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Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Trail of Tears, for flute and orchestra (2010)* [23:00]
Amy Porter (flute)
Albany Symphony/David Alan Miller
rec