April 16, 2014

  • New Danielpour Oratorio


    Danielpour: Toward a Season of Peace
    Hila Plitmann, soprano.  Pacific Chorale, Pacific Symphony/Carl St. Clair
    Naxos 8.559772
    Total Time:  50:40
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Last year, Naxos released a collection of works by American composer Richard Danielpour that had some thematic thread connecting each of them.  That recording, also reviewed here, featured the Nashville Symphony.  This new release shifts to the coast for what amounts to a massive oratorio contemplating war and violence in the name of religion.  As mentioned in the previous review, Danielpour’s music is amongst the most well-regarded American composers working today.  He tends to blend a rich orchestral sound of the Romantic tradition with Middle Eastern influences aligning himself aesthetically to composers like Barber, Bernstein, or Copland.   The present work explores themes of violence and war taken on in the name of religion.  Conceived as an oratorio in three parts and seven movements, the piece uses a variety of texts from the Hebrew Bible, Arabic poetry and the Persian poet Rumi.  The work’s use of these languages, coupled with striking orchestral writing, which often moves to richly Romantic moments, helps suggest a season that would allow for transformation and change, often using Spring as a metaphor.

    A forceful series of chords announce the anguish of the opening “Annunciation” movement that combines texts from Jeremiah, Psalm 103, and lines from the “Sim Shalom” and in Farsi.  The first three movements (which include “Vision” and “Celebration”) all focus on war and destruction.  The lyrical writing here tends to provide long swathes of melodic ideas that are then richly scored for orchestra and chorus moving into brilliant colors.  The final “Celebration” brings us back full circle musically to the opening helping provide some interest reflection and shape to the work on a larger scale.

    At the center of the work is the use of familiar text from Ecclesiastes 3 and a setting of the Lord’s Prayer.  In this particular movement, “Atonement”, the contrasts are allowed between the three primary faiths represented in the work, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  The movement includes words in Hebrew, English, Farsi, and Aramaic making for a fascinating blend of language and theological reflection.  When the words related to “time for war, and a time for peace” occur, the music quickly shifts to recall that which opened the work and this makes for a very dramatic and powerful moment as text from Isaiah 40:2 “A voice cries…” appears before the Lord’s Prayer name appear.  This is a more ethereal setting with huge leaps and gradual movement upwards into the soloist’s higher register that might seem a bit surreal for some listeners.

    The final three movements (“Consecration”, “Parable” and “Apotheosis”) hope for a process that will lead to everlasting peace.  The opening of “Consecration” has some truly beautiful orchestral writing reminiscent of Barber and Hanson that then gradually adds chorus to the words from Isaiah 40, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  Truly beautiful music appears in this section with a good use of chromatic dissonance and subtle Middle Eastern turns of melody and even a section with dance-like energy (sometimes feeling almost post-minimalist in nature).  The rhythmic interest tends to have a more exciting interplay against longer lyrical material in these final moments of celebration of life and a sense of hope.

    What is most interesting is the denser orchestral writing that is far more integrated in this work than in some of Danielpour’s music.  Here is the romantic conception of the orchestra being used in a more traditional dramatic sense responding well to the texts.  The music manages to be fairly engaging and may find itself in the company of other large-scale orchestra and choral works.  The performances are simple stellar and well-shaped with great color.  The recording was made over the course of performances in March of 2012.  Certainly worth exploring for those who are interesting in new works of this type.  It also seems to mark some further development of the composer’s artistic style and orchestral approach from earlier pieces as well.  The Pacific Symphony and Chorale do great work here and Hila Plitmann’s voice serves these texts well in her interpretation.

    Works of this type tend to be one-shot performances that might have a life outside of their initial premieres and on disc.  The second and fifth movements certainly are quite engaging works on their own with great energy and engaging writing.  That is not to say the same is not true of the rest, but these may have the best individual life as choral/orchestral showpieces.  Only time can tell if this work finds its way alongside some of the great essays by composers like Britten, Bernstein, Hindemith, and Thomson.  Some may find interesting parallels to Leonard Bernstein’s first symphony which also finds inspiration in ancient texts as well as his second which approaches the sort of power and angst Danielpour subject matter travels in this work.  The language of the music seems much tighter and the larger connections of material recur enough to provide a sense of familiarity for the listener once the work progresses.  It is a fascinating and powerful piece.