour was the main target.

"The problem with a lot of people who are writing [journalism] today is that they have very little time to go beyond the surface of the work," said Danielpour, who has not read the article.

"When dealing with music that is connected to some kind of past legacy--as my music certainly is--the danger is they will only see where it came from, without seeing where it's going. That happened to Bernstein, the best of his work.

"When I was in school, they told us not to bother studying Britten and Shostakovich because it was not challenging music. Now it's part of the canon.

"I'm very aware that just as there is music that is superficial and may not necessarily dig very deep on several levels, there will also be superficial journalism. I accept it. But that doesn't mean I have to read it, and I haven't and I probably won't."


"An American Requiem," Pacific Symphony, Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m., at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $21-$56 ($12 and $15 for veterans, fire, police and emergency personnel and each family; student-senior rush, $12). (714) 556-2787.

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