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Something Old, Something Newer

A 1913 Work by Boulanger and a Contemporary Piece by Daugherty Will Receive Their Southland Premieres in Costa Mesa


A premiere can be a paradox. It can be a first performance of a new work. It can also be a first performance of an old work that has never been heard.

Orange County music lovers can hear both kinds this week. Hugh Wolff will lead the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Friday in the first Southern California performance of Michael Daugherty's "Sunset Strip." The work was premiered in January.

John Alexander will conduct the Pacific Chorale on Sunday in the world premiere of the orchestrated edition of Lili Boulanger's "Soir sur la Plaine" (Evening on the Plain). This work dates from 1913 but until now has been performed only in a version for chorus and piano.

"Sunset Strip" fits into a series of works Daugherty has been composing for the past 15 years that "are inspired by people and places of America," the composer said recently from Ann Arbor, Mich. He has taught at the University of Michigan since 1991.

Other such works include "Niagara Falls," "Route 66," "Dead Elvis," "Jackie O" and "Le Tombeau de Liberace."

"I have to have a title or a concept before I can write," he said. "That's just how I am.

"The Sunset Strip was the happening place of pop culture in the later '40s, the '50s and the '60s. It was the first strip in America. Now we see them everywhere."

The three-movement work lasts about 17 minutes.

"The first movement is a very tightly composed piece, very rigorously structured work," Daugherty said.

The second, called "Nocturne," is scored only for two trumpets and bongos. "I describe it as a beatnik movement."

The last movement, titled "Seven A.M.," plays off the old television program "77 Sunset Strip."

"It starts kind of slow," Daugherty said. "As the day progresses, it gets more hectic and hyper."

The title gives listeners "a road map, so to speak, to enter into the piece. People can imagine driving a car down Sunset Strip or a memory of that. Then they can accept all the things I do [that] they're not expecting."

Doing unexpected things has become a trademark of the composer. He grew up in a musical family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but "it wasn't a classical music family. It was an American music family--rock, jazz, country, whatever."

His father was a dance band drummer. His four brothers--all younger--have become musicians or pursued careers in music, one as a recording engineer, another as a pianist for the Martha Graham company. A third is a band director in Miami. The fourth he calls "a lounge lizard in Cedar Rapids," but he uses the term affectionately.

"Ever since I was a kid, I've played piano in nightclubs. I grew up in them. I'm a really great lounge player. I play lots of the old tunes.

"I get my ideas when I'm removed from the world and I'm in my studio at night, between 10 p.m. and 2 in the morning. That would be the time I'd play in nightclubs."

With that background, what drew him to the classical music world?

"I love the sound of the orchestra," he said. "What I consider myself doing is writing strange pop music using instruments of the orchestra--music too strange for pops concerts."

It isn't all strange, however.

"I write different kinds of pieces, some outrageous, some strange. Some will be a very different piece.

"I think it's important as a composer to write music like being an actor. You play a good guy, then do a comedy, and so forth. It's good to mix things up.

"I want to write something that is complex but which is appealing to the average listener. I feel I've hit the mark on this one."


Worlds away from Daugherty is Lili Boulanger. Born in 1893, she was the only sibling of famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught Copland and other 20th century luminaries. Nadia stopped composing music in recognition of her younger sister's genius.

Unfortunately, Lili was prone to serious illnesses, and she died at the age of 24 from Crohn's disease (chronic intestinal colitis) contracted as a child.

Her musical talent flowered early. In 1913, she advanced to the final round of the prestigious Prix de Rome competition--Ravel entered five times and never won--with "Soir sur la Plaine," the piece on the Pacific's program.

She then went on to win the grand prize--the first woman to do so. She was 19. Her next-youngest competitor was 25.

The competition required entrants to write and orchestrate a cantata, but for some reason the orchestral version of "Soir sur la Plaine" languished unheard in the archives of the Paris National Library. It was recently discovered by C. Leonard Coduti, a French music specialist and the chorale's musical assistant.

"We both became fascinated by it," Alexander said recently from his home in Laguna Beach.

"It's an extraordinary work. It's a pastoral scene that describes the setting of the sun and how it affects our lives and the world."

Alexander described Boulanger's style as "definitely French Impressionism that is a wonderful predecessor to the work of Debussy and Ravel."

That's not a surprise, because she and Ravel studied with the same teacher, Gabriel Faure.

But Alexander feels that between the young Boulanger and the young Ravel, Boulanger was the better composer.

"Had she lived, we would have seen her writing some extraordinary works."

* Hugh Wolff will lead the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in music by Beethoven and Michael Daugherty at 8 p.m. Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Andre Watts will be soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. $35 to $44. (714) 556-2787.

* John Alexander will conduct the Pacific Chorale in works by Lili Boulanger, Faure and Durufle at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $14 to $48. (714) 556-2787.

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at

* CHARISMA: Tilson Thomas, orchestra have synergy. F1

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