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A life in words and in music

Daniel Pearl, the journalist, was also a classical violinist. The Master Chorale sings a tribute to him -- a new work written by Steve Reich.

January 26, 2007|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

What better way than with music to remember Daniel Pearl, the boy who could read notes before he read words, the classically trained violinist who loved bluegrass and the blues, the foreign correspondent who seemed to know the right song to befriend strangers wherever he went?

After their son was abducted and killed in Pakistan in 2002, Judea and Ruth Pearl hoped someone would write a piece inspired by his passion for life rather than by the grimness of his death. A few years ago the Encino couple met Steve Reich, the minimalist maverick whose imagination and intellect have made him one of the great composers of his generation. Reich's turbulent, shimmering "Daniel Variations" will be performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale on Sunday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in a program that will double as a celebration of Reich's 70th birthday and a tribute to the slain Wall Street Journal reporter.

The half-hour work for small vocal group, keyboard and percussion instruments, clarinets and strings debuted in London and New York last fall, but its origins are rooted in L.A.

Reich was introduced to the Pearls at the Master Chorale's world premiere of his "You Are (Variations)," which was presented as part of the 2004 Daniel Pearl World Music Days, an annual event that promotes tolerance and fellowship.

Judea Pearl says he felt an immediate connection with Reich because of their shared Jewish heritage and because "he understood this is not just the story of Danny, not just the story of a single victim, but the story of our 21st century and of civilization."

The New York-based composer, who turned 70 in October, had been seeking a subject for a birthday commission. "I told him, 'I don't have a text. You may be bringing me my text,' " Reich recalls. "He just smiled."

In the score's first and third movements, Reich has incorporated passages from the Bible's Book of Daniel, in which the gifted young hero is ordered to interpret the nightmare of the king of his captors.

The first movement contains the king's chilling words -- "I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me" -- which remind Reich of Sept. 11 and other terror attacks. The third features Daniel's response: "Let the dream fall back on the dreaded."

In the second and fourth movements, Pearl's own words are bathed in what Reich calls "the most melodic, open music I've ever written," his percussive rhythms buoyed by a string quartet to pay homage to "Daniel the string player whose journalism was created by jamming with others."

The 38-year-old correspondent's final recorded statement -- taken from a videotape of his execution -- was adapted into the second movement's haunting refrain, "My name is Daniel Pearl" -- a simple yet poetic declaration of identity that, Reich says, glows with cultural significance. "What kind of name is that?" he asks. "It's perfect. A jewel."

The last movement riffs on Pearl's comment when a friend wondered what would happen to them after they died: "I don't know, but I sure hope Gabriel likes my music" -- a sentiment, the friend later learned, Pearl had picked up from an old jazz recording he owned.

"Daniel Variations" was co-commissioned by the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Meet the Composer, Carnegie Hall, the Barbican Centre London, Cite de la Musique Paris and Casa de Musica Porto.

When he first heard the piece, Judea Pearl says, he was struck by "the amazing transition from a stormy, cloudy day to a bright, sunny spring day. The tranquillity captures you and arrests you and you feel the victory of Daniel, the victory of us all."

That blend of music and moment is what Reich hoped to achieve. Having often explored social and historical issues, he says an artist makes the strongest impact when he puts the art first instead of "embracing politics with a capital P."

This Sunday's concert -- which also will include "You Are (Variations)" and several early Renaissance motets -- will be the latest in a series of birthday celebrations and awards honoring Reich. The Royal Swedish Academy of Music on Thursday named him the co-winner -- along with jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins -- of the 2007 Polar Music Prize.

Reich says the Master Chorale possesses "the ideal voices" for "Daniel Variations," whose text demands clarity of technique and intention.

Chorale Music Director Grant Gershon agrees. "Our singers have a lot of experience with new music and singing in studios, doing work that is very responsive to the sound world Steve creates."

The chorale's performance and recording of "You Are (Variations)" -- a contemplation of ethics and consciousness -- have been widely praised. The group is preparing to record "Daniel Variations" on the Nonesuch label next month.

Gershon sees Reich's compositions as companion pieces. "Each takes the audience on a journey," he says, "especially 'Daniel Variations' because of the subject matter, the progression from darkness to light and from those intense opening chords to the sense of elation and exuberance at the end. It's an enormous and rewarding ride."

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Los Angeles Master Chorale

What: Steve Reich 70th Birthday Tribute

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Price: $19 to $129

Contact: (800) 787-5262,

www.lamc.org

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