Composer Shulamit Ran stands tall among a class of towering talents

Of her work "Chicago Skyline," Shulamit Ran says, “I still remember the shock of excitement I had the first time when I arrived in Chicago from O’Hare, [riding] in a cab through the city and seeing this great skyline that opened for me."

Valerie Booth

Shulamit Ran was not looking for a job, so the then-rising New York composer was completely taken by surprise when she got a call in 1973 from the University of Chicago, offering her a faculty position. It took a little persuasion, but she decided to take a chance and move across country to a city she didn’t know.

Ran has never regretted the decision, fending off offers from elsewhere and staying at the institution for 42 years. “Chicago surprised me,” she said. “It’s a great, great city.”

She has gone on to become a pillar of the Windy City’s classical scene as a composer, teacher and tireless advocate for new music, including seven years as the second composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Augusta Read Thomas, another well-known Chicago composer and Ran’s immediate successor in residence with the CSO, has always looked up to her. “For me, Shulamit is a Chicago icon. A fantastic composer,” she said. “She’s beloved by the musicians of the city, by the composers of the city. She’s a real superstar.”

Ran, 73, has gained international fame for her wide swath of solo, chamber, orchestral, choral and operatic works, winning in 1991 the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the ultimate imprimatur of compositional excellence in the United States. Although she is less widely known than Wynton Marsalis or John Adams, other contemporary Pulitzer winners, Arthur Fagen, who conducted the premieres of both her operas, believes “her writing has lasting significance.”

Ran’s music was first featured at Ravinia Festival by Chicago Pro Musica in 1991, presenting her Concerto da Camera II (1987); the following summer, she was invited to host a chamber program of works by women composers. Ran returned in 2014 as composer-in-residence at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, working with its fellows to prepare a performance of her string sextet Lyre of Orpheus (2008). At the top of the CSO’s concert on July 15, her larger-scale music receives its first airing at Ravinia, with the orchestra returning to a selection that it premiered in 1991.

Marin Alsop, Ravinia’s chief conductor, wanted a short work to open the evening, and Ran suggested Chicago Skyline. The 5-6 minute fanfare for brass and percussion was commissioned by WFMT-FM to mark its 40th anniversary. As inspiration, the composer chose to focus on the city’s spectacular skyline, a portion of which she could see from her East Randolph Street apartment that overlooks what is now Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue. “I still remember the shock of excitement I had the first time when I arrived in Chicago from O’Hare, [riding] in a cab through the city and seeing this great skyline that opened for me,” she said.

Ran served as composer-in-residence at the CSO from 1990 through 1997, a considerably longer tenure than what are now typically two- or three-year appointments. The previous composer-in-residence, John Corigliano, introduced Ran’s Concerto for Orchestra (1986) to Daniel Barenboim, who would become the CSO’s music director in 1991. He agreed to conduct it in 1988, performances that helped lead to her residency.

In addition to getting some of her works performed, she served as an advocate for contemporary music and uncovered new music that she thought was significant and that meshed well with Barenboim’s taste and temperament. “It was a remarkable opportunity,” she said, “to hear as much music as I wanted, played at the highest possible level and get to know the musicians and have this sense of camaraderie and collaborative spirit.”

During the last three years of her residency, she also held the same position at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she was tasked with writing a new work for the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists (now the Ryan Opera Center), the company’s professional training program. The result was Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk), inspired by a wandering, disembodied spirit from Jewish folklore that implants itself in a living person. After the premiere in 1997, the opera was revived three years later in Bielefeld, Germany, but not since. An impediment to further performances, which Ran is eager to see happen, has been the lack of a proper recording or video of the work.

In March, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music presented the world premiere of Anne Frank, Ran’s second opera and arguably one of her most important accomplishments. The idea for the work, the first large-scale opera based on Frank’s account of her family’s harrowing attempt to elude the Nazis during the Holocaust, came from Dennis Hanthorn, general director of Atlanta Opera from 2004 through 2012 (and also Milwaukee's Florentine Opera for 15 years before). He had seen Between Two Worlds and thought she would be ideal for the project. Ran jumped at the chance, joining forces with her previous librettist, Charles Kondek, to create what became a 2½-hour opera with nine principals and a large choir and orchestra.

By the time the long process to secure the rights to the story from the Anne Frank Foundation was completed, Hanthorn had left his position and Atlanta Opera was no longer interested. Fagen, the company’s music director, stepped in and brought the opera to Indiana University, where he serves as co-chair of the department of orchestral conducting.

“I never have the feeling with Shulamit Ran, which I do with many other composers, that she superimposes a particular style or particular language onto her composition,” Fagen said. “Anne Frank inspired her to write in a certain way. It’s all motivated from inside rather than coming from outside. I find that her writing has tremendous humanity, and she is in command of such a variety of styles and the use of the orchestra that she is able to adjust to whatever the situation is in a way that is very rare.”

Thomas, a U. of C. professor whose preludial Sun Dance will be performed by the CSO on Aug. 5 at Ravinia, cites several qualities that run through Ran’s work, starting with its natural, overt musicality. “You can hear her singing those notes or playing them at the piano, and I really admire that about it.” Second, Thomas called Ran a masterful colorist, who capitalizes on the intrinsic sound and character of each instrument.

Third, Ran’s music often contains folk elements, which Thomas called “Hebrew twists of phrase.” “It’s like a thumbprint,” she said. One work that encapsulates all these elements is Grand Rounds (2018) for 13 players, which was commissioned by the U. of C’.s Center for Contemporary Composition. “It’s just right there,” Thomas said.

As for what will be Ran’s musical legacy, Thomas believes it’s too soon to know. “It’s very hard to analyze a composer’s standing, because history takes time,” she said. “But over the long run, when there is a body of work that has substantial meaning, emotion, craft, eloquence and personality, those pieces survive. They go on.

“People find them and continue to come back to them. I believe her work has already had that kind of ripple effect and will continue to for centuries.”

This is an excerpt of an article published in Ravinia magazine. Click here to read the full version.