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Musicians Honor Daniel Pearl's Life

An original composition using the slain journalist's articles is performed in his hometown of Encino at Valley Beth Shalom on Tuesday as part of a series of concerts worldwide promoting harmony.

It was February 1, 2002, when 38-year-old Daniel Pearl looked into the camera of his captors and spoke his last words.

My name is Daniel Pearl. I am a Jewish American from Encino, California USA...My father's Jewish, my mother's Jewish, I'm Jewish

Pearl, The Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief, was on his way to interview a Muslim fundamentalist leader when he was captured and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan. His abductors brutally ended the life of a passionate journalist, a gifted musician and a loving man.

Yes, we know Daniel Pearl because of how he died as a valiant reporter, but his true legacy is in how he lived—through music, through family and through Judaism.

In honor of their son, Judea and Ruth Pearl established the Daniel Pearl Foundation and World Music Days in 2002, aiming to counter the hatred and intolerance that took his life. World Music Days is an international network of concerts in October striving to reaffirm a commitment to tolerance and humanity.

The 2010 World Music Days coincides with what would have been Pearl's 47th birthday on Oct. 10. This year, more than 1,000 concerts in the United States, 34 in Israel, 27 in Malaysia, 17 in China, one in Iceland and performances in Muslim countries will dedicate their music to the theme of harmony for humanity.

On Tuesday night, the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles and Valley Beth Shalom presented "Stories From My Favorite Planet," a musical tribute to Pearl in his hometown of Encino. Composer Russell Steinberg and Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Mitchell Newman collaborated on the original piece, which premiered in October 2003.

The Genesis

It was 11 p.m. when Steinberg called Daniel Pearl's father, Judea. He said he was a composer and would like to meet with him. Without delay, Judea told him to head over.

Late that night in 2003, Steinberg arrived at the Pearls' Encino home with his proposition for a music piece: five of Danny's newspaper articles to evoke the journey of his career, each accompanied by music to provide an emotional context.

"I had no idea what to expect from this young composer who just called and dropped in," Pearl's soft-spoken mother, Ruth, said. "By the end of the evening, we decided that we were going to go for it."

"We laughed the whole time," said Steinberg thinking back on that night. "So I said if I was going to write a piece it couldn't be a downer. This was about a person who just celebrated life to the tips of his toes and I wanted to incorporate some of that humor."

Ruth then called Newman, whose wife dated Danny in high school, to see if he'd be the violinist for the piece. "Right then, we had a done deal all wrapped up in one visit," she said.

The Pearls sent Steinberg home with a copy of At Home in the World: Collected Writings from The Wall Street Journal, a book of their son's writings. He read through more than 200 of Pearl's articles and was struck by the quirkiness and humor weaved throughout his writing.

"I had already known that both of us grew up in Encino and attended Birmingham High School," Steinberg said. "What I didn't know was that Danny himself was an accomplished violinist and that his passion to play music helped him establish networks of friends wherever he went."

Pearl was a classically trained violinist, a fiddler and a mandolin player. When he lived in Washington, D.C., he jammed around the bars in Adams-Morgan. When his career took him to India, he played regularly with local bands in Mumbai café-bars. Pearl carried an instrument with him wherever he went, until his assignment in Pakistan and his tragic death.

With each performance, Steinberg and Newman bring Pearl's spirit back to life, reflecting the warmth and appreciation he had for the world around him. "Stories From My Favorite Planet" is full of humor and irony, poetry and sadness.

"It's a different slice of the new music pie than we play at the Philharmonic or Disney Hall," Newman said. "Danny's words are as great a piece of music as anything."

"Stories From My Favorite Planet"

Steinberg read each of Pearl's articles, and with Ruth and Judea's permission, edited five of them for length. The stories he chose illustrate the diversity in Pearl's writing style. One minute he makes you laugh, and the next he sends chills down your spine. With a pen and piano Steinberg began composing an equally riveting arrangement.

Throughout the 45-minute composition, Steinberg and Newman alternate between reading Pearl's articles aloud and playing the corresponding music. "Stories From My Favorite Planet" begins with Pearl's hilarious indictment against the bureaucracy of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The music, playful and skittish, reflects the bureaucratic red tape Pearl describes.

"Next is a powerful story set in Kosovo where Pearl tries to discover if any Serb and Albanian friendships still remain amidst war," Steinberg said. Pearl's article titled "Search for Mercy Ends in Tears on Quiet Kosovo Street" is dovetailed with a melancholy violin and piano duet. 

The piece then moves to one of Pearl's most humorous articles about a stolen Stradivarius violin. Steinberg and Newman capture Pearl's brilliant sarcasm with a tango oeuvre.

The mood quickly turns as Steinberg reads one of Pearl's darkest stories concerning Osama bin Laden's gem smuggling trade in Africa. Here Pearl discovers how passionately Islamic fundamentalists want to kill Americans, eerily foreshadowing his own fate. The vigorous musical tarantella flawlessly reflects the piece. 

The audience is finally faced with Pearl's tragic murder. His obituary is read aloud, followed by a musical elegy.

"There was no way I was going to end this piece on a depressed note," Steinberg said. "Danny Pearl's wit would not stand for it!"

The piece comes full circle with a sequel to the first article in which Pearl gloats that he has outlasted the last chief of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Pearl's words bring a smile to the audience, as the music echoes his energetic spirit.

With a standing ovation, the audience applauded Steinberg, Newman and the late Daniel Pearl.

From Strangers to Family

After eight years of performing "Stories From My Favorite Planet" in Pearl's honor, Newman and Steinberg have grown close to Pearl's parents. What started as a vision late one night became an unforgettable musical tribute.

Ruth attended the event at Valley Beth Shalom, embracing the men with a hug and an approving, "thank you, thank you so much."

Judea could not attend because he had a prior commitment in Michigan, but he was the one who came up with the title, "Stories From My Favorite Planet." Ruth spoke at the concert for the both of them.

"Your music will serve a purpose for it will blend with the sounds of hundreds perhaps thousands of concerts around the world this month begging the earth for sanity and humanity," she said. "Your music today will resonate in defiance over the forces of hatred that took our son's life. And it will reinforce our unshaken conviction that at the end of the day music will triumph and humanity will prevail. United, we are making a difference."

"Danny traveled the world with a pen and a fiddle, connecting people through words and music," Ruth continued. "Today he is watching your stage and hundreds like it with a smile and wonder of the global symphony that his journey has inspired. His fiddle was not silenced."

For more information, visit the Daniel Pearl Foundation website. Audio CDs of "Stories From My Favorite Planet" are available  there. 

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