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Commissioned Lincoln Bicentennial music premieres

Hampson, Spokane Symphony celebrate in concerts at The Fox

Travis Rivers Correspondent

Abraham Lincoln liked music. As a younger man, he enjoyed a good fiddle tune with his fellow lawyers when traveling to the Illinois circuit courts.

When he became president, he attended opera and musical shows given by touring companies in Washington. And the Lincolns often hosted performances at the White House.

But Lincoln would doubtless have been amazed at the amount of music written to honor him since his death in 1865.

On Saturday, the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and baritone Thomas Hampson will give the premiere of Michael Daugherty’s “Letters from Lincoln.” The work, based on Lincoln’s speeches and letters, was commissioned by the symphony to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth.

The concert, which will be repeated Sunday afternoon, closes a five-week Lincoln Festival in which the symphony collaborated with others arts and educational organizations.

The “Letters From Lincoln” performances will be recorded by E1 Music (formerly Koch Records). The symphony’s first commercial recording will be ready for release in about six months, and pre-orders for a limited number of copies will be available at the concerts.

The weekend’s program also includes two early works by Anton von Webern, “Im Sommerwind” and “Langsamer Satz,” Jaromir Weinberger’s “Czech Rhapsody” and Duke Ellington’s “Night Creature.” Eckart Preu, the orchestra’s music director, will conduct.

Earlier this month, the symphony staged an online press conference at The Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox with Hampson speaking from New York, and Daugherty from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

“Symphony audiences know Lincoln from Aaron Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait,’ ” Preu said at the time. “That’s Lincoln the statue … Lincoln the monumental figure. For this commission, we wanted to take Lincoln down from that pedestal and show him on a more human scale, someone we could recognize as flesh and blood.

“Michael Daugherty is one of the most frequently performed composers of our day,” Preu added, “and he has found new ways of creating colorful portraits of famous American icons like Elvis, Liberace and Superman, and personalities as different as J. Edgar Hoover and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

“We thought Michael was the perfect composer to show Lincoln, the man. And Thomas Hampson we knew would be the perfect soloist, not only because of his long association with the Spokane Symphony, but because he is one of the great dramatic singers and actors today.”

Hampson, 53, who was raised in Eastern Washington and grew up artistically with the symphony from the time he was singing in the Spokane Chorale as a teenager, has continued to appear regularly as a soloist with the orchestra.

His career has taken him from winning the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions to becoming the “in demand” baritone for the great opera houses of the world. Hampson just finished a hugely successful run in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Met in New York.

“The choice of the texts for these song was entirely Michael’s. My contribution was to tell him what my ‘expressive range’ was, and he wrote these songs with that in mind,” he says of “Letters From Lincoln.”

Daugherty, the oldest of five brothers, was born in 1954 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father was a dance band drummer, and all five brothers have turned out to be professional musicians.

After studying in Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship, he received a doctorate from Yale. Since 1991, he has been professor composition at the University of Michigan.

Daugherty’s list of commissions is a long one, including the pop opera “Jackie O” and the Superman-inspired “Metropolis Symphony.” His resume lists stints as a composer-in-residence with such orchestras as the Louisville Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the Colorado Symphony and the Pacific Symphony.

“While I was composer-in-residence with the West Shore Symphony (in Muskegon, Mich.), I worked with Brenda Nienhouse, who is now the executive director of the symphony here in Spokane,” Daugherty said.

“She did a terrific job there at the West Shore Festival, so it made dealing with the Spokane Symphony really easy for me.”

As for “Letters From Lincoln,” he said, “It has been a great joy for me to be able to write this piece, and not just another commission.”

In the Internet news conference, Daugherty discussed the organization of the seven sections of his new work.

“I decided to begin at the end by having the first piece be ‘Lincoln’s Funeral Train,’ ” the composer said, “and end with the Gettysburg Address.

“It takes a lot of nerve to set something as great as the Gettysburg Address to music. I was really nervous and wondered, ‘Would I be able to or not?’ I guess we’ll see.”

In addition, Daugherty said, “I wanted to show the plain-spoken side of Lincoln with the little autobiographical sketch he made as a campaign document. But he had a playful side, too, so I included a silly little poem he wrote as a teenager.

“After that, I tried to show his statesmanship with the ending of the First Inaugural Address and very serious business of his presidency was the letter to Mrs. Bixby, a woman who lost five sons in the war. To show the domestic side of Lincoln, I picked a short telegram he wrote to Mrs. Lincoln when she was in Philadelphia with their son, Tad.

“I hope with these songs, I have been able to show Lincoln the man as well as Lincoln the great man,” Daugherty said.

He and Preu will discuss the music on the weekend’s program one hour before curtain time in the Fox auditorium as a part of the Gladys Brooks Pre-Concert Talk series.

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