Richard Danielpour: Grammy-Award Winning Composer of “Songs of Solitude”

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Richard Danielpour.

Grammy-Award winning composer Richard Danielpour has established himself as one of the most gifted and sought-after composers of his generation. His music has attracted an international and illustrious array of champions and, as a devoted mentor and educator, he has also had a significant impact on the younger generation of composers.

His list of commissions include some of the most celebrated artists of our day including Yo-Yo Ma, Jessye Norman, Dawn Upshaw, Emanuel Ax, Gil Shaham, Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, Gary Graffman, Anthony McGill, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, the Guarneri and Emerson String Quartets, the New York City, Pacific Northwest and Nashville Ballets, and institutions such as the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Maryinsky and Vienna Chamber Orchestras, Orchestre National de France, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and many more.

With Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Danielpour created Margaret Garner, his first opera, which premiered in 2005 and had a second production with New York City Opera. He has received two awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, a Guggenheim Award, the Bearns Prize from Columbia University, two Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, and The Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin.

Since 2010, Danielpour’s music has been recorded extensively by Naxos of America. In 2017, his recording with the Nashville Symphony with Giancarlo Guerrero and Thomas Hampson of Songs of Solitude was nominated for 2 Grammy awards, including Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Mr. Danielpour is an active educator and believes deeply in the nurturing of young musicians. He served on the composition faculty of Manhattan School of Music from 1993–2017 and has been on the composition faculty of The Curtis Institute of Music since 1997. In 2017, he accepted a tenured position in composition at UCLA’s Herbt Albert School of Music where he now teaches.

Mr. Danielpour studied at the New England Conservatory and The Juilliard School with Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin. In 1986, he received his DMA from Juilliard. From 1988 until 1990, Danielpour studied composition with Leonard Bernstein. He also trained as a pianist with Lorin Hollander, Veronica Jochum, and Gabriel Chodos.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born in New York City to parents who were originally from Iran. My father was born in Hamadan and my mother was born in Teheran. We lived in Long Island until I was seven years old. At that point, we moved to Iran for a year. My father had been diagnosed with MS and wanted to go to Iran to retrieve his shares of a family business that he shared with his father and his brothers. With the exception of one brother, his youngest, who was always very loyal to him, my father ‘s father and one brother in particular did their best to make his life, and consequently ours, very uncomfortable there. In the process I contracted nephritis (which was the kidney infection that killed Mozart). In Iran they did not have the proper medicine to help me heal properly and my maternal grandmother, who was a central figure in my family, flew from New York to Iran to help make arrangements for us to leave.

We finally left Tehran for New York in the spring of 1964 , and lived in Long Island for a little over a year before we finally moved to south Florida in the West Palm Beach area. This is where I stayed and was raised until I went to college in 1974.

By the time I was in college, first for a year at Oberlin College and then eventually at the New England Conservatory in Boston where I received my bachelor’s degree in composition in 1980, I had distanced myself from my Iranian heritage. The memories of our time there were anything but pleasant, and by 1979, with the onset of the Revolution, I heard of members of my family on both sides being detained, and some of them jailed. One of them was tortured and executed in June of 1980, so as a result it was easy to understand why I would prefer to identify at that time with my American roots. My parents desired for us to grow up as Americans, but with the awareness of our history and its inherent richness. This was aided and abetted by the presence of my extraordinary grandmother. When we were children in Iran, my sister and I were bilingual; I still sometimes dream in Farsi….

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My personal key to success is very simple. First of all, I believe you can have anything you want, but you cannot have everything you want. Often, in order for something that we desire to live, something else will likely have to die. I have seen this pattern repeated many times in my own life.

I also believe that the key to creativity and to not only composing music but also one’s own life lies in being able to see the creation. You must see what you want before it actually happens while simultaneously envisioning it as if it has already occurred.

How has your Persian heritage given rise to some of your greatest musical innovations?

The awareness of my Persian heritage returned to me about 10 years ago when I started composing music that was somewhat informed by the work of the great Persian poet Rumi. Many of the works I had written in recent years were also inspired by the courage, dignity, and will of the Iranian people to stand proud in the face of an oppressive theocratic regime.

An exploration into Persian art and music also had a great deal to do with my embracing new ideas which were actually ancient ideas.

In terms of composing, who inspires you and which scores do you love?

The list of scores and Composers who inspire me is endless… But I would say that the bedrock, the foundation of everything that I have learned as a composer, lies in my love for the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Britten, and Aaron Copland. Yet, I have also grown to love some of my living contemporaries, and as a child grew up loving African-American music. In particular, this was the music of gospel, blues, and that which was coming out of Motown. The Beatles also had a profound influence on my life as a child. In the end there are two types of music: good and bad.

Could you highlight your works?

My work can be divided into five distinct genres:

A) Orchestral music, which includes the equivalent of eight Symphonies, five Piano Concertos, two Cello Concertos, a Violin Concerto, a Clarinet Concerto, a Viola Concerto, a Percussion Concerto, and many other shorter works for orchestra.

B) Vocal music which includes three oratorios of considerable length, six orchestral song cycles, and many smaller works for voice and chorus.

C) Chamber music, which includes eight String Quartets, a Piano Quartet, a Piano Quintet and Three Piano Trios.

D) Opera and ballet, works for the theater which include Margaret Garner, a full length opera in two acts, and three ballets.

E) Solo piano music, which includes two books of preludes, one book of 12 études, a book of 11 bagatelles, and many other solo works for piano.

How do you present and describe your top three works?

Asking me which are my top three works would be like asking me which are my three favorite children… It’s very difficult to do. At this point in my life, I have a preference for many of my works involving voice and orchestra. Very often the work that I seem to love the most is the one that I just recently finished.

Is there a theme that presents in your work?

My work is comprised of many themes but the one that seems to repeat itself is the struggle between darkness and light and the deep belief that I have in goodness and love always prevailing. Also, central in my music is the firm belief that life does not end with the death of the body.

What is the piece of music you are most proud of?

Right at this moment as we end 2018, I am most proud of The Passion of Yeshua, an hour and 40 minute oratorio for chorus, orchestra, and six soloists. This piece was just recently premiered in Los Angeles and Royce Hall, and a few months before that at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon.

Can you give us a little more insight into how you compose — i.e. methods you use, how things come to you?

In recent years, composing has been more and more about waiting and listening and having the courage to remain empty inside in order to be, like a vessel, filled. It is about avoiding one’s ego, and for me allowing the better angels of my nature to work creatively. I say to my students that it is a good idea never to completely grow up, and to remain curious always, like a child.

How would you characterize your compositional language?

It is not my job to characterize my compositional language. It will be the job of other people who describe it on an almost weekly basis. Having said that, I believe that my language is steeped in clarity, compassion, humanity, and hopefully generosity.

Can you update our readers on what you’re doing now?

I am at presently writing a group of songs for voice and strings on poems of Rumi in Farsi for Grammy award-winning soprano, Hila Plitmann.

This fall, I hope to begin writing a new opera which takes place after the revolution in Teheran, and is based and adapted from an ancient Persian fable. The new opera will premiere in Los Angeles at the end of 2021.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

For me, being an American of Iranian descent is a great blessing. It allows me to be both modern and ancient; it allows me to be in the present and in the past at once. My Iran is not the Iran of the present day, but one that exists in the minds of the great poets: Hafez, Rumi, Khayam, Ferdosi, etc.