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Richard Danielpour: Portrait of an ever-changing composer

“One thing I can say is that there is no formula from work to work,” according to Richard Danielpour, one of the country’s foremost classical composers. He is only the third composer ever signed to an exclusive recording contract by Columbia/Sony. The other two were Igor Stravinski and Aaron Copland.

“Artists are not industrialists. Every work is new,” he said.

Danielpour is in Tucson this week to attend the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s Friday performance of “Toward the Splendid City,” his musical homage to New York City.  He will also perform at a free event at the University of Arizona on Saturday, conducting a composition seminar for UA music students and meeting with students in the TSO’s Young Composer program.

The artist as teacher

In addition to having completed more than 100 commissioned works, Danielpour holds a doctorate in Music from the Julliard School and is on the faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Manhattan School of Music.

“If I, all of a sudden, stopped composing, I’d probably stop teaching,” he said, “because it really feeds off of the practical and creative work itself. That’s really how I teach. If I’m not actually engaged in the act of writing music, I’m once removed from everything that involves their being and their own process. So I’m only effective in so much as I’m working.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra recently performed Danielpour’s “First Light,” a 1988 work, in its MasterWorks Series. This weekend in its Classics Series, with concerts Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, the symphony is focusing on New York City. In addition to Danielpour’s work, the program includes selections from Serge Prokovief’s “Romeo and Juliet,” ballet, which premiered in NYC, and Lenoard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story.”

“I’ve written a fair amount of music” said Danielpour, “and most of it, thank God, is performed quite regularly. I’ve been doing this since I was 15 and now I’m 56.”

The artist as innovator

The challenge to not simply repeat himself is part of what drives him in his art.

“It triggers my imagination in that there’s no formula,” he said. “I feel like a complete novice every time I start a new work, because each work has its own challenges, its own internal set of proposals, and its own realizations that are completely autonomous to each on. In that way, the inspiration is unique and intrinsic to itself.”

His works have included symphonies, ballets, concertos, chamber pieces and vocal music. His 2005 opera about slavery, “Margaret Garner” was written with a libretto by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Sources of inspiration

Many of his works are inspired by poetry and other non-musical sources.

“A great deal of them involve setting text. Some of them refer to text while the piece is completely instrumental,” he said. “It’s not just poetry; it’s all kind of other things that the music relates to. There was a period of time when my dreams became source material for some of my music in the early 90s. I drew from those dreams because of their organic, but nonetheless, non-sequitur quality. Later on, I found myself in some cases influenced by Eastern spirituality, such as you see in a piece like (ballet) ‘Anima Mundi.’”

On Saturday, Danielpour, who is of both Persian and Jewish heritage, will perform and speak at “The Trouble with Scheherazade: Romance and Reality” a free presentation celebrating the history and resilience of Persian women. The program is part of the Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry’s “Creative Collaborations.” The program will also include UA music faculty Paula Fan and Anne Betteridge, director of the UA Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Danielpour will present portions of a new symphony about the Iranian people and a trio work, “Remembering Neda” for Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman whose death galvanized the failed democratic uprising in Iran in 2009.

Defying category

Danielpour bristles at the notion of categorizing his music into any single style, such as neo-romantic. He suggested that listeners would be better served by listening to music without applying labels.

“What I keep saying to people is, ‘Why don’t you just take the time and listen?,’ he said. “That’s what it was made for. Try not to say thoughts about the thing, but try to be, as Wallace Stevens said, be concerned with the thing itself.”

Creating art has always been important to Danielpour.

“I come from a family of artists, but not musicians,” he said. “My father was a writer and a businessman. My mother is a sculptor, still alive and still working amazingly enough. The visual arts and literary arts were and have always been profound influences on my work as a composer.”

“I’m the kind of composer,” said Danielpour, “who sees all art as being interconnected. It’s the equivalent of light being refracted through a prism into all kinds of colors. In the end, it’s all light.”

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