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Red Cape Tango

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Michael Daugherty
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; Jessica Lang Dance; with Leila Josefowicz, violin / From Adams to Copland May 16 - 17, 2014
© Thomas May

"[Michael Daugherty] is someone who is very connected to the street - at least, his ear is close to the street," said the conductor Kristjan Järvi in 2011, introducing the UK premiere of the composer's violin concerto Fire and Blood, which was inspired by the Detroit murals and paintings of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. "He's very much following in the footsteps of his predecessors, [Steve] Reich and [John] Adams, who established the whole movement of a more cross-genre-based American music. He takes this idea even further, but still maintains the classical idiom. This music is for the people and written with the people in mind."

It's hard to imagine a symphonic project that more clearly keeps "the people in mind"-as opposed to wanting to impress fellow composers-than the Superman-inspired Metropolis Symphony, for which "Red Cape Tango" forms the final movement. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (where he was born in 1954), Daugherty grew up in an intensively musical family. His father played drums in country and jazz dance bands, his grandmother was a silent-film piano accompanist, and his four younger brothers all became professional musicians as well. Daugherty's early musical experiences included playing keyboard for rock and funk groups.

While mostly educated in the U.S.-he's been an influential teacher as well over his more than two decades on the University of Michigan's School of Music faculty-Daugherty headed to Paris for a short period of study at the avant-garde bastion of Pierre Boulez's IRCAM center; he also studied with György Ligeti in Hamburg (while playing nightclub jazz piano). But Daugherty has remained attached to the American maverick tradition of Charles Ives and Adams. The Grove Dictionary of Music's entry on Daugherty compares his populist attitude to that of Dvorák as well.

Daugherty's works express an infectious curiosity, bringing a fresh take to iconic figures from American pop culture. The latter might even be said to be a preoccupation woven throughout his Daugherty's career, extending beyond the Metropolis Symphony to include the opera Jackie O, Route 66, Dead Elvis (in which a bassoon soloist assumes the role of an Elvis impersonator), Mount Rushmore for chorus and orchestra, and his recent Gospel According to Sister Aimee (an organ concerto with brass and percussion recalling the life of the celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson).

Regarding the reference to American icons in his music, Daugherty states: "For me icons serve as way to have an emotional reason to compose a new work. I get ideas for my compositions by browsing through secondhand book stores, antique shops, and small towns that I find driving on the back roads of America. The icon can be an old postcard, magazine, photograph, knick-knack, matchbook, piece of furniture or roadmap. Like Ives and Mahler, I use icons in my music to provide the listener and performer with a layer of reference. However, one does not need the reference of the icon to appreciate my music. It is merely one level among many in the musical, contrapuntal fabric of my compositions."

Metropolis Symphony was Daugherty's breakout work. Though first premiered in its entirety by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony in 1994, Metropolis had been composed movement by movement over the five years between 1988 and 1993 (each a separate commission). Therefore each of the five movements can also be performed separately, as is the case with the finale, "Red Cape Tango" (the longest of the movements, written on commission from the Albany Symphony in 1993). Metropolis (and its parts) has enjoyed remarkable success in the 20 years since that premiere: the Nashville Symphony's recording for Naxos in 2011 took home three Grammy Awards (including for Best Classical Contemporary Composition).

Cleveland's observance of the 50th anniversary of Superman's emergence in the comics created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster spurred Daugherty to look back at "an American mythology that I discovered as an avid reader of comic books in the 1960s." The first four movements involve characters or places connected to Superman, to whom Daugherty also refers as "a compositional metaphor in order to create an independent musical world that appeals to the imagination." It's in "Red Cape Tango" that the Man of Steel remains in the spotlight. Daugherty provides this description of the music he imagined for "Superman's fight to the death with Doomsday," the super villain created by Dan Jurgens who is credited with killing Superman in the 1992 "Death of Superman" comic:

"The principal melody, first heard in the bassoon, is derived from the medieval Latin death chant Dies irae. This dance of death is conceived as a tango, presented at times like a concertino comprising string quintet, brass trio, bassoon, chimes, and castanets. The tango rhythm, introduced by the castanets and heard later in the finger cymbals, undergoes a gradual timbral transformation, concluding dramatically with crash cymbals, brake drum, and timpani. The orchestra alternates between legato and staccato sections to suggest a musical bullfight."