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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

A Danielpour Premiere at the Philadelphia Orchestra by Bernard Jacobson

Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered on October 21 in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Richard Danielpour’s Songs of Solitude is an ambitious piece that speaks of weighty matters. The composer began work on it three years ago, when he was 45, under the impact of September 11, taking as his text six poems by W.B. Yeats (including his celebrated The Second Coming) that treat of war and death, grief and loss, blood and fate and doomed innocence.

It would be unjust to question the sincerity or depth of Danielpour’s feelings on these subjects. The tone of his composition is appropriately serious. His setting of the words is lucidly pointed, and it benefited immeasurably on this occasion from the superb delivery of Thomas Hampson, for whom the work was written, and who was in his strongest and most eloquent voice. The orchestral writing, too, is skilful and at times stirring. In the end, however, Songs of Solitude is a depressing work, and it is depressing not because of its subject, but because the musical invention it offers is for the most part commonplace and facile.

Danielpour is one of those composers who have made healthy careers in recent years from the creation of what might be called modern music without tears. I am no champion of pain as a necessary component in art, nor do I think that originality for its own sake is a desirable one. But it seems to me that there is a world of difference between originality–an essentially trivial 19th-century concept–and that priceless characteristic, individuality, and between the work of composers like Nali Gruber, Robin Holloway, Nicholas Maw, and Steven Stucky, who are able to relate their inspiration to a valid and abiding tradition while imbuing old ideas with fresh meaning, and those on the other hand whose treatment of such ideas amounts to no more than tired recycling.

That Danielpour, for all his craft, falls into the latter category was regrettably evident as early as the fourth line of his Prologue, a setting of A Meditation in Time of War. Here, as in the five songs that followed, the first trace of lofty diction or ideas, the appearance of any such high-flown word as “glory” or “majesty” or “greatness,” was greeted, with Pavlovian predictability, by some suitably grand-sounding harmonic or melodic response that added no new twist to all the versions of it we have heard before.

In the circumstances, it seemed almost like deliberate cruelty on the part of guest conductor David Robertson to have opened the program with Copland’s Quiet City. I might otherwise have been left trying to recall quite what Danielpour’s source for his opening section could have been–but there it was, resounding in all our ears from just five minutes before the new piece began. It was especially illuminating to hear this insipid music just a few days after renewing acquaintance (in a welcome new Naxos recording) with another even more ambitious vocal composition by an American composer, William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Perhaps it is unfair to use Bolcom’s sprawling and irrepressibly diverse Blake settings, with their uninhibited eclecticism and vast performing forces, as a stick to beat Danielpour’s more concentrated work with, but the difference, in terms of vivid expression, compelling poetic insight, and sheer force of character, impressed itself on me inescapably after so short an intervening time.

The trumpet and cor anglais soloists in the Copland, David Bilger and Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, played splendidly, and the orchestral contribution in support of Hampson sounded excellent too. But the second half of the program was as comprehensive a confirmation of my previously negative response to Robertson’s conducting as Songs of Solitude had been in regard to Danielpour’s compositional talent. It must be accounted a somewhat dumbfounding achievement to lead a performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony in which absolutely nothing of musical consequence happened, and in which the strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra, radiantly and eloquently as they have played in recent weeks in their hall’s newly perfected acoustics, were made to sound like those of some inglorious provincial ensemble.

Bernard Jacobson

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