As the Pacific Symphony’s new composer-in-residence, Richard Danielpour will write two major works the orchestra will record for Sony Classical. One of these will come at the end of his three-year residency and is tentatively called “An American Requiem.”
But those are a ways off. The first piece by the 42-year-old Juilliard-trained composer that Southlanders will hear the Santa Ana-based orchestra play will be his “Celestial Night” during the Pacific’s season-opening concerts Thursday and Friday at the Performing Arts Center. The program will also include music by Gershwin and Mahler conducted by music director Carl St.Clair.
“Carl suggested that we open with something fairly indicative of [my] music that’s been written over the last five years, but not exactly a magnum opus, like the Concerto for Orchestra,” Danielpour said recently from his home in his native New York City. “I suggested ‘Celestial Night,’ which is just under 20 minutes and is really a two-movement symphony.”
The Concerto for Orchestra, for which Danielpour earned a Grammy nomination this year for classical contemporary composition, will be heard here in March.
“Celestial Night” was commissioned by New Jersey Symphony music director Zdenek Macal for the opening last year of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The piece, which gets its West Coast premiere here, is one of about 30 that various organizations, including the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony, have commissioned from him.
Macal had guest-conducted the Pacific in 1989 and 1990 and was even in the running for the music director’s position, which ultimately went to St.Clair, until Macal withdrew to devote himself to his Milwaukee Symphony.
Macal had asked Danielpour, who succeeds Frank Ticheli as the Pacific’s composer-in-residence, for a piece between 18 and 20 minutes. He needed a short work to fit on a program with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” both long works.
He sketched out the composition’s “short score,” he said, in about 10 days.
“I need to be able to get a short score written quickly. Very often that lends itself to a wholeness and self-contained quality to the music. I tend to wait until I [feel] when it’s time to start, until I can’t wait anymore. I think about general things I want in it in a kind of daydreamish kind of way. Then when I feel ready, I go. It comes fairly quickly.”
The genesis of “Celestial Night” came while he was finishing another piece, “Urban Dances for Orchestra,” for the New York City Ballet at a rural artists’ colony in New Hampshire in 1996.
“I would take about half an hour every evening to look up at the sky,” Danielpour said. “Knowing I was going back to New York soon--a place where you can’t see the sky, a place where it’s never peaceful--the contrast was overwhelming. I was in this utter stillness in the woods looking at this unbelievable sky.”
The piece, he said, is in two continuous movements, with the first movement lasting about eight minutes and the second about 12. The work begins with a short introduction containing the seeds of all that follows.
The genesis of the structure came from sessions Danielpour attended while Sony was recording his and Christopher Rouse’s cello concertos. (That album, featuring soloist Yo-Yo Ma, won a Grammy earlier this year.)
“I was so intrigued with the two-movement structure he used, how he was able to make a fast movement and a slow movement stand side-by-side and yet feel complete,” Danielpour said. “That planted a seed in my mind and gave me the idea of creating a fast movement followed by an adagio.
Despite his speed in writing the short score, Danielpour took about three months to fully orchestrate the work.
“Details in orchestration take an enormous amount of time,” he said. “I’m talking about minutiae. After I heard the premiere, I made a number of little changes--in dynamics, adding a few doublings, taking a few things out, lengthening a measure by a beat or two, and deleting a measure or two. That’s for me how it works best.”
Like “Celestial Night,” many of Danielpour’s works bear evocative titles.
“Titles are symptomatic of a kind of composer who needs to have an idea that functions interconnectedly--but not with a sense of privacy--about the piece.”
Even works with more generic titles have ideas behind them, he said.
“The idea of my Cello Concerto had to do with a dream I had. The idea was that of a voice that essentially comes as a kind of messenger or oracle, and an ensemble that responds and argues and deals with it in various ways until the voice is rejected and ultimately executed. That in a way is a disguised opera. It’s one of the few opera scores I’ve written.”
Danielpour said he is “on the precipice” of writing his first real opera but couldn’t reveal details yet because of contract negotiations.
But it’s one way he’s looking to move into new territory.
“There comes a period in one’s life where you understand you’ve taken the materials and ideas you’ve been dealing with as far as you can,” he said. “Consequently, you begin thinking there are other avenues to pursue. . . .
“I’ve written something like close to 10 orchestral works in the last 5 1/2 years,” he said. “Most of them have been fairly substantial. That’s a lot of music to put out, and that doesn’t count the chamber music.”
* Carl St.Clair will conduct Richard Danielpour’s “Celestial Night” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. The program also includes Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with pianist Marcus Roberts, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (“Titan”). The concert marks the start of the orchestra’s 20th-anniversary celebrations. $17-$48. (714) 556-2787.