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March 30, 1999

Modern ComposersRichard Danielpour: Celestial Night. Celestial Night; Toward the Splendid City; Urban Dances. The Philharmonia Orchestra, Zdenek Macal, conductor. (Sony Classical, CD # SK 60779) 1999.

Despite the somewhat off-putting New Agey title, this new release from Sony Classical is quite a tasty collection. American composer Richard Danielpour (b. 1956) is a true New Yorker. He was born in that city, works on the composition faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, and the city figures prominently in much of the music he writes. His compositional style has been described as "rhythmically vibrant" and full "of large and romantic gestures" -- phrases that could equally well refer to New York. Danielpour says that "Toward the Splendid City" and "Urban Dances" on this album are not musical portraits of the city -- though he doesn't object if someone hears them that way -- but evocations of his personal impressions of the city.

Written in 1996 on commission from the New York City Ballet, "Urban Dances" consists of five parts with very different moods. The composer says that the five pieces were written as "a kind of generic collection of American dance forms" and were broadly conceived in conjunction with the director of the dance troupe. Musically, Danielpour says that the works' "streamlined sound often has a chamber orchestra quality" and includes "a few references -- as a kind of quiet tribute -- that point to the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations that were cornerstones of City Ballet's repertoire," particularly noticeable in the third and fifth movements.

Musically, the moods of "Urban Dances" follow the structure of the dance, which is based on a 24-hour cycle, beginning at mid-day, progressing through the evening and night, and ending the next morning, "when the city once again comes to life." The third movement, representing early evening in the city, is full of potential and enthusiasm, not yet entirely focused. By the Fourth movement -- "the wee hours of the morning" -- the high energy and potential and pretty much spent, and the mood is one of weary determination. The final movement, marked "vivace," is again upbeat and optimistic, a happy ending to a perfect day, as every American tale must be.

Danielpour wrote "Toward the Splendid City" in 1992, taking its title from Pablo Neruda's 1971 Nobel Prize speech. It was written while he was away from New York, and is his expression of his nostalgia for his hometown -- a sort of "sonic postcard" both to and about the city. Even to those who have never been there, the piece is evocative of the city as represented by the music of Bernstein, Copland, and other composers who crafted dance works from the sounds, rhythms, and energy of the city.

In his liner notes to this album, Danielpour notes that "while all the works on this album have intimate connections with New York, they also depict journeys in music, time and evolution." He quotes Neruda again: "We must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song." The songs that Danielpour sings in this collection are not at all sad, and itís a safe bet that the City Ballet's rendition of his "urban dances" wasn't so clumsy either.

You can hear Urban Dances by Richard Danielpour on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, April 1 (no joke) at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

---J. Green

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