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Pop goes the composer

Michael Daugherty is one composer who gets noticed. He has written a symphony inspired by Superman, the Metropolis Symphony. There's a piece he composed for solo bassoon and orchestra called Dead Elvis. He wrote an opera on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and other icons of the 1960s, Jackie O. His string of works on the theme of American places includes Route 66, Sunset Strip and the forthcoming Motor City.

"It doesn't hurt to be known for something," said Daugherty. "I guess that's kind of what's happening. You know, I'm that guy who writes music influenced by pop culture."

Daugherty's piano concertina Le Tombeau de Liberace _ that's right, it's an homage to the Sun King of the keyboard, Liberace _ will be heard Saturday night, performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Hugh Wolff conducting, in the Van Wezel Festival Tent. Christopher O'Riley will be the soloist, and he'll probably be in character.

"Although I don't say anything about it in the score, the pianists usually dress like Liberace," said Daugherty, who teaches composition at the University of Michigan.

Daugherty, 45, grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and he remembers seeing Liberace a lot on television variety shows. "The Liberace piece is sort of a way to take that music I used to hear on '60s television shows _ the Dean Martin show, Carol Burnett, the Tonight show _ and try to be modern with it," he said.

Liberace, more or less openly gay in a time before gay liberation, was a sexual trailblazer of sorts. "My first exposure to cross-gender things was Liberace," Daugherty said. "Growing up in the Midwest, I didn't know what a gay lifestyle meant, and seeing this outrageous character on the Ed Sullivan show was something that could only exist in America. What I've been trying to do is write music that only an American composer could write. That's what Charles Ives did, and that's what I'm trying to do."

Le Tombeau de Liberace, whose title spoofs a famous work of Ravel's, is divided into four movements: Rhinestone Kickstep, How Do I Love Thee (the title of a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, often recited by Liberace during performances), Sequin Music and Candelabra Rhumba.

"Underneath the Vegas veneer, there's a lot of complex counterpoint and interesting harmonic things and polyrhythms," Daugherty said.

Paul Crossley, the pianist who premiered the piece in 1996, told the composer it took him a month to learn Sequin Music. "It's as hard as one of the Ligeti etudes," said Daugherty, who based the rapid runs in the movement on a sequence of musical notes he saw on the wall of Liberace's piano-shaped swimming pool at his Hollywood mansion.

Daugherty, who has a doctorate in composition from Yale, likes to say that he has one foot in the concert hall and one foot in the bowling alley. His father was a dance band drummer.

"I went to public schools, I wasn't an analytical person growing up, none of my relatives went to college," he said. "So I underplay the arty side of myself. But I always loved strange music. As a kid I loved Woody Herman and Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton. I was listening to Bitches Brew (a Miles Davis album) in high school, and nobody was listening to Bitches Brew back in Cedar Rapids."

Today, Daugherty sprinkles his conversation with references to deconstructionist theory in explaining how his pop cultural roots translate into avant-garde music.

"Classical music was always this other thing when I was growing up, this highbrow thing," he said. "But one thing (German literary critic) Walter Benjamin said is you can't have highbrow without the lowbrow. One can't exist without the other. Now we're getting to the point where there's no-brow music."

Also on Saturday's 8 p.m. program at Van Wezel are works of Chopin, Haydn and Stravinsky. Tickets are $25-$45. Call (800) 826-9303.

MODERN MUSIC _ The area is awash in newish music this weekend. Phoenix chamber music society, consisting primarily of Florida Orchestra members, is playing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, one of the greatest of all 20th century works. The French composer wrote the unusually scored quartet _ violin, clarinet, cello, piano _ while in a German prisoner-of-war camp, where it was premiered in 1942 by Messiaen and fellow prisoners. At almost an hour long, this eight-movement work is not frequently heard in concert and can be quite an experience.

Also on the Phoenix program are Villa-Lobos' Assobio a Jato (The Jet Whistle) for flute and cello and a guest performance by pianist/composer Robert Helps in two of his own works, Hommage a Faure and Portrait. Performances are 3 p.m. Saturday at the Salvador Dali Museum ($8 and $10) and 3 p.m. Sunday at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church (free) in Tampa.

Pianist Anthony de Mare gives a recital of mostly new music at 8 p.m. Saturday at Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center. Works of Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Henry Cowell, Alvin Curran and Astor Piazzolla are on the agenda. Tickets are $11 and $13.

French horn player David Ohanian is featured Sunday at 3 p.m. in a program of works by Alec Wilder, Rene Duclos, Franz Haensel and Richard Strauss in the Music Recital Hall on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. Tickets are $4 and $6.

MORE MUSIC _ Operetta singer Patricia Nessy makes a return appearance with the Florida Orchestra in a Viennese waltz program, Skitch Henderson conducting. Performances are at 8 tonight at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Tickets are $18-$37.

In a high-profile Florida Grand Opera production, Handel's Julius Caesar has seven performances in Miami and Fort Lauderdale from Wednesday through Feb. 26. Countertenor David Daniels sings the title role. For information/tickets: (800) 741-1010; http: //www.fgo.org.

DANCE _ Hungarian folk dance is on display in Csardas: The Tango of the East, performed by the Budapest Ensemble at 1 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Tickets are $20 and $25. The troupe also has a show at 8 tonight at Van Wezel.

Moving Current, a modern dance collective, performs works of Erin Cardinal, Michelle Campbell, Peter Kalivas and other choreographers at Blake High School in Tampa at 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $5 and $10. Call (813) 237-0216.

THEATER _ Of Ebony Embers: Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance, a musical theater piece, is performed by the Core Ensemble and Akin Babatunde at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Dendy-McNair Auditorium at Eckerd College. Free.

Stageworks holds its annual fundraiser, "Affaire of the Heart," from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday at Bacchus Restaurant, 720 S Howard Ave., Tampa. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at the door. Call (813) 835-4522.

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