Timing is everything. To complete his three-year tenure as composer-in-residence with the Pacific Symphony (an ensemble in Orange County, California), Richard Danielpour planned to write a large choral work dedicated to American veterans. The premiere was scheduled for November 2001, and Danielpour received scores to inspect the morning of September 11. Wishing also to memorialize that event, he retooled the dedication to include the terrorist victims. The work was recorded soon after its November performance, and the resulting CD—An American Requiem (Reference Recordings)—was rushed for release in January 2002. The piece (or at least its timely dedication) is thus one of the first commemorations of that horrible September day, beating Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising by six months and the New York Philharmonic’s commission of John Adams’ “official” commemoration by a year.
Of course, Danielpour’s music really isn’t about September 11. But it has been marketed that way, which makes some sense. For the fact is that “classical” music is currently in a marketing crisis. The ranks of its old supporters are dwindling. Baby boomers, or those folks who David Brooks has dubbed “bourgeois bohemians” (bobos), have been raised on rock, television, and easy listening muzak”genres that generally do not cultivate the skills required to understand the music of the Western art tradition. While operas continue to flourish, attendance is shrinking at symphony orchestras, while outside of a few cities recital series have vanished almost entirely.
With reduced audiences, the organizations of our classical music culture are finding themselves financially threatened. The situation is most dire for some smaller regional orchestras. According to the Miami Herald , the Florida Philharmonic ended its 2001–2002 fiscal year almost three million dollars in debt. The St. Louis Symphony, one of the most successful and critically acclaimed American orchestras in the 1970s and ’80s, has been forced to draw so heavily on its endowment that its future is in question. Even the mighty New York Philharmonic’s management decided it had either to postpone or curtail several of its events planned for the 2002–2003 season.
Some orchestras are trying to recapture audiences by changing their formats, schedules, and even clothes. “Pop” events are now sometimes more frequent than the classical concerts the ensembles were created to perform. (Amy Grant is known as the “savior” of the Nashville Symphony, for example, because of the Christmas concerts she gives with the orchestra.) In England, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has hired a marketing research firm to find out what audiences want the orchestra to wear. Thinking that the traditional white tie and tails are out, the orchestra looks forward to hiring a fashion designer to provide the ensemble with a “new, instantly recognizable image.”
Radio stations formatted to classical music are also in trouble. Several private stations have been sold, their new owners replacing the old play lists with a variety of more profitable formats. Public radio stations were once the most important—often the only—source for classical music in many communities. Yet even here stations have either significantly curtailed their presentation of classical music or have abandoned it outright for a variety of “talk” formats. Stations that do retain a classical music format generally limit pieces to be broadcast to shorter works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (which pretty much condemns listeners to a purgatory of Vivaldi concerto movements).
Publishers and recording companies are also feeling the pinch. There is little money to be made on Beethoven, whose works are public domain. But publishers will soon be impoverished as the works of Puccini, Richard Strauss, Britten, Stravinsky, and even Copland—royalties from which sustain their firms—also become public property. Classical music has long been a minuscule part of the business of recorded music. Today that market share is even tinier. And even among listeners who do value this music, how many recordings of a Mozart symphony or even a Rite of Spring does one need?
Orchestras need audiences, radio stations need listeners, publishers need new materials to copyright and record companies new works to distribute. And as any Wal-Mart manager knows, if the customers don’t like your product, you don’t change customers, you change the product.
Hence the importance of Danielpour. His music is a perfect product for an audience of bobos. Like the professional model Viking range in the bobo’s kitchen, it gives the appearance of substance and sophistication without any of its requirements—or mess. His orchestration is always facile, his melodies pleasantly lyric, his harmonies only slightly more acidic than those of John Williams, and his works are only rarely handicapped by originality.
And the bobos love it. Eager to cash in on his populism, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh and San Francisco Symphonies have all commissioned major works from him, as have Jessye Norman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Dawn Upshaw. His forty-two published works receive hundreds of performances every year and An American Requiem is his thirteenth major work to be released on CD—which isn’t bad for a composer who is just forty-six.
The Requiem is vintage Danielpour. The composer makes no bones about the fact that his music is largely derivative, and it’s easy to tick off the passages in the Requiem where he draws on the work of other composers: Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms , Orff’s Carmina Burana , Britten’s Peter Grimes , or even Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess . This isn’t to say the music is bad. Danielpour is a skillful imitator and in at least one mezzo-soprano and tenor duet he rises above imitation to approach music that has some real individuality and power.
But such moments in this hour-long work are the exception. The American Requiem isn’t bad, and it’s not even uninteresting. It’s just trivial and overblown. The problem lies perhaps not so much in Danielpour’s pawnshop music as in his choice and use of texts.
The model for Danielpour’s work is Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem . In that work, Britten interpolated poems by Wilfred Owen between movements of the Latin rite to create a sharply hewn indictment of the barbarism of war. In a similar way, Danielpour takes parts of the Mass for the dead and the first responsary of the burial service and interpolates between and within them poems by Hilda Doolittle, Whitman, Emerson, Michael Harper, and an anonymous writer of a spiritual.
Although Danielpour’s list of poets is marvelously inclusive (one bisexual woman, one gay white man, a token straight dead white male, one straight black man, and a “nobody” speaking for the countless masses of the disenfranchised unknown), the different voices of the poets together do not always make sense. His use of the liturgical texts is jejune. Sometimes the relationship between them and the poetry that interrupts them is strained and superficially considered (for instance, I doubt that Danielpour intended the strongly anti-gay message created by his following of Whitman’s homoerotic “O my soldiers, my heart gives you love” with the “Confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis” of the Dies irae ). The Latin texts also seem oddly rootless and nonreferential. Of course it’s the composer’s right to use them this way if he chooses, but if the Latin texts are not in some way to remind the listener of both their antiquity and their liturgical significance it is peculiar to use them at all.
All of these problems contribute to the work’s lack of focus. Although the high irony of Britten being able to write a pacifist manifesto only because so many thousands of Britons died to protect him from fascism wasn’t missed in 1962 (or even unacknowledged by Britten himself), his antiwar convictions were real and keenly argued in his art. Britten was deeply concerned about basic issues of good and evil. And there was no ambiguity about his passion for those themes in his art. Danielpour may very well be equally passionate, but his work fails to suggest it. Instead of conviction, Danielpour gives us facile banalities that ultimately make his work seem trivial.
But trivial is just fine for bobos—and the orchestras and recording companies and publishers who go out of their way to please them. Once again: Danielpour’s music isn’t bad. His Requiem is pleasant, consistently well made, and occasionally tuneful. Listen to An American Requiem , but just don’t expect either artistic vision or compositional courage. It’s harmless. It makes you feel like a savant. And it will probably sell just fine.
Michael Linton is Head of the Division of Composition and Music Theory at Middle Tennessee State University.
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