Music Notes: the special gift of Shulamit Ran | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Music Notes: the special gift of Shulamit Ran 

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When Shulamit Ran was growing up in her native Israel and looked at poetry--or any kind of verse--she heard melodies. "I just assumed that everyone heard them the same as I did," she says. Only later, when her piano teacher began to write some of them down for her, did she begin to realize her special gift.

"My teacher sent some of those melodies in to a local radio station," she says, "and they ended up being performed on the radio by a children's choir. It is a vivid recollection--I was eight at the time and away at summer camp; there we all were, the kids and myself, all sitting around a large radio listening to my music coming out of it. That was a revelation for me, because it was the first time that I had the sense my music could live outside of me. What I had made up now had its own, separate existence. It gave me such pleasure and it was a very special feeling, and I knew that I wanted to keep doing this. Although all kinds of other things have always interested me, I've never wanted to do anything else but compose ever since."

When Ran was 14, she auditioned for a television spot on Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concert. "I was there as a performer," she recalls, "and I brought two pieces: the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto, to show that I could play the piano in a normal fashion, and my own Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. I walked in, and Bernstein was quite surprised when I said, 'Maestro, would you like to see a score?' 'Oh, a score,' he said, with a great irony in his voice, and I could see that he thought this was the funniest thing he had ever seen: this little girl walking in, not only playing her own piece, but asking him if he'd like to see a score.

"That was a bit unsettling at first, but when I finished, he stood up and said, 'Bravo, bravo,' and I could see that whatever skepticism there was before, things had moved to a different plane of interaction. It was a beautiful experience." The show, an enormous success, helped launch Ran in her piano concertizing career. "But composing was still my first love," she says.

Ran continued to compose, and a piece of hers about the holocaust, All the Chimneys, found its way onto a Vox/Turnabout recording as the flip side of a piece, "as luck would have it," she says, by an established composer, George Rochberg. That recording caught the attention of Ralph Shapey, who was trying to fill a new composition post at the University of Chicago. Shapey has said that he was so impressed with the piece that he threw the record onto the desk of the department chairman and said, "There is our composer."

Ran remembers returning from a concert tour in 1973 and finding a letter from the U. of C. "buried under the mountain of mail that comes from a long absence. I had never been to Chicago, and knew no one there, so the letter seemed very strange," she admits.

"That first day back, while I was still very jet-lagged, I got a phone call from the department chairman, and soon afterwards from Ralph Shapey, who talked to me for an hour, trying to convince me to come to Chicago. I was still not persuaded; I was so tired and it was all so strange, I didn't know what he was talking about. So I let him go on, but then forgot about it. It was only a couple of days later, after it had all seemed like a dream, I finally thought, 'Wait a minute. Did I just pass up a great opportunity here?' So I called back and agreed to come to Chicago for an interview. There was an instantaneous meeting of the minds, I was offered the job, and I have been here ever since. It was a leap of faith for them, and a strange coincidence for me."

One of the attractions for Ran was the resident Contemporary Chamber Players at the university, which gave her an opportunity to compose for chamber ensemble and hear her music: "There is no substitute for that kind of laboratory for the development of a composer." As for teaching composition, although she now knows that not everyone hears melodies when reading verse, she helps her students to identify and develop their own individual voices: "You can't teach how to create a spark, only how to respond to it--how to develop your inventiveness and how to manipulate materials."

But it is still her own composing that gives Ran her greatest pleasure, and her reputation as a composer is growing. Last year her Concerto for Orchestra was performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the CSO has commissioned a piece from her for its centennial next year. She is also working on her First Symphony, a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition, she speaks of a deep interest in writing an opera one day, saying, "The human voice is our most beautiful instrument of all."

"One of my principal aims," she says, "is to write music that challenges the mind and the heart in equal measure. So much music today is one-dimensional, but I like music that communicates on many levels--cerebral, yet it touches within us a common sense of what it means to be human."

Ran's latest work can be heard as part of a very unusual concert this week: her Second String Quartet, Vistas, will receive its world premiere from Leningrad's renowned Taneyev String Quartet in an exclusive North American concert. "The concert and the commission are the brainstorms of impresario Geraldine Freund, and it is her contribution to the glasnost spirit," says Ran. "I thought it was a splendid opportunity to make a musical statement as the iron curtain seems to literally be lifting before our very eyes. I heard the group last year at Fullerton Hall, and I nearly leapt to the ceiling, they were so exciting. They dig into music with total immersion, and it is a wonderful privilege to be writing something for them. I did write a First Quartet in 1984 for the Mendelssohn Quartet, but I have always approached the quartet with such great trepidation--it's such a naked form, with an unbelievable weight of history to it."

The Taneyev String Quartet, which includes violinists Vladimir Ovcharika and Aleksandr Stang, violist Vladimir Stopichev, and cellist Josif Levinson, will also be offering the North American premiere of little-known Russian composer Sergei Taneyev's Quartet no. 6, as well as Prokofiev's Quartet no. 1. The program, which is cosponsored by the U. of C. music department and Geraldine Freund, will take place Friday at 8, in Mandel Hall, 57th and University. Call 702-8068 for further information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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