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An American Requiem
"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"
Richard Danielpour, Composer
Pacific Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ruth Ruggles Akers and Karl Lozier
Click here to e-mail reviewer

An American Requiem, Pacific Symphony Orchestra

CD Number: Reference Recordings RR-97CD

 

  The subtitle tribute very easily would be the other way around if not for some critical timing. Danielpour's interest in writing this piece began five years ago. After years of informal interviews with soldiers and veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam, I quote him as saying, "An American Requiem began as both a tribute to the American soldier and an examination of war. In some sense An American Requiem is not only about our relationship to war, but also our relationship to death as a part of life."

Early in the morning of September 11, 2001 Richard Danielpour opened the package containing the orchestral engraving for him to edit before the premiere. He noticed that there was no dedication on the first page and so he called his publisher, G. Schirmer's downtown Manhattan office to find out about the missing inscription. My dear insightful readers, now guess what follows in the next paragraph without peaking! 

He had reached Deborah Horne and she told him that just a few minutes previously, from her office window she saw the second jet crash and explode into the World Trade Center. With that scene in mind and as events unfolded in the following days, as he edited the score of An American Requiem, he found his dedication. All this explains my opening sentence for this review. 

There is much to like in this brilliant composition. Do not be "put off" because you may have listened to some requiem masses that were just too much or too serious or almost boring to you. This is not true of this work. Much of it could have come from the pen of one of the great romantic period composers and to top it off, the solo sections are from American poets and sung in English. Again you are being introduced to a new composition (and perhaps a new composer) that is simply enjoyable and profound at the same time. Works such as this and another new composition reviewed this month deserve listening and purchase. Companies such as Reference Recordings and Telarc need and deserve our support or all we will have to look forward to are more remastered recordings of twenty to thirty years ago from the bigger recording companies.

I have held off reviewing this recording for the better part of a year for one reason. Many months ago Ruth Ruggles Akers (who collaborated with me so well critiquing the Mapleshade recording of the Chopin and Liszt piano sonatas - and still available for reading in Enjoy the Music.com™'s vast music archives section) agreed to do an in-depth review of An American Requiem with personal background information about it and Richard Danielpour. I advise you to print a copy of this review for her unique perspective available now only to our readers. Ruth has the Master of Music degree in piano performance from the prestigious Indiana University School of Music. All coursework has been completed for her Ph.D. in historical musicology from Florida State University (yes, F.S.U. my old school). She plans to complete her doctoral dissertation on Richard Danielpour and his music next year. The following nine paragraphs are written by Ruth Ruggles Akers for the readers of Enjoy the Music.com™ (I will add a final paragraph) -- she is generally regarded as the world's foremost authority on Danielpour and his music!! 

I was there! 14 November 2001 - the premiere of Richard Danielpour's An American Requiem at the Orange County (CA) Performing Arts Center. Over 260 musicians were on stage for the performance, including the Pacific Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl St. Clair, the Pacific Chorale (directed by John Alexander), and three soloists: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Hugh Smith, and baritone Mark Oswald. The weekend after the opening concerts, this assemblage of musicians made the Reference Recording which is reviewed here. For those who love to "vibrate with the music," as Berlioz suggested in the nineteenth century (long before woofers!!), there are sections showcasing the huge orchestral and choral forces, but intimate moments for solo instruments and voices are also well engineered. The sound is excellent, the instrumentation colorful, the voices emotionally rich, the words clear and haunting, and the overall effect unforgettable. 

Currently collaborating on an opera with Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, Danielpour writes music, which is primarily tonal and accessible, even on first hearing. Essentially derived from the romantic school, it employs occasional dissonance for dramatic effect. The composer recognizes many influences in his compositions, from Copland, Barber, Stravinsky, and Bernstein, to jazz and rhythm and blues. An American Requiem, like many of Danielpour's earlier pieces, is an eclectic mix of lushly orchestrated sounds. Effective use of percussion, from the quiet foreboding of the tympani in the opening measures to the heart-stopping pounding in track 8, and skillful manipulation of instrumentation and textures provide interest, variety, and excitement.

A requiem, or celebration Mass for the dead, is documented as far back as the late second century, although the practice probably began even earlier. The first extant musical portions of the Roman Catholic Requiem date from the tenth century, and there are many requiem chants in existence from the time of the Middle Ages to the present day. Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Brahms, and Fauré are just a few composers who have penned requiems. Benjamin Britten, a conscientious objector during World War II, wrote his well-known War Requiem (1961) using text not only from the traditional Latin Mass but also from poems by World War I soldier Wilfrid Owen, a Military Cross recipient who died just before the Armistice of 1918. Britten's model of juxtaposing English/Latin and secular poems and religious chant in his requiem is imitated by Richard Danielpour in An American Requiem. There are hints of the earlier requiems: for example, the rhythm of the opening word "requiem" (listen to Verdi), as well as the solo on "Sanctus" and the chorus of locusts on "Pleni sunt coeli," both of which are reminiscent of Britten. In a symposium the day before the premiere, Danielpour admitted, "There's no way a composer cannot be aware of the Requiems already in the canon. . . . One has to be affected. All of them and yet none of them are in this Requiem." 

In the late nineties the composer began informal interviews with American veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam. The thing that impressed him most was the integrity and selflessness of the soldiers who were willing to lay down their lives for their fellow soldiers and their country. Danielpour enlisted the help of poet Kim Vaeth, with whom he had collaborated on an earlier project (Sony Classical SK 60850, Elegies), to assemble a text combining American poetry with the Latin Requiem to create the framework for his composition. An American Requiem incorporates words from Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michael Harper, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), and an anonymous Afro-American spiritual.

