Music Preview: Symphony celebrates Gibson, Robinson, Aaron

Work shines spotlight on baseball's struggles with race

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Courtesy of Richard Danielpour
Composer Richard Danielpour had his picture taken with Hank Aaron when he was a batboy for the Atlanta Braves.

By Bob Hoover
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

From the bleachers at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field in 1947 to a 1963 civil rights protest in Pasadena, Calif., the lives of two African-American men intersect.

Mike Minehan
Richard Danielpour
Click photo for larger image.
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Composer Richard Danielpour talks about his love for baseball and his past as a ballboy for the Atlanta Braves.

Danielpour discusses how his new work "Pastime" celebrates the role of race relations in baseball in the 60s in its portrait of Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron.


Michael Harper was a 9-year-old Brooklyn kid "allowed" by his father, a longtime New York Giants fan, to watch the Dodgers because Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball that year.

"We all pulled for Robinson no matter what team we rooted for, and my father knew I needed a hero," said Harper, who was introduced to baseball through Negro League games in Newark, N.J., before Robinson.

Sixteen years later, Harper was teaching English at Pasadena City College when the retired ballplayer led a march there against the city's policy of barring black women from being candidates for the Rose Bowl Queen. (Robinson had attended the college before moving on to the University of California at Los Angeles.)

At the same time, civil rights protests in Birmingham, Ala., had been marked by violence.

From these personal connections and memories came Harper's poem "BLACKJACK," the inspiration for composer Richard Danielpour's new work, "Pastime," which will be premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Saturday.

"Pastime" was originally scheduled to debut last summer, when it was to be part of a "Musical Doubleheader" to coincide with the festivities surrounding the Major League All-Star Game, being played at PNC Park. A Brian McKnight concert was to be the other half of that concert, but when McKnight couldn't attend, the PSO was forced to postpone its All-Star Game tribute.

Now, Danielpour finally gets to step up to the plate.

He has set "BLACKJACK" and four other Harper baseball poems to music, including one about Pittsburgh's Josh Gibson, the Negro League Hall of Famer.

"The title is obviously the national pastime," said Danielpour, "but also that I am writing about ballplayers who are part of history, part of our past and then lastly because when the African-American ballplayer emerged on the scene, it was damn well past time!"

   
Pittsburgh Symphony

Daniel Meyer, conductor
Nmon Ford, narrator.
Concert: Danielpour's "Pastime," Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture, Still's Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American" and more.
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $5-$25; 412-392-4900.
Related article: Poem inspired 'Pastime'

   

Danielpour met Harper, writing professor at Brown University, at an artists' colony in 1987 and the two stayed in touch. Two years ago, he urged Harper to write more about the game.

"These poems were done because Danielpour was looking over my shoulder," Harper said. "It's a very complicated story. We were two artists who saw each other at breakfast and dinner. The subject was not on my radar at the time, but I worked on them."

Harper's poetry, starting with his first collection, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, is influenced by American jazz.

"One of the things I was aware of with Michael Harper's poems was that he writes in a style that is not unlike how jazz composers riff," said Danielpour.

"It is almost as if his poetry reads like be-bop. Because I could hear that in the rhythm of his poetry, in the banter of that style, I found myself drawing from various jazz idioms that spanned the century."

He added, "There is a kind of relationship between baseball and jazz."

Both poet and composer played baseball in high school, Harper at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, facing such future stars as pitcher Don Drysdale, and Danielpour as a pitcher in Florida, where he met major leaguers in spring training.

Both see baseball as a significant element in America's racial history, but in different ways. Danielpour views the game as signifying the evolution of civil rights.

"This choice of three ball players [for the poems], Josh Gibson, who ... never made it to the big leagues, Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron, really comprise a mosaic of snapshots that give one a sense of the evolution of the civil rights movement in America as seen through baseball," said Danielpour.

Harper, though, takes a cynical view -- minorities were allowed to play when the sports establishment realized the economic benefits.

His poem, "Josh Gibson, Master of American Past," contains the lines:

"When competition money demographics reigned the best cashed in"

"Gibson is a metaphor of possibility for all denied an opportunity," Harper added. "He's iconic because he was greater than [Babe] Ruth and hit more home runs and died early of an aneurysm ... and knew he was being passed over."

Framing Harper's player poems are "Baseball (Orb)," the prologue, and "Baseball," the epilogue. Danielpour explained the structure:

"This is in a way a quasi-dramatic work. It is a story being told without one realizing that the story is being told. Five movements. There is a prologue and epilogue, equivalents of mosaics about the game itself. In the middle are the portraits of Gibson, Robinson and Aaron."

Commissioning "Pastime" were the PSO, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod contributed to this article. Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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