Classical Style: Vandy pianists promise to dazzle with Danielpour’s pianistic fireworks

danielpour-slideThe composer Richard Danielpour is like the Richard Strauss of 21st-century America. He’s a virtuoso of the pen, an artist whose music is known for its high gloss and fine craftsmanship.

Virtuosity has been on Danielpour’s mind of late. He recently completed a set of 12 virtuosic piano etudes, which will be premiered next Tuesday evening, Dec. 4, at Ingram Hall. The Blair School of Music commissioned the new works. Three of the conservatory’s top faculty pianists – Mark Wait, Craig Nies and Amy Dorfman – will each play four etudes.

danielpour3Danielpour, a composition professor at the Manhattan School of Music, has been spending a lot of time in Music City. Not surprisingly, his music has been seemingly everywhere. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra opened its 2012-13 classical series in September with a performance of the composer’s A Woman’s Life, a symphonic song cycle that sets to music the poetry of Maya Angelou. Nashville’s Alias Chamber Ensemble followed the next month with a reading of Portraits, another Danielpour/Angelou collaboration. Naturally, the composer has been thrilled with all the attention.

“I definitely feel appreciated there,” says Danielpour, who was on the phone from his home in New York City.

waitThe idea for the piano etudes came up during one of the composer’s periodic visits to Music City. “I mentioned in passing to [Blair dean] Mark Wait that I was interested in writing a set of piano  etudes, especially since the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth was coming up,” says Danielpour. “I didn’t think much more of it after that, but then I got word from Mark that Blair wanted to commission the etudes. I was surprised and thrilled.”

For Wait, commissioning the etudes was a small matter. “I thought it was a fabulous idea,” he says, “and so I immediately broke out the old crowbar to open Blair’s budget.”

Danielpour completed the etudes in a matter of just a few months. “But it’s fair to say his etudes were 30 years in the making,” says Nies. “Richard is a pianist, and you can tell from his writing that he understands the instrument.”

Initially, Danielpour found his inspiration in Debussy’s Douze Etudes pour piano. Like the great Frenchman’s studies, Danielpour’s etudes force the pianist’s fingers to run through a gauntlet of arpeggios, octaves and fast repeated notes. But Danielpour’s studies also call to mind American composer Virgil Thomson’s various portraits for piano. Each one of Danielpour’s 12 etudes is dedicated to an important contemporary pianist. And each strives to capture the essence of the dedicatee.

Danielpour wrote the first etude for Wait, who gets pride of place as founder of the musical feast, so to speak. His etude, a five-finger arpeggio exercise in C major, has the formal logic of a Bach prelude. It’s a nod to this pianist’s disciplined and efficient personality.

The second etude is dedicated to Gary Graffman, the great American pianist who lost use of his right hand in the late 1970s. Graffman now plays only left-hand repertoire. So in the second etude, the pianist plays the keys with the left hand while the right plucks strings inside the piano. The third etude features big, double-fisted chords, no doubt intended to suggest the grandiose style of pianist Joseph Kalichstein.

craigNies will be performing some of the most difficult etudes in the set. The fifth, written for the fiery Russian virtuoso Yefim Bronfman, is a difficult octave study. Nies considers the sixth etude, dedicated to the great American pianist Andre-Michel Schub, to be the finest of the collection. Schub won the 1981 Van Cliburn Competition playing, among other things, Brahms’ Handel Variations, which has lengthy passages of diabolically difficult sixths. Appropriately enough, his Danielpour etude is a study in sixths.

Danielpour dedicated the seventh etude to Nies. This challenging study in rapid patterns “goes right to the throat,” Nies says.

amyDorfman will play the final group of etudes, which are among the collection’s most lyrically appealing. The ninth etude is dedicated to Leon Fleisher, another pianist who injured his right hand. In recent years, Fleisher has made a comeback to two-handed repertoire. So in this study, the pianist plays the melody with the left hand and the accompaniment with the right. Dorfman’s etude is the eleventh, a study in fast repeated notes that the pianist describes “as sounding very improvisational.”

The final etude is dedicated to Philippe Entremont, the 78-year-old French pianist who, in his day, was one of the greatest interpreters of Debussy’s etudes. Danielpour wrote him a study in phrased pairs.

“Philippe told me to write him an etude that wouldn’t be too hard for an old virtuoso to play,” says Danielpour. “When he finally saw his etude, he called it ‘perfect.’”

If you go

Pianists Mark Wait, Craig Nies and Amy Dorfman present the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s Twelve Etudes for Piano. The free concert starts at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4 at Ingram Hall, 2400 Blakemore Hall.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.