BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
Like the Academy Award for movie actors or Pritzker Prize for architects, the Pulitzer Prize for Music reigns as the most distinguished accolade available to American composers.
First bestowed in 1943, it annually honors the best musical work premiered during the previous year. Among its winners, which have included such well-known names as John Adams, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Gian-Carlo Menotti and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, is Chicago-based composer Shulamit Ran, who received the prize in 1991.
TRIBUTE TO COMPOSER SHULAMIT RAN When: April 13, University of Chicago, Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th — 2:45-4:15 p.m., Film Screening Room 201. Panel discussion on university new-music groups and documentary screening, Inside New Music: The University of Chicago’s Contempo Celebrates Fifty Years — 4:15-5:45 p.m., Performance Penthouse, Room 901. Reception — 6-7 p.m., Performance Hall. Concert featuring Mirage (eighth blackbird), Glittler, Doom Shards, Memory (Pacifica Quartet) and Shirim L’Yom Tov (Four Festive Songs) (University Motet Choir) Admission: Free Info: (773) 702-2787; chicagopresents.uchicago.edu
“It is, of course, a major, major honor,” Ran, 65, said, “because it’s a peer-selected award and because you are in a way joining a club of composers that are very, very special, many of whom I admire greatly.”
After 42 years as a member of the music faculty at the University of Chicago and 13 years as artistic director of Contempo, the school’s nationally known new-music collective, the Pulitzer laureate is retiring in June.
To mark this milestone, the university will pay tribute to her with a series of events on April 13, including a free one-hour concert of her music at 6 p.m. in the Performance Hall at the Logan Center for the Arts.
“It’s huge, huge loss for the program, for the university and for me personally as a close friend,” said Augusta Read Thomas, a professor of composition at the University of Chicago. “Although I’ll see her all the time socially, it will be different. But I’m happy for her. It’s a new chapter.”
Ran, who grew up in Israel and returns there regularly, is perhaps best known for her Jewish-themed compositions, such as “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3” (2012-13), which pays tribute to Felix Nussbaum and all the artists killed during the Holocaust.
“As in several other works composed since 1969,” she wrote in program notes for the work, “this is my way of saying ‘do not forget,’ something that, I believe, can be done through music with special power and poignancy.”
While serving as Lyric Opera of Chicago’s composer-in-residence in 1994-97, she wrote her only opera, “Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk),” based on S. Ansky’s famous play, titled “The Dybbuk,” which she saw as a young girl in Israel. It received a second production in 1999 at the Bielefeld Opera in Germany, but it has not been revived since – a great disappointment to the composer.
“That is a work I am very connected with and proud of,” Ran said. “I write music first of all to satisfy my needs as a creator, my demands, what it is I want to hear in the music, and I will spare no effort to make it just so. But how wonderful it is when you do that and then you also get a response from listeners, and in the case of the opera, it was deeply rewarding the kind of response I got for a long time after it was performed.”
Among her other key works are Symphony (1989-90), which won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as “O the Chimneys” for Female Voice and Ensemble (1969), “East Wind” for Flute (1987), String Quartet No. 2, “Vistas” (1989) and “Mirage” for Five Players (1990).
“Her music is like her,” Thomas said. “It’s very kind. It’s extremely generous. It’s emotional and heartfelt and passionate, and that’s exactly also how I would describe her.”
Ran was not looking for a teaching job and she had never given any thought to living in Chicago when the University of Chicago approached her about an opening in its music department. Ralph Shapey, an internationally known composer on the faculty at the time, had heard a recording of “O the Chimneys” and strongly recommended her for the post. He later became what she called a “major person” in her life.
She was ambivalent at first but a few days later called back and agreed to be interviewed. She won the appointment – a daunting challenge for a composer who was just 26 years old. “It was, but you jump in,” she said. “In a sense, the most important lesson was to bring forth my love for what I was doing.”
Although Ran will no longer be teaching, she plans to keep Chicago as her home base and to be even more active as a composer, though she does hope she’ll have more time for trips back to her native Israel.
“I’m retiring from an aspect of my work,” she said, “one that has been extremely important and meaningful, but the core of my work will always be composition, and I’m not retiring from that. Quite to the contrary.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.