Like Aaron Copland, considered by many the guiding light of American composers, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.-born Michael Daugherty learned the rudiments of the European masters in Paris, only to come home to create a vastly different, uniquely American sound.
This week, the New Century Chamber Orchestra performs the world premiere of Daugherty’s violin concerto, “Fallingwater,” a work based on four buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright — known for his organic architecture and love of nature.
Daugherty — a professor of composition at the University of Michigan, and, according to the League of American Orchestras, one of the 10 most-performed living American composers — describes the work as a tour de force for NCCO music director and soloist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, who commissioned it.
“I was writing music in the style of the ‘high modernists,’” Daugherty says, “where melodies, rhythmic grooves, tonality, narratives and catchy titles were a no-no, and I never really connected with that. I decided to go on a journey to find what I wanted to express as a composer.”
That journey has resulted in three Grammy Awards for his works “Deus ex Machina” and “Metropolis Symphony,” inspired by Superman.
Although Daugherty’s fascination with cultural and everyday icons is rooted in the philosophies of Gustav Mahler and Charles Ives, it was his teacher, celebrated (and open-minded) Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who encouraged Daugherty to reference pop culture and to trust his own musical instincts.
“In 1982, I played for Ligeti a cut of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’” he recalls fondly, “And he said, ‘The music is very interesting. You could write very complex polyrhythmic music using this new drum machine.’”
Daugherty, also a film fan, says, “I can’t help think of all those great movies that were filmed in San Francisco over the years: the film noir classics ‘Out of the Past’ with Robert Mitchum, ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ with Orson Welles, ‘Bullitt’ with Steve McQueen, and all those Clint Eastwood ‘Dirty Harry’ flicks. Europeans are always very impressed with the city of San Francisco.”
As Americans observe the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, Saturday’s concert, titled “Legacies and Concertos,” also includes Samuel Jones’ “Elegy for Strings,” which was written and performed just weeks after the president was assassinated.
IF YOU GO
New Century Chamber Orchestra
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $29 to $59
Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.ncco.org
Note: Other performances are at 8 p.m. today in Mountain View, 8 p.m. Friday in Berkeley and 5 p.m. Sunday in San Rafael.