Shulamit Ran prides herself on being fashionably out of fashion. The 42-year-old Chicago composer, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, has never had her antennae out to pick up the latest innovations in musical style.
“I feel I’ve always been out of step,” the articulate and self-assured Ran said. “At times, especially earlier in my career, I was not considered avant-garde enough. Now, considering the current trend of accessibility, some think I’m too forbidding.”
When Ran was announced as this year’s Pulitzer winner in April, she was virtually unknown on the West Coast. This season, however, local audiences are getting to know Ran through performances of her music. Last month, a sold-out Civic Theatre audience heard the Cleveland Orchestra play her Concert Piece, a brilliant tour de force for orchestra and piano she wrote in 1971.
SONOR, UC San Diego’s contemporary music ensemble, will perform Ran’s “Amichai Songs” at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Mandeville Auditorium, featuring SONOR member Carol Plantamura singing Ran’s 1985 song cycle for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble.
In Chicago, where the composer has lived since she joined the University of Chicago music faculty in 1973, Ran has enjoyed an unusually high profile for a serious composer. In 1988, the Chicago Symphony premiered her Concerto for Orchestra, and last year the prestigious orchestra named her composer in residence.
Two weeks ago, when Ran spoke on the phone from her suburban home, she had just completed a short work, an orchestral fanfare called “Chicago Skyline.” Commissioned by the city’s classical music station (WFMT), it will be premiered by the Chicago Symphony under guest conductor Pierre Boulez. In her role as the Chicago Symphony’s resident composer, she is still trying to decide whether to write a cello concerto or yet another large orchestral work without soloist.
In recent years, Ran has enjoyed no lack of commissions to keep her occupied. In fact, the celebrity of the Pulitzer has only meant that she must turn down offers to compose with greater frequency.
“I have to say ‘no’ more than ever now,” Ran said in her generally spirited tone. “Every few weeks I receive an inquiry, which is, of course, immensely gratifying. But I have to turn them down in order to keep up the quality of what I am already committed to compose.
“Although the Pulitzer has raised interest in my work, and that’s good, in a profound sense it’s not important. But I have always done what I want as a composer. I’ve usually been out of step, and I think that’s healthy.”
Until Ran moved to Chicago, she maintained a dual career as pianist and composer. (She also maintains a dual citizenship in the United States and in her native Israel.) A prodigy in both piano and composition, Ran’s spontaneous songs composed at age 8 were written down by her piano teacher. Without telling her student, Ran’s teacher sent the songs to the Israeli Radio, where they were recorded by a children’s choir.
Early in her career, Ran’s keyboard virtuosity aided her visibility as a composer. In 1963, the year she arrived in New York to study at Mannes College of Music, she performed her own Capriccio with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, and, in 1971, she played the demanding piano solo in the Israel Philharmonic’s premiere of her Concert Piece under Zubin Mehta. But in 1971 she had to decide that her vocation as composer would terminate her career as a performer.
“I found it was getting difficult to do both at the level I demanded,” she explained. “I found that the time required to practice for performances was preventing my composition. And composing is really the most essential element in me.”
The impetus to write the “Amichai Songs " was an unexpected commission from the Eastman School of Music for the late American mezzo Jan DeGaetani. Because 1985 was the Bach and Handel tricentennial year, the school wanted a piece that included viola da gamba and harpsichord, Baroque instruments associated with those composers.
“I didn’t know anything about the viola da gamba, but I had so much respect for Jan DeGaetani that I would have written her a piece for voice and kazoo if they had asked.”
With a substantial catalogue of instrumental works, Ran is ready to write an opera. But she admits to some trepidation about launching such a project, which could take five years to complete and would eclipse all other composing.
“I can really only work on one piece at a time. I need to live the life of the piece in my own life the entire time I’m composing it.”
She would like to put together something that reflects her Israeli roots.
“Perhaps a major Biblical theme will come up, something ancient yet capable of speaking to today.”
SONOR will perform Ran’s “Amichai Songs” at 8 p.m. Wednesday in UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium. This first SONOR concert of the season will also include works by David Lang, Robert Erickson and Ralph Shapey. For information call 534-3362.