The chorus (and sometimes the soloists) sings the Latin Requiem texts, but the poems in English are reserved for the vocal soloists, singing individually or in ensemble. Halfway through the work all three sing in a sparsely orchestrated trio (the only one in the work) in a very moving plea for eternal rest. One has the sense of public commentary (Latin chorus) versus private, more personal contemplation (English solos). Much of Danielpour's compositional output deals with duality - light vs. dark, public vs. private. In this work we are forced to confront human beings killing each other, responses to death and dying, and soldiers willing to make the ultimate sacrifice -- war as reflective of the worst in humanity as well as the best in humanity. Considering the recent War in Iraq and the United States' involvement in the efforts to establish some semblance of peace in the Middle East, this is a particularly timely topic for 2003. 

Although the composer worked on the already-titled composition for a year and a half prior to 9/11, and the premiere had been scheduled long before, the timeliness of An American Requiem's initial concerts so soon after the Towers tragedy is a bit uncanny. Danielpour was editing the requiem in September 2001 at Copland House, Aaron Copland's former home in upstate New York which operates as a composer's retreat. Danielpour called his Schirmer publishing agent in New York City one morning to discuss the fact that there was no dedication on the proofs. Instead he listened to the terror in the voice of the Schirmer associate who had, just moments earlier, watched from her office window as the second jet exploded into the World Trade Center. Danielpour expanded his original conception of the requiem's dedication: "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."

Danielpour, who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, has been commissioned to write for many artists: Yo-Yo Ma, Jessye Norman, Emanuel Ax, Christopher O'Riley, Frederika von Stade, the Guarneri String Quartet, and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio as well as numerous orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the National Symphony Orchestra. An American Requiem is the final product of Danielpour's composer-in-residence status with the Pacific Symphony from 1998-2001. During that time he developed good rapport with the musicians and knew specifically for whom he was writing. For example, he gave principal clarinetist James Kanter a great solo in "Lay this Body Down." Danielpour's "walking bass," jazz riffs, and muted brass maintain the nature of the spiritual and contribute to the "swing" of this baritone solo. 

In 1996, the year Danielpour turned forty, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical (formerly Columbia Masterworks). Only three other composers have ever been so honored - Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Philip Glass. In 1998 the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's CD of Danielpour's Concerto for Orchestra (Sony SK62822) was nominated for a Grammy in the category of "classical contemporary composition." That same year Yo-Yo Ma Premieres Concertos for Violoncello and Orchestra (Sony SK66299), a recording of cello concertos by Christopher Rouse, Leon Kirchner, and Danielpour, won Grammies for "Best Classical Album," "Best Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra," and "Producer of the Year" for Steve Epstein. Epstein, who considers Danielpour "one of our great living composers," did not produce the Requiem CD as Danielpour is no longer exclusively with Sony; however, in a phone conversation with me (4/11/03), Epstein referred to An American Requiem as a "masterpiece" and "a wonderful piece of music." 

An American Requiem is a very moving piece. It is particularly poignant in this time of global uncertainty - at a time when we've lost American patriots in another war on foreign soil. The horrors of war are vividly painted in the scenes of this requiem. Danielpour's music brilliantly illustrates various vignettes - the pathos of a mother in mourning, a father keeping watch through the night with his dying son. Danielpour captures the agony and love of the father in Whitman's words: "Vigil strange I kept on the field one night; When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day, . . . Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier . . ." The choral segments are also very effective. "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath) is formidable, terrifying in its depiction of the Judgment Day. In contrast, the joyous, exultant "Hosanna" with its rhythmic, rolling tympani actually gave me goose bumps in the performance. Listen throughout the work for hints of the repeated three-note motive, which begins Brahms' Lullaby ("lullaby and good night"). It is unusually chilling as the father sings "not a tear, not a word" in "Vigil strange" (track 3, discussed above). Danielpour has interpolated this pattern in other compositions, also, but it is discomfiting in this work dealing with the permanent lullaby of death.

There is something in this work for musicians and non-musicians alike. My husband (a businessman with no musical training) enjoyed the premiere, describing the choral "Kyrie eleison" (Lord, have mercy) as "haunting" and "Libera Me" (Deliver me) as "yearning, pleading, urgent music." Both St. Clair and Alexander commented in a post-premiere conversation that they think this music will become part of the canon. An American Requiem is a powerful recording. In a recent phone call, Danielpour told me he was very pleased with it; in fact, he said, out of the nine CDs produced of his music, this is one of his favorites. See what you think!

All of this beautifully profound music is very realistically presented almost as if we listeners had the best seat in Segerstrom Hall. At times we may be hearing more detail than if we were there in November 2001. I could give literally dozens of examples of the natural sound quality of this typically fine recording from Reference Recordings with J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr. and Keith O. Johnson again guiding the way. No need to go any further than the second track, Dies Irae. The clarity and richness of the horns, the cutting prominence of the brass, the biting punctuations of the percussion and power and feeling of the tympani are all there - really all there with no obvious hype. Top it off with beautiful singing by the tenor and chorus with equally beautiful recording and once again Reference Recordings has presented a recording to us that truly is "as good as it gets".

This HDCD recording plays well on any CD, DVD or SACD player. For the very highest sound quality any of the above mentioned players that indicates the HDCD logo will reward listeners with even better sound quality. Reference Recordings took that HDCD quality step a few years ago; if more companies had taken that step we would not be seeing the insane battle being waged today between SACD and DVD-Audio. The only thing that would be missing would be the multi channel or surround sound. 

See Karl's Korner in the Viewpoint section (archives) for information about Reference Recordings plans and other items.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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