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Jewish Journal

A Song for Daniel

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 26, 2002 | 8:00 pm

The call from Grant Gershon, the conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, stunned Sharon Farber.

Last month, Farber, an Israeli-born composer, mailed Gershon her piece, "Mother's Lament," inspired by the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Farber -- who had worked with Pearl's father, Judea, at the L.A. Shir Choir -- said she wrote the dark piece "to cry out my emotions after Daniel's death."

Yet she wasn't expecting a response when she put the score in the mail on a Thursday afternoon several weeks ago. She knew the chorale rarely programmed unsolicited music. But by Sunday night, there was a message from Gershon on her answering machine. "He said he found the piece compelling and that he wanted to program it as soon as possible," Farber said.

On Sept. 29, 11 days before Pearl's 39th birthday, the chorale will present the world premiere of "Mother's Lament" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The six-minute work -- based on a Hebrew poem by the late Israeli poet Nathan Alterman -- is part of a concert launching the choir's 39th season.

Farber, a 29-year-old film and TV composer, says she first heard Alterman's haunting poem during Israeli Memorial Day commemorations when she was a girl. She had long hoped to set it to music and had just started in January when Judea Pearl asked her to replace him as Shir's conductor (she had worked closely with him as the group's principal arranger). A few days later, the news came through the choir grapevine: Judea's only son, Daniel, had disappeared in Karachi, Pakistan, while working on a story about Islamic radicals.

Suddenly, the 28-line poem -- about mothers lamenting dead or missing sons -- seemed eerily relevant. While Farber had never met Daniel Pearl, she says she immediately knew she wanted to dedicate the piece to his parents, Judea and Ruth.

"I wrote half of it in a couple of days, but then I had writer's block and I couldn't continue," she recalled. "Maybe I was stuck because we didn't know whether Daniel was dead or alive. When I heard the news he was dead, it was horrible, shocking, but it somehow released something in me, and I quickly finished the piece. I wrote it a cappella -- for voices only -- because the human voice is so powerful."

Farber recorded her composition and sent it to Judea, who told her he wasn't ready to listen to the piece. It was only six weeks after the U.S. Embassy in Karachi had obtained a videotape showing Daniel's execution: "I needed some time to settle things in my mind," Pearl, a UCLA computer science professor, told The Journal.

When the Israeli-born professor was finally able to listen to the piece, he said he played it 17 times in a row. "It was a very intense experience," he said. He especially identified with the final stanza, in which a mother wonders if her son is perhaps "only resting. Perhaps in foreign places."

"The last verse was something very much connected to our minds at the time, when we didn't know exactly what had happened to Danny or where his body was," Pearl said. "I always end up with tears in my eyes when I hear the last two lines of the poem."

Gershon also strongly responded to the piece. "It's rare for me to receive an unsolicited score and be so moved by it," he told The Journal. "But I found Sharon's piece to be beautifully written and I knew immediately that I wanted to program it; it was just a matter of when. You see, our series brochure had already been mailed in April, and I generally program a season a year and a half in advance."

The next morning, the conductor chanced to hear Judea Pearl interviewed on National Public Radio. "It was a strange synchronicity," he said. "Judea was saying that Daniel Pearl was himself an accomplished violinist who passionately believed that music was our best hope to break down barriers between people. When I heard that with Sharon's piece so wonderfully in my thoughts, I became quite committed to programming it at the earliest possible opportunity."

As it so happens, "Mother's Lament" will debut a week and a half before the Oct. 10 international music day in Pearl's memory, organized by the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Judea Pearl says he and Ruth will attend the chorale concert, although Farber's work is different than most scheduled by the foundation. "It's such a tragic piece, and what we're trying to do through the music day and the foundation is to impart hope through music, because Danny was a bridge builder and we're trying to emphasize that part of his life," Pearl said. "But I'm extremely moved that Sharon took the initiative to write the piece based on her own feelings." He paused, then added, "I just hope I can sit through it without crying."

For information about the chorale concert, call (213) 972-7282. For information about the Foundation concerts, including a folk music festival by the California Traditional Music Society Oct. 6, visit www.danielpearl.org .

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