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A Train-Themed Premiere Harkens Back to a Bygone Era, Bookended by Old and Lost Rivers and a Familiar Brahms

October 11, 2007

Guest Pianist Terrence Wilson Featured in Piano Concerto Premiere with RPO

Rochester, NY – With Deus ex Machina (“god from the machine”) as the title of a new piano concerto by composer Michael Daugherty, one might wonder exactly what’s behind such a curious designation. In this case, each of the work’s three movements is a musical response to the world of trains. Music Director Christopher Seaman and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra with guest pianist Terrence Wilson will demonstrate just what this new work entails as they present the Rochester premiere on Thursday, November 1 and Saturday, November 3 at 8 p.m. in the Eastman Theatre.  Composer Daugherty will be in attendance and will join Christopher Seaman for the pre-concert chat at 7:00 p.m. This concert also launches the RPO’s New Music Performance Fund comprised of a group of individuals and foundations which supports the playing and commissioning of new works.

The evening opens with Tobias Picker’s gentle and pastoral Old and Lost Rivers (1986), composed during the composer’s residency with the Houston Symphony Orchestra and written to mark the 150th anniversary of Texas independence. The title refers to a natural phenomenon of slow-running bayous left behind by the Trinity River.  Where the two largest converge stands an identifying sign: Old and Lost Rivers.

Daugherty’s piano concerto Deus ex Machina was commissioned by a consortium of the Charlotte, Nashville, New Jersey, Rochester and Syracuse Symphony Orchestras.  The Charlotte Symphony gave the world premiere last March with Terrence Wilson, who has taken the piece on the road with all the subsequent orchestras.  In addition to Mr. Wilson’s performances of Daugherty’s new concerto, this gifted pianist continues to perform throughout the country with major orchestras, in recital and as an active chamber musician, performing regularly with the Ritz Chamber Players and at the Mann Music Center, and at the Blossom, Tanglewood and Wolf Trap Festivals.

The Latin phrase “deus ex machina” is a theatrical term from ancient Greece, referring to an unexpected, improbable or artificial character, device or event introduced suddenly to resolve a situation or untangle a plot.  The phrase “god from the machine” literally described a machine lowering actors playing a god or gods onstage to resolve a hopeless situation.  For Daugherty, however, the Deus ex Machina title conjures up the world of trains, with the music initially inspired by images of speeding locomotives in paintings by European modernists of the early 20th century.  The first movement, Fast Forward, explores the futurist concept that machine technology could create a universal culture.  The second movement, Train of Tears, depicts Abraham Lincoln’s slow-moving funeral train carrying his body on the 1,650 mile journey from Washington, D.C. to his home in Springfield, Illinois.  The train passed through seven states where memorials were held by millions of mourners lining the railroad tracks for their final farewells.  A “ghost” melody is intertwined with the familiar Taps (also known as Gone to Sleep) in various guises.  The third and final movement, Night Steam, is a response to 1956 photo by O. Winston Link of a steam locomotive set against a backdrop of teenagers at a drive-in movie.  According to Daugherty’s program notes, in Night Steam, we hear steam locomotives “rumble and whistle their way through the small towns and lonely back roads of the Shenandoah Valley into extinction.”  The Nashville Scene called the piece “an abstract work full of colorful orchestrations and idiomatic piano writing,” which “stretched the ear and challenged the imagination.”

Hailed by The Times of London as “a master icon maker” with a “maverick imagination, fearless structural sense and meticulous ear,” composer Michael Daugherty first came to international attention in the 1990s with a series of witty, dark-humored, brilliantly-scored pieces inspired by 20th century pop-culture.  Daugherty’s music, rich with cultural and political allusions, has been performed throughout the world, making him one of the most performed and commissioned American composers of his generation. 

The concert’s second half returns to more familiar territory with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.  Christopher Seaman refers to this symphony’s “tragic strength,” noting that although it is sometimes called “granite-like,” it is not lacking in tenderness.  The power of the first movement is followed by a sad but warm second movement, with a “boisterous and rollicking” third movement, and ending with a finale that looks back to the Baroque era.

Tickets for these performances are $20-$55, available online 24/7 at www.rpo.org, by phone (454-2100); in person from the RPO Box Office, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (non-concert Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.); and seven days a week at area Wegmans.  A convenience fee may apply.
The Philharmonics Series is sponsored by The Eastman Kodak Company and Bausch & Lomb; the performance of Deus ex Machina is made possible by the New Music Performance Fund (Drs. Kathleen Holt and Stephen Lurie, the Goldberg-Berbeco Foundation and Patricia Ward-Baker).  Christopher Seaman’s appearance is made possible by Friends of Christopher; his pre-concert chat is made possible by Drs. Robin and Michael Weintraub in memory of their parents.  The RPO gratefully acknowledges PAETEC Communications Inc. for the PAETEC Philharmonic Partners program, which offers discounted Philharmonics Series tickets to local college students. 

Celebrating its 85th season in 2007-08, the RPO inspires and enriches the community through the art of music.  The Orchestra is passionately dedicated to outstanding musical performance at the highest artistic levels, and has a unique
tradition of musical versatility, commitment to music education in the broadest sense and a deep and enduring engagement with the community.  The RPO has been honored with the New York State Governor’s Arts Award and two recent ASCAP awards for adventurous programming.  RPO performances are made possible in part with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency; the State of New York; Monroe County and the City of Rochester. 

Note: Digital photos of Mr. Daugherty and Mr. Wilson are available on request, as are interviews.

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