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Music Preview: 'Time Machine' gets three batons swinging

Friday, November 28, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pitsxburgh Post-Gazette

In American composer Michael Daugherty's unique catalog, Elvis Presley rubs shoulders with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Liberace, Superman and J. Edgar Hoover. In other pieces, Niagara Falls, Motown and UFOs provide inspiration.

And now he's got his sights set on Father Time.

Pittsburgh Symphony'
WITH: Mariss Jansons, Lucas Richman, Edward Cumming, conductors.

WHERE: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight-tomorrow.

TICKETS: $19.25-$65.25. 412-392-4900.


Daugherty, whose "Time Machine" the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra premieres tonight, is a man intrigued, even obsessed with American pop icons and mythology. He draws inspiration from them like a musical Roy Lichtenstein, with a compositional aesthetic mixing post-minimalism and rhythmically charged tonality. "No piece I write is boring," Daugherty, 49, says.

His concerto for PSO English horn player Harold Smoliar, "Spaghetti Western" certainly wasn't. A highlight of the 1998 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra season, it incorporates stock scenes from westerns -- ghost towns, cowboys, gunfights and stagecoaches.

When PSO music director Mariss Jansons developed an idea to commission a work to celebrate the strong relationship between himself, PSO resident conductor Lucas Richman and former PSO resident conductor Edward Cumming, Daugherty was the natural choice.

What the composer created is more than anyone could've imagined.

"Time Machine" splits a massive amount of musicians into three separate orchestras, each with its own conductor. These groups parade through three movements, "Present," "Past," and "Future." The laying of different tempos and rhythms lends the piece its name: "The poly-temporal music takes us into the fourth dimension where we can imagine traveling from the present to the past and the future," writes Daugherty in his notes.

The music of the movements is recognizably Daugherty, with driving energy and straightforward progressions, but each has its own flavor. The ticking of clocks dominates the first movement, the second approximates medieval conductus or hocket and Renaissance vocal polyphony. The finale is even more of a fantasy, a musical depiction of H.G Wells' "The Time Machine," complete with Morlocks and Eloi. Daugherty admits it's an avowedly pessimistic view of the future: "It is a question mark about what the future holds."

As you might expect, composers don't learn to write for three conductors in school. "It is probably the most complex piece I have written," says Daugherty. At an extra rehearsal at Heinz Hall to run through the piece, Jansons, Cumming and Richmond sweated and strained to stay together, relying on peripheral vision as much as internal metronomes. For some of the "Time Machine," it's not supposed to sound like the three are together -- that's not something conductors work on.

In fact, few pieces in music history have specified multiple conductors. Carter's "A Symphony of Three Orchestras" and Marc-Andre Dalbavie's "Concertate il suono" are some that use multiple instrumental groups, but they only call on one conductor. The ball scene of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Gruppen" employ multiple conductors, with dramatically different results.

"It is not a particularly practical idea," jokes Daugherty. "I saw it as a challenge. Part of being new is to look at musical expression and to discover new things. Part of what avant-garde music is all about is doing something you are not supposed to do -- forbidden music."

As "Time Machine" gelled at the rehearsal, however, it became apparent that, if it's complex, it doesn't sound like it. That's in part because the melodic and harmonic material doesn't partake in the complications of the rhythms and temporal relationships. It's actually rather catchy.

But the bottom line for Daugherty is that a subject matter must grab him in his personal life, as Superman did for his "Metropolis Symphony," the former FBI tyrant for the string quartet, "Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opera "Jackie O," and, of course, Elvis for the lounge-ready bassoon concerto "Dead Elvis" (where the soloist dresses as Vegas Elvis).

Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to a dance-band drummer father, Daugherty has always loved pop music, culture and art, even as he worked his way up the fine-arts ladder, from the Manhattan School of Music to Boulez's IRCAM to Yale University.

So it follows that a Hollywood movie would be the early impetus for this new orchestral work. "I have always been interested in the idea of time travel, and as a kid I saw the movie 'The Time Machine,' " says Daugherty. The message of the film stuck with him until the day he started on his own "Time Machine," which he feels has had a substantial effect on his own growth as a composer. "I see it as a turning-point piece," he says. "It opened up the whole idea of dealing with music with different times. I learned a lot from composing it."

The audience, as Daugherty strives for in all of his works, only need to sit back and enjoy the ride in the "Time Machine." "I think it will be a different kind of experience, the orchestra will sound different than before," he says. "It will be a visual experience with three conductors moving their arms."

And it won't be boring, that's for sure.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Mariss Jansons will miss his "Sunday Afternoon in Vienna" concert at Heinz Hall on Nov. 30 due to the death of his mother. He will conduct tonight and Saturday's concerts featuring a world premiere of Michael Daugherty's piece for three conductors and orchestra, "Time Machine." Replacing Jansons on Sunday will be PSO assistant conductor Daniel Meyer.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750.


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