Jewish Journal

Pearl’s Life, Articles Inspire Jam Session

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Oct. 2, 2003 at 8:00 pm

The idea for the Daniel Pearl Music Day began about six months after terrorists murdered the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan last year.

When his decapitated body was discovered in a shallow grave in Karachi, his family was finally able to bury him at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries in August 2002. But after the funeral, they faced another unpleasant milestone: commemorating what would have been Pearl's 39th birthday on Oct. 10.

"We dreaded it," said his father, Judea Pearl, a UCLA computer science professor. "We didn't know how we would cope."

Enter Pearl's old Paris neighbor, conductor George Pehlivanian, who described how he had dedicated an Israel Philharmonic concert to the slain journalist. The family began considering a birthday concert for Daniel, who had been an avid violinist, fiddler and mandolin player.

"Danny's sister, Michelle, asked, 'What would Danny have liked for his birthday?" his father said. "And the answer came naturally; he would have liked a jam session with all his friends. And where were all his friends? They were all over the world. So we began making phone calls."

The result was the first Daniel Pearl Music Day, an international series of concerts intended to promote world peace in his memory. Organized around his birthday, the festival reprises this year with more than 120 concerts in at least 20 countries, including Muslim states such as Pakistan. An honorary committee includes Barbra Streisand, Ravi Shankar, Zubin Mehta and Elton John, who appears in a TV spot promoting the event.

"The message of tolerance symbolizes Danny's victory over his killers, and over the ideology of hatred that brought about his death," Judea Pearl said.

In Southern California, approximately 10 programs will commemorate the late journalist; they include a performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, an American Youth Symphony concert and the premiere of Russell Steinberg's "Stories From My Favorite Planet," inspired by Pearl's life.

The Daniel Pearl Foundation commissioned the 45-minute piece after a friend of Steinberg's, on a hunch, suggested he telephone the journalist's parents last spring.

"I think they were wary at first because they thought I was a reporter," said the conductor-pianist-composer, founder of the Stephen S. Wise Music Academy.

They relaxed when they learned Harvard-educated Steinberg, 44, was in fact a musician; like Daniel Pearl, he attended Birmingham High and studied classical music as a child in Encino.

During a meeting at their home, Judea and Ruth Pearl regaled the composer with poignant and hilarious stories about their son, who was known for his quirky, insightful journalism. Steinberg especially liked the one about how Pearl secured a Los Angeles assignment about a Stradivarius violin that fell off a car (while based back East, he argued the piece should be his because he covered transportation).

His parents gave the composer a copy of Pearl's "At Home in the World: Collected Stories From the Wall Street Journal," which inspired Steinberg's composition. "I was fascinated by how this Valley boy, through his curiosity and journalistic excellence, propelled himself into the nexus of world politics," he said. "Because I wanted to write about Danny's life, not his death, I realized his words were key."

In his ensuing violin-and-piano piece, music accompanies excerpts from five articles evoking Pearl's journey, enacted by a reader. A goofy tango sets up the outlandish Stradivarius story; a madcap tarantella precedes an eerily prophetic piece about Osama bin Laden's gem smuggling trade, which describes the call to kill Americans. Immediately after that excerpt, the tango returns in a minor key, sounding ghostlike and haunting.

"It's the only time the music becomes mournful, because I want people to come away knowing who Danny was, not just what happened to him," Steinberg said.

Pearl's parents, who have been too grief-stricken to erect his tombstone, appreciate the uplifting approach.

"The piece isn't a eulogy," Judea Pearl said. "It captures Daniel's character, his humor, his quirkiness, his optimism and his humanity.... Through the music day, we're hoping to use his unique spirit as an initiative for tikkun olam, repairing the world."

"Stories From My Favorite Planet," performed by pianist Russell Steinberg, Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Mitchell Newman and reader Mark Totty, will debut Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Milken Community High School, followed by performances Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at Brand Library in Glendale and Nov. 9, 7 p.m. at Pierson Playhouse in Pacific Palisades. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-3500, ext. 3344. The program will also include excerpts from Steinberg's new CD of solo piano and classical guitar music, "Desert Stars."

For more information about the Daniel Pearl Music Day, launched by the Daniel Pearl Foundation, visit www.danielpearl.org .

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