Santa Rosa Symphony premieres ‘Valley of the Moon,’ new work rooted in Sonoma County
Tourists often come to Sonoma County to experience the crashing surf and towering redwoods, but few pay attention to the fog-swept landscape as intensely as composer and pianist Michael Daugherty.
Daugherty took a road trip here in May 2021, bumping along back roads from the Valley of the Moon to the Sonoma Coast to collect sights and sounds that would help him shape a 30-minute work, “Valley of the Moon,” commissioned by the Santa Rosa Symphony.
Truth be told, it was not a hard assignment. The Midwest native who teaches composition at the University of Michigan School of Music said he has an affinity for California and its natural attractions.
“I’m a huge fan of road trips,” he said. “And I’ve always enjoyed California, from Highway 1 and up toward Yosemite National Park to Death Valley.”
Taking photographs and picking up snippets of history along the way, the composer returned home to create the four-movement symphony that will have its world premiere May 7-9 at the Green Music Center during the Santa Rosa Symphony’s final concert of the seven-concert season.
Other evocative works on the program include Johann Strauss II’s Overture to “Die Fledermaus,” Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto performed by Elina Vähälä of Finland and Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”
“With the COVID year, I had a lot more time to write,” Daugherty said of his new piece. “I worked on it just about every day for a year, and if I’m not working on it, I’m listening to it.”
A feel for Sonoma County
After Symphony President and CEO Alan Silow initially approached the composer about writing a piece about Sonoma County, Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong requested a 30-40 minute work that would offer the heft of a full symphony.
“It’s the first time I’ve had somebody ask for a piece that long,” Daugherty said. “My orchestra pieces tend to be between 15 and 20 minutes.”
Because other composers already had mined the connection between Sonoma County and the late Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip, Daughtery decided to look elsewhere for inspiration.
“I really wanted to do something different,” he said. “And I wanted it to have legs. If it was too specific, it would not travel. It had to deal with bigger issues.”
After talking to local residents and getting a feel for the county, Daugherty settled on four people and places to portray in sound: the Pacific Ocean, with its amorphous fog bank (the movement “Out of the Fog”); Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 “The Birds” horror film (“Shadow of the Birds”); the coastal redwood trees (“Air on the Redwoods”); and Sonoma Valley’s iconic adventurer, activist and author Jack London (“Call of the Wild”).
“I was thinking about the world and climate,” Daugherty explained. “So two of the movements (one and three) have to do with exploring how you can appreciate the natural world. That’s ‘Out of the Fog’ and ‘Air on the Redwoods.’”
On the darker side, Daugherty explored the growing fragility of the natural ecosystem through movements two and four. The final “Call of the Wild” movement is turbulent but ends hopefully, in a major key.
“I’ve never ended my pieces with major chords, but this one I did,” he said. “I was looking at London as one of the advocates for sustainable living and the natural world.”
Since Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville was still closed when he visited, Daugherty drove to Occidental to the Landpaths Grove of Old Trees to commune with the ancient old-growth giants.
In the third movement, “Air on the Redwoods,” Daugherty decided to intertwine his own musical ideas with Bach’s majestic and noble “Air on the G String,” an arrangement of the second movement of his Orchestral Suite No. 3.
When he drove through the coastal hamlet of Bodega Bay, the composer thought it looked familiar. As a film buff, he was delighted to discover it was the where Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was filmed.
“It’s the one Hitchcock film that has no music, only bird sound effects,” he said. “So I imagined I was writing music for the movie.”
Modern American music
Daugherty was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the oldest of five boys in a musical family. His father was a drummer in a dance band, performing jazz standards like “Satin Doll” and “The Shadow of your Smile.”
Daugherty grew up playing piano and percussion. He attended the University of North Texas, renowned for its jazz program, and started thinking about becoming a classical composer after hearing the Dallas Symphony play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
He did further studies in composition at Yale University’s School of Music, earning a master’s of musical arts degree in 1982 and a doctorate of musical arts degree in 1987.
Daugherty’s first work, “Metropolis Symphony,” based on the Superman comics, premiered by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in January 1994. A new recording performed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra won two Grammy Awards in 2012 for best orchestral performance and best contemporary work.
His “Tales of Hemingway” for cello and orchestra, recorded by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with cellist Zuill Bailey, won three Grammy Awards in 2017 for best classical instrumental solo, best contemporary classical composition and best classical compendium.
“My music is modern, but it also has a lot of sensibilities of American cultures,” he said. “We’re a very diverse culture, and you hear that in my music. It’s not just words. I talk the talk. I walk the walk.”
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or email@example.com. On Twitter @dianepete56