When she was a little girl, Shulamit Ran always made up tunes to go with words.
"I cannot remember a time when I wasn't a composer," Ran says. "I was always inventing tunes -- I would read rhymes and have to sing them. I always assumed that anyone reading words would attach a melody to them."
Ran, 44, is this year's Randolph S. Rothschild Visiting Professor of Composition at the Peabody Conservatory. In 1992, Ran, the composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony and professor of music at the University of Chicago, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Friedheim Prize of the Kennedy Center -- two of the most prestigious awards for composition.
She was only the second woman to win a Pulitzer in composition, but she's the first woman to be receive a Rothschild visiting professorship -- she'll be working with Peabody student composers this week -- and the first Rothschild professor to be honored with a concert of her music.
The concert, which will take place tonight at 8:15 in Friedberg Hall, is being given because of her connections with the performers, who will include the Peabody Trio, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and pianist Mark Markham -- all of whom have been the composer's consistent champions.
"I have had wonderful associations with the Peabody Trio," says the composer, whose Israeli origins are betrayed by her accent. "They have played my 'Excursions' [for piano, violin and cello] repeatedly. And Phyllis and Mark have been marvelous interpreters of my music. To have such players perform your music is everything a composer hopes for."
Even before winning the Pulitzer and Friedheim prizes, Ran's chamber music pieces and large-scale symphonic works identified her as a composer to watch and to listen to.
Pieces by Ran, a superb pianist, show a professional's knowledge of what an instrument can and cannot do. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning symphony, for example, opens with a French horn solo of almost Mahlerian radiance; it maintains its majestic sweep through spectacular turns by all elements of the orchestra.
Ran develops her ideas without repeating herself. The themes of the symphony (as in most of her works) are tautly argued; one never feels the 35-minute piece a minute too long. One hearing is enough to make you want to hear it again; repeated hearings make you appreciate it more.
While the symphony is a monumental piece, other Ran works show her capable of creating playful miniatures. Her "Mirages" for flute, violin, cello, clarinet and piano, for example, uses an ever-changing collection of pitches that sound like a hierarchical series of notes, which suggest the Middle Eastern modes of her native country.
Ran's parents were born in Germany and in Lithuania and emigrated to what was then British Palestine before the outbreak of World War II.
"It was a move that spelled the possibility of life instead of the almost certainty of death," says Ran of her parents' decision to live in Israel.
She achieved fame in Israel early. When she was only eight, she heard a nationwide broadcast of some of her music -- songs for children's chorus. "That was the moment when I knew that this [composing] was what I wanted to do."
Like other talented Israeli children, such as the violinist Itzhak Perlman or the pianist Yefim Bronfman, Ran was regularly trotted out for visiting American musicians to hear. When she was 14, she left for the Mannes College of Music in New York to study piano with Nadia Reisenberg and composition with Norman Dello Joio. Success was almost immediate. As a 14-year-old, she appeared as piano soloist in one of her own compositions on a nationally televised New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
That success has been rarely interrupted -- though her life has had its trials. Seven years ago, she had to undergo an operation to remove a large, life-threatening tumor at the base of her skull. More than a year passed before she was able to work again.
"All is well that ends well," says Ran, who has since given birth to two sons, now 2 1/2 years and 8 months old. "Enough good things happen of their own accord."
One of those good things was her appointment last week as composer-in-residence to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This means, says the one-time little girl who believed that words should have melodies to go with them, "that I will at last write an opera."
The residency, which will begin next year, involves observing opera rehearsals, thus "learning in the process of doing."
She already has a subject for her first opera -- the Yiddish myth of the dybbuk, in which a spirit from the world of the dead inhabits the body of a young girl.
"It's a terrifyingly wonderful story," Ran says. "It sends a chill right up your spine."
What: A performance of the works of composer Shulamit Ran
Who: Peabody Trio, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, pianist Mark Markham
Where: Friedberg Hall, Peabody Conservatory, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place
When: Tonight at 8:15
Call: (410) 659-8124