When Richard Danielpour was a student at Twin Lakes High School and thinking about being a musician, he used to go down each week to Spec’s Music at the Palm Beach Mall and go trolling for LPs.
One day he bought a recording of the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, in a performance by a French pianist named Philippe Entremont, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. He liked the performance, but actually getting to know Entremont decades later has been something he likes even better.
“I’ve only known Philippe for six years now, but I feel as if I’ve known him for 20,” Danielpour said earlier this month from his office in New York. “In all the interactions I have had with him, I’ve always learned something from him, which is a wonderful thing, to have a friend and a colleague like that.”
This Monday night, Danielpour, who has built a notable and impressive career for himself as a composer, will conduct the Vienna Chamber Orchestra at the Kravis Center in the North American premiere of his Souvenirs, a five-movement orchestral suite commissioned by the Kravis in honor of Entremont’s 75th birthday, which fell in June of this year. Entremont had planned to conduct the work, as well as solo in a Haydn concerto, but became ill this week and has had to bow out.
Pianist Gottlieb Wallisch will be soloist Monday night in the Piano Concerto in D of Haydn (Hob: XVIII/11), and the VCO under concertmaster Ludwig Mueller will perform the Haffner Symphony of Mozart (No. 35 in D, K. 385) and the Voices of Spring waltz of Johann Strauss II. Danielpour will conduct Souvenirs again Tuesday afternoon, Wallisch will play the Mozart Concerto No. 23 (in A, K. 488) and Mueller will lead the VCO in the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 (in C, Op. 21).
Entremont is expected to be on hand Thursday night to lead the VCO in another performance of Souvenirs at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, officials there said Saturday. The program includes the Mozart concerto and a selection of dance music by Johann Strauss II.
Danielpour, 53, said the commission for Souvenirs came through Susan Tilley, then the Regional Arts administrator at the Kravis.
“The sense that I got from Philippe, even though he’s originally from Paris and makes his home there, he is really one of those truly international citizens. His home is the world,” he said. “I thought that I could create these musical postcards, if you will, of a number of different cities that had meant the most to him in his working life, and also these are cities that have been of interest to me.”
The piece contains five short movements depicting Paris, New York, Vienna, New Orleans and Kyoto, in “musical paintings,” Danielpour said. “I tried not to do it so it becomes a parody or a caricature of the place. [Each movement] just speaks for the spirit of each place, rather than a cliché about it,” he said.
That’s not to say there aren’t things about each that don’t evoke familiar sounds associated with each. “The New Orleans movement is like a march, and I thought of it not as When the Saints Go Marching In but as a kind of parade, because they’re very big on parades down there,” he said. “It’s kind of like there’s something parade-like about that movement, celebratory, and it’s only at the very end that you get this kind of stride piano sound.”
Danielpour was born in New York in 1956, the son of immigrant Iranian Jews, and moved to South Florida when he was 10, living in Jupiter, North Palm Beach and finally Palm Beach.
“It really was the South, still, in many respects. In the mid-60s, at the height of the civil rights movement, with desegregation in full tilt, it was actually kind of a prescient time to be there and to be growing up,” Danielpour said.
It also was a rich time for popular music, and Danielpour was all ears.
“I think I drew a great deal from my love for a lot of the African-American music that was coming out over the radio waves, the pop music. In fact, the only fight I ever got into as a kid in school was for actually listening to that music. I mean, I loved a lot of the stuff that was coming out of Motown,” he said. “And I was called a lot of names for it as a kid, by a lot of narrow-minded kids who probably had equally narrow-minded parents.
“So it was an interesting sort of time, and being that we were transplants — my parents were both born in Iran and they came here when they were very young — and even though I was brought up as an American, and was born in the U.S. along with my sister, we always felt a kind of otherness about ourselves,” he said, adding: “Maybe there were ways that we were able to relate to what was going on.”
Danielpour studied at Oberlin College, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School, where he worked with eminent American composers including Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin. Success as a composer came relatively early to him, and he’s received major awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and big commissions such as Margaret Garner, an opera with a libretto by Toni Morrison that was a starring vehicle for soprano Denyce Graves at its premiere in 2005.
Over the past 30 year he’s compiled a large body of work that includes three symphonies, four piano concertos, two cello concerti, choral and vocal works, ballet scores and chamber music, including six string quartets. It’s very accessible music, eclectic in its inspiration and direct in its communicative power.
Danielpour said his style grows naturally out of the kind of person he is, and of his background.
“Even though everybody who hears me in Europe says, ‘Oh, you sound so American,’ there’s also in my American style a kind of pan-world influence,” Danielpour said. “Here I am, a classical musician, which means European influence. I’m born of Middle Eastern parents from Iran, so there’s that presence, and then there’s the presence of growing up in America, both in the South and the Northeast. I’ve got it coming from all ends.”
And that’s good, he said, citing advice he got from Leonard Bernstein.
“What I learned from Mr. Bernstein, who was the last, and one of the greatest mentors I ever had, in order to be a composer who is speaking honestly, and with some degree of authenticity, it’s best to have the courage to include all that one is, rather than edit what one is,” he said. “Whatever is part of me in my life, has ended up in the work. I’m a kind of sponge in that way.”
Danielpour has taught at the Manhattan School of Music since 1993 and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia since 1997. Most of that work consists of working with and mentoring young composers.
“I work with very gifted young people, and so many of them are not American,” he said. “I have a couple of students, one from China and one from Taiwan, both young women, who are each going to have major careers one day.”
Technological advances have given today’s composers more avenues for their music to be heard, but at the same time, those very choices have made it more complicated to build a career. Danielpour said he learned early on that developing steady work habits was vital to his success.
“There’s always an excuse not to write,” he said. “You have to believe in your sense of purpose … For me, I was the shark that has to keep moving in the water or he dies. I knew I would not grow unless I wrote as a daily practice.”
That kind of assiduity has paid off, and Danielpour said he enjoys returning to Florida, which he does twice a year on average, to see again the place where his compositional dreams first took root.
“I loved growing up down there, I loved it. I had an extraordinary opportunity to absorb a lot of different kinds of culture, which I might not have had otherwise,” he said. “I felt very lucky. I had some great teachers. I just was fortunate enough to seize the moment when it came.”
Richard Danielpour will appear with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra at 8 p.m. Monday and at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Kravis Center. Tickets : $20-$75. Call 800-572-8471 or visit www.kravis.org. Philippe Entremont is expected to lead the VCO in Souvenirs at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart. Tickets: $65. Call 772-286-7827 or visit www.lyrictheatre.com.