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Orchestra Iowa premieres 'American Gothic'
Composer Michael Daugherty and violinist Luke Witchger rip through the virtuoso orchestral bluegrass of "Pitchfork," the final movement of "American Gothic," during an Art Bites preview at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art at noon Wednesday (5/1/13). Orchestra Iowa commissioned Daugherty's 20-minute sonic homage to Grant Wood and Eastern Iowa, and will stage the work's world premiere Saturday in Cedar Rapids and Sunday in Iowa City.
CEDAR RAPIDS -- Orchestra Iowa's homecoming season comes full circle this weekend, with the return of Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty.
The Cedar Rapids native will be in the audience Saturday night (5/4/13) when Orchestra Iowa unveils his "American Gothic." The commissioned work is a 20-minute homage to Eastern Iowa's most famous artist, Grant Wood.
"The whole point of this concert is to bring back one of Cedar Rapids' most cherished musicians and to create a work of art that would be particularly meaningful to Iowans," says Maestro Timothy Hankewich, the orchestra's music director.
Orchestra Iowa presents “American Gothic"
Cedar Rapids: Saturday (5/4), 7:30 p.m., Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE; Insight program, 6:45 p.m., Encore Lounge
Iowa City: Sunday (5/5), 2:30 p.m., West High School, 2901 Melrose Ave.; Insight program, 1:30 p.m., auditorium
Tickets: $20 to $50, Orchestra Iowa Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Orchestraiowa.org
Ottumwa: May 12, 3 p.m., Bridge View Center, 102 Church St., no tickets required
Program: Sergei Rachmaninoff, “The Rock”; Michael Daugherty, “American Gothic” world premiere; Antonin Dvorak, Symphony No. 7 in D minor
Daugherty, 59, a professor of composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was a natural choice for the commission.
"He is one of the most significant living composers," Hankewich says. "He's one of (the top 10) most-performed living composers worldwide and he's from Cedar Rapids. It seemed only logical to include him in our inaugural season, in our return to the Paramount."
The seeds for the commission grew out of a casual conversation with Daugherty, the eldest of five brothers, all of whom are professional musicians working coast to coast and even on the high seas.
"One of the advantages of having the Daughertys in the area is that you run into them all the time," Hankewich says. "Two years ago, I ran into Michael Daugherty at Jazz Under the Stars, and told him we were interested in commissioning him. We started the conversations then, and a few meetings later, we had a direction that we wanted to pursue."
Daugherty was eager to write another piece for the orchestra, where he served as composer-in-residence for the 1996-97 season, and jumped at the chance to help celebrate the reopening of the Paramount, a fixture of his formative years in town.
"I was wanting to come back to Iowa and give something back to Cedar Rapids after Cedar Rapids has given me so much," he says in a recent phone interview.
The "American Gothic" composition allows him to do just that, as well as to "celebrate the arts of Iowa and channel that through Grant Wood."
Daugherty has dedicated the piece to the memory of his father, Willis, who died in December 2011 -- a dance band drummer who, like Wood, had rural roots.
Once the length and instrumentation were decided for the commission, Daugherty spent about a year researching and writing, seeking inspiration in Wood's footprints.
"Last summer I came back to Eastern Iowa and did a Grant Wood tour, visiting various sites that he used to paint his paintings and to produce his lithographs," Daugherty says. "I revisited Grant Wood country."
He also traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, home to the iconic "American Gothic" painting, which inspired his music.
"What I’m riffing off in my composition is not the Americana of 'American Gothic,' because that’s the obvious thing," he says. "I'm riffing off the complexity of the painting -- what does the painting mean, and what does it mean to be an artist from the Midwest.
"The thing about the painting is that it’s a mystery. No one really knows what it means. People never really understood Grant Wood as an artist either," he says. "Some people took him seriously, (some critics) thought he was an amateur, partly because he was using the Midwest as his inspiration.
"I thought it would be interesting to explore, ‘what does it mean to be a composer like myself, coming from Iowa,’ and also, ‘what are some of those hidden secrets in that painting’ -- to explore that in a musical way."
Daugherty's musical artwork paints sonic images in three movements, beginning with "On a Roll," which he describes as "a rollicking melody with colorful orchestration," evoking the rolling hills of Jones County, so prevalent in Wood's paintings.
The middle section, "Winter Dreams," is inspired not only by Wood's black-and-white lithographs, but also by the bleak winters of Willis Daugherty's rural Iowa youth, marked by soaring snowdrifts. It features the haunting sounds of alto flute and violins.
The final movement, "Pitchfork," reflects the dour look of the duo in "American Gothic" and Wood's wit. Daugherty kicks up the tempo with "very fast and very, very way-out bluegrass music." He calls it "a window into my contemporary musical vision of 'American Gothic.' "
"I really enjoyed writing the piece," he says.
Also on the program are Sergei Rachmaninoff's "The Rock" and Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D Minor.
Hankewich says the overall feel for the concert will be "quite eclectic."
"We have an unknown work of a famous composer, Rachmaninoff, with a famous work by a household name, Dvorak, and a brand-new work by a local celebrity, Michael Daugherty," Hankewich says. "I think it's going to be eclectic, much like Michael's personality. I think it will be exciting. And it will be something for everyone.
"In many ways, it's going to be a concert of discovery."
Also hear Michael Daugherty at these events
--- Today (5/2): McKinley Middle School Band Concert, 12:45 p.m., at McKinley, 620 10th St. SE, Cedar Rapids; Michael Daugherty conducts his middle school composition, “Alligator Alley”; free, reception follows
--- Friday (5/3): Lunch & Listening, noon, Sedlacek Hall at Cottage Grove Place, 2115 First Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids; informal discussion with conductor Tim Hankewich and Michael Daugherty; $15, lunch included, (319) 366.8203
--- Friday (5/3): First Friday Jazz featuring Tim and Michael Daugherty, 5 p.m., Opus Concert Cafe, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids; $10 at (319) 336-8203 or Orchestraiowa.org