CEDAR RAPIDS — Orchestra Iowa took a cheering audience on a wild ride through Grant Wood country Saturday night (5/4/13) with the world premiere of Michael Daugherty’s “American Gothic.”
The 20-minute work in three movements — commissioned by the orchestra for its Paramount Theatre triumphant homecoming season — is brilliant and breathtaking in scope and virtuosity.
This Grammy-winning native son, Daugherty, now 59, is among the world’s most-often performed American classical composers. We are so very, very fortunate that he remains so grounded, so tied to his Cedar Rapids roots that he jumped at the chance to not only create a work for the orchestra, but to spend a week lecturing, conducting, performing, meeting and signing autographs with area students and audiences.
Saturday’s 1,000+ Paramount audience crackled with excitement in the lobby, in a packed Insight discussion before the concert and in the spontaneous eruption of cheers, applause and an immediate standing ovation following the final notes. In a break with tradition, the audience also applauded between movements of the work. It was that outstanding.
In a very smart and much-appreciated move, Daugherty, a professor of composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, came onstage before the piece to give us a slide show and explanation of the music we’d be hearing. He took us on a pictorial journey through his childhood, as the eldest of five brothers who are all now professional musicians scattered across the country, then moved into the Grant Wood paintings and lithographs that inspired his “American Gothic.”
We knew that when the snare drum rolled at the start of the piece, we were hearing a tribute to Daugherty’s late father, Willis, a dance band drummer of regional renown who also led a decade of tours at 5 Turner Alley, the Cedar Rapids studio where Wood painted “American Gothic.” When the three trombones and tuba united near the end of that movement, we knew it was in homage to Iowa’s barbershop quartet heritage, captured in Wood’s 1939 lithograph, “Shrine Quartet,” and that Wood, himself, sang in a Shrine quartet.
All the details Daugherty shared with us sprang to life as the music unfolded.
“On a Roll” took us on a roller coaster ride through the hills and valleys of Wood’s Eastern Iowa homeland. “Winter Dreams” painted a haunting, stirring picture of Depression-era desolation amid whipping winter winds and snowdrifts. “Pitchfork” — as sharp and witty as the iconic centerpiece of Wood’s “American Gothic” — gave us a rousing hoedown finale leading to a thunderous audience ovation.
Like Wood’s art, Daugherty’s work is complex, layered, evocative and laced with humor. The Paramount’s retooled acoustics let all the solo voices shine, from piccolo and alto flute to rapid-fire tuba. Oboe, French horn, clarinet, percussion, strings, trumpet — all had their moments of glory.
A special shout out, however, goes to the guest concertmaster, Julliard student Luke Witchger of Omaha. Not only does he handle all the demanding classical and avant-garde violin demands with grace and impeccable style, he rips through some darned good orchestral bluegrass like an Appalachian pro. That summer he spent at fiddle camp — which he admits to with a shake of his head — really paid off.
That was the sheer joy of the final movement. Orchestral bluegrass. How many times do you see that in a sentence? Or the final crash of the harp on “Winter Dreams” or the opening mallets on everyday glass bottles from the farm on “American Gothic.” That’s typical Daugherty — full of surprises when you least suspect them. Listeners never know what to expect from him, but it’s always magnificent and a joy to behold.
The concert opened with “The Rock,” a lesser-known work by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and closed with Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor. Both pieces tell stormy tales — the first of a blizzard, the latter punctuated by aural thunder and lightning — making them perfect pairings for Daugherty’s environmental theme.
With all the wildness crashing around, each composer gives us gorgeous, shimmering passages that just make you say, “ahhhh.” And Maestro Timothy Hankewich, always so focused and in command, especially during Daugherty’s demanding artistry, got to relax and dance in his signature style through the Dvorak, making this final work as fun to see as it was glorious to hear.
This triumphant concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday (5/5/13) at West High School in Iowa City and May 12 at Ottumwa’s Bridge View Center. Orchestra Iowa will record “American Gothic” next week, and CEO Robert Massey says it will air on Iowa Public Radio later this year.