MOVING FROM Long Island to Palm Beach County, Fla., when he was nine was a source of culture shock for Richard Danielpour. "Black people were called Negroes down there," recalls Danielpour, 51, now an acclaimed composer and faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music. Danielpour got a job as a spring training batboy for the Braves, hoping the sport would be an escape from racial tension. "Being Persian and Jewish," he says, "I felt closer to some of the black athletes I met than some of the white kids at school."
But brotherhood wasn't always the rule in baseball. Now, 40 years later, Danielpour explores the game's racial struggle in his symphony Pastime. The piece, which premiered to strong reviews at the Pittsburgh Symphony in January and will begin a run at the Atlanta Symphony on May 31, features lyrics by poet Michael Harper about Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron.
Pastime was hatched in 2004, when Danielpour and Harper were at Yaddo, an artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Danielpour had read Blackjack, Harper's poem about Robinson, and told the poet that if he had more baseball verses, he'd set them to music. A week later Harper came back with several more poems, and Danielpour produced a score influenced by jazz, which he calls "the [one] cultural commodity aside from baseball not inherited from Europe."
The music and lyrics are often elegiac, touching on the opportunities denied Negro leagues slugger Gibson and the sacrifices that Robinson made. The lyrics give way to The Star-Spangled Banner before that drowns in a cacophony of strings and winds. It's a musical suggestion that, though America and its pastime have come a long way, home plate is still in the distance.
The piece also celebrates Aaron, who made an impression on Danielpour during the composer's batboy days and is expected to attend an Atlanta performance. Danielpour remembers Aaron as a clubhouse monument who counseled him on the importance of dressing neatly, making sure he shined his shoes and buttoned his top button. "He was a powerful presence," says Danielpour. " Aaron's energy was contained, grounded. He was a model warrior in many ways."