Michael Daugherty (1954-) likes to connect large thematic concepts in his works. Most noted is his popular Metropolis Symphony. The massive work connects to the popular Superman comics. His music also tends to base his work on American historical, geographical, or popular themes. This approach is on display in this new Naxos release that features three different solo concertos that explore two important historical moments in American history and a modern musical journey down the Mississippi.
The first work on the program is for flute and chamber orchestra. Trail of Tears (2010) is a musical journey exploring one of the more horrific moments of American history: the forced march of thousands of Cherokees to Oklahoma in 1838. The three movement work comes at this music in an almost cinematic way. First is a lyrical flute idea with Native American flair that becomes a voice of the people. It blends some bent pitches within its melodic contour. There are also moments when it seems to blow through different dramatic attacks in the appropriately titled “where the wind blows free”, a phrase taken from a quote by Geronimo. The flute line is set up a dichotomy of swirls and more intense, dramatic, orchestral attacks that add to an often more skittering solo line being tossed by events. The “freedom” of the flute line feels like its joy and energy are sucked dry as the movement progresses. The line begins to feel more frightened and scattered and a slow march begins as we move into the powerful final bars of growing dissonance. The second movement, “Incantation”, shifts into a more meditative style. The solo line has a greater chance here to slowly move ever upward as the orchestra also increases dynamically for climaxes. There are interesting little virtuosic swells that provide some contrast to the quite gorgeous lyrical idea. The movement feels like it allows for a more heightened focus on the soloist. The final movement brings us a “sun dance” shifting into a variety of metrical shifts that adds to the slowly-growing energy. There is a bit of back and forth as the work progresses, as if the orchestra itself is gradually brought into the dance. Hints at earlier themes also recur, lending a possible sense of hope even while we remember where the journey began. The concerto itself is an engaging work that creates a more dramatic opportunity for the flute as a solo instrument. There is plenty of virtuosic opportunity here and Porter is perfectly matched for this engaging and often moving performance. The final movement really allows her to shine.
We shift gears, if you will, for a percussion concerto cast in four movements, Dreamachine (2014). Commissioned by the Eight Bridges Festival, the work is a celebration of invention and imagination that leads to the creation of new machines. Each movement is inspired by a singular invention and inventor. “Da Vinci’s Wings” opens with a marimba solo hinting at the wooden frames Da Vinci used in his sketches for wings that would allow man to fly. The orchestra tends to shimmer underneath the solo material with some occasional swells and punches. The two also flit effortlessly in dialogue and response of material as the movement gains some momentum trying to leap into the air. A bit of Daugherty’s wit shines in the “Rube Goldberg Variations”. Here the cartoonist’s many illustrations of machines designed to do simple tasks is the basis for a slew of different percussion instruments that are like a musical unfolding of one of Goldberg’s visual inventions in action. The theme sounds a bit like a deconstructed “There is No Place Like Home”, equally funny on one hand. The motif gets tossed about in the orchestra as different rhythmic syncopations add to the machine’s actions that at one point enter into a humorous tango. The slower moving “Electric Eel” creates an almost magical quality with vibraphone and different orchestra lines adding to the shimmering quality of the opening section of the movement. The music gradually begins to shift from this quality to one of greater intensity with a more atonal style and denser clusters of sound with syncopated rhythmic ideas. It all arches back towards silence, like the gradual growing and dimming of the light bulb implied by the title. “Vulcan’s Forge” is one of Daugherty’s favorite appropriations for inspiration, American popular culture. In this case, the Vulcan is none other than Star Trek’s Dr. Spock and the idea of dueling between logical, machine-like precision, and the more emotional choices one might make. Snare drum is the primary solo instrument here beginning with a virtuosic cadenza. The snare solo will be “interrupted” by some orchestral interjections but pops back in for more extensive work as the piece progresses. It ends with a couple of extended jazz harmonies. Overall, this too is another fine addition to concerto literature. There is enough variety here, coupled with the subject inspirations to help provide good links for the audience. Dame Glennie is certainly up to this concerto which feels a bit more restrained than some of the other modern works she has been featured on, or commissioned herself.
Daugherty’s tuba concerto, Reflections on the Mississippi (2013), is also cast in four movements. Each movement moves us further along a musical journey that begins in Iowa, reflecting on the composer’s own family trips to the Mississippi that began there. One may not immediately appreciate the lyrical possibilities of the much-maligned tuba, but the opening “Mist” should put that quickly to rest in this almost lullabye-like first movement. Bells lend an additional magical quality to this depiction of sunrise on the river. Repeated motifs begin to create an ongoing ostinato pattern in a darker secondary subject. The percussion concerto also had a faster second movement and that pattern is followed here in “Fury”. The movement takes inspiration from the turmoil of Faulkner’s novels and the Great Flood of 1927. There is a bit more dissonance here than in the previous works which is coupled with polyrhythms, jazzy syncopations, and polymetrical writing. This is one of the cinematic-like moments that tends to appear in Daugherty’s descriptive music from time to time. Mallet percussion lend themselves to the reflective qualities of “Prayer” exploring the qualities of the river as if looking down on one of its calmer segments. This also has more of the Broadway/Pops musical elements that can appear in Daugherty’s music. Finally, we move towards the end of the river in “Steamboat”. The music picks up in Hannibal, Missouri, and takes us down river to New Orleans. Here aspects of zydeco are integrated into the solo line which are then picked up by other solos and the orchestra.
Each of these concerti works quite well on their own but taken together provide an interesting overview of Daugherty’s style. The flute and tuba concerti are the greater finds here. The soloists excellently explore these new works convincingly and the Albany orchestra is in top form as well. The booklet includes adequate notes and three photos to connect with each of the pieces, respectively. Highly-recommended!