Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra back to classical

| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

After more than a month's hiatus, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra resumes classical concerts this weekend with a guest conductor on the podium and an intriguing program, including a premiere.

Richard Danielpour was the symphony's composer of the year for 2009-10, when he received a commission from the Nashville and Pittsburgh symphonies, which has resulted in his new piece, “Darkness in the Ancient Valley.”

“I was so thrilled with the performances Manfred (Honeck) gave of ‘Rocking the Cradle,' I thought, if I could write something for him and for the orchestra which I love so much, it would be great,” Danielpour says. “The orchestra, your orchestra, is extra-special because, together with Manfred, they have raised the bar on what it means to give an orchestra concert in this country.”

Christoph Konig will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony at concerts Jan. 17 to 19 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 22, Richard Danielpour's “Darkness in the Ancient Valley” with soprano Hila Plitmann, and Richard Strauss' “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

The Danielpour piece will not be performed on Jan. 18, when it will be replaced with a lengthy music-appreciation talk and demonstration about “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

The Haydn symphony picked up the nickname “The Philosopher” in the composer's lifetime, because the first movement has the feeling of a conversation between French horns and English horns over a walking bass. So, it makes verbal sense to program it with the Strauss tone poem, which was inspired by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's novel “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

Danielpour's new piece is a 35-miunte, three-movement symphony that was first performed by Plitmann, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony on Nov. 17, 2011.

The timing of the commission coincided with an important change in the composer's sense of identity.

“Since mid-2009, almost five years, I have become more interested in and preoccupied with the sounds and substance of my Persian ancestry,” he says.

It was the Green Revolution in Iran and the violent reprisals against it that stirred Danielpour.

Born in New York City, Danielpour says, “I wanted to keep my Iranian heritage, my Persian ancestry, at a distance for many years. Much of my music, as a first generation American, has a distinctly American flavor to it. After 2009, I started coming full circle, finding things about my genealogy that were both fascinating and eye opening.”

The composer says the titles of the five movements reflect “a kind of ritual liturgical quality” in the music — “Lamentation,” “Desecration,” “Benediction,” “Profanation” and “Consecration.”

The final movement, which lasts about one third the length of the piece, is a setting of a poem by 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, and was composed with Plitmann's performance skills in mind.

“The poem is one of the few available in good English translation. It is about a woman who has been abused by her husband but refuses to respond with violence,” Danielpour says. “It is a metaphor for the people of Iran, who are non-violent in response to violence, like Ghandi and Martin Luther King.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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