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“The bassoon is almost an instrumental form of Elvis’s singing. If you’re not familiar with the sound of a bassoon, this is actually an apt description, as the instrument croons out those deep notes you feel in the pit of your stomach.”
By Julia Sharp
For the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra’s season finale April 27, Grammy award-winning composer Michael Daugherty returns for his third and final performance at the Tivoli. Daugherty composed “Motown Metal” and “Dead Elvis,” two of the evening’s four featured works. Previously, his pieces, “Metropolis Symphony” and “Sunset Strip” were performed here. He served as composer-in-residence this season, and will be introducing both “Motown Metal” and “Dead Elvis” at the concert.
Bassoonist and seasoned Elvis impersonator Benjamin Kamins will put on the polyester suit, dark sunglasses and black wig once more to perform “Dead Elvis,” a piece (and character) he has played many times during the last ten years. Traditionally, whoever plays it dresses up as Elvis. Kamins says it’s a theatrical as well as a musical piece that plays off the speculation of Is Elvis really dead?
“ The absurdity of a bassoon player doing that is what makes it funny,” Kamins says. The juxtaposition of what is perceived as a quintessentially classical instrument being played by an Elvis impersonator is what makes it so surprising and unique.
“ Dead Elvis” was inspired by Daugherty’s trip to the International Elvis Impersonator Convention in Las Vegas in 1991. He found the obsession with Elvis’s life and speculation about his death fascinating. Living near Kalamazoo, Michigan, site of many reported Elvis sightings, also inspired the piece.
“ It’s a Faustian tale about somebody who started out larger-than-life and ended up addicted to drugs,” Daugherty says. “He sold his soul to Colonel Parker, who was his manager, and ended up in Las Vegas playing music he didn’t really believe in anymore,” he said. The “Dead Elvis” story evokes comparison to some Americans in pop music today.
After listening to a few clips of “Dead Elvis,” it’s clear why the bassoon was chosen as the featured instrument. Daugherty says the bassoon is almost an instrumental form of Elvis’s singing. If you’re not familiar with the sound of a bassoon, this is actually an apt description, as the instrument croons out those deep notes you feel in the pit of your stomach. Some moments are celebratory, while others are sharp and feverish or melodic and tearful.
The bassoon is complemented by the accompanying musicians, and “Elvis” often interacts with their playing through dramatic poses, hip shakes, and struts between the chairs. Elvis’s early Americana soul and later departure from everything he believed in is certainly reflected in the bassoonist’s performance, as well as in the fervor and urgency of the accompanying musicians.
Daugherty’s “Motown Metal” was inspired by Detroit, also close to his home turf. He wanted to reflect the importance of automobile manufacturing in the city, which can be heard in the metallic sounds of the piece. “Motown Metal” will also be performed at the Volkswagen Conference Center on Sunday, April 28, at 3 p.m.
Daugherty says he hopes these two pieces will engage the audience and make them think about interesting instruments like the bassoon in new ways. He also hopes the audience will, “hear how I’ve taken facets of American culture and translated those into music in a very unique way.”
The CSO Season Finale will also include Vivaldi’s Concerto in B-flat major for Bassoon & Strings, RV 501 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor.
“ Mahler’s Symphony No. 5/Motown Metal/Dead Elvis”
8 p.m., April 27
Tivoli Theater, 709 Broad St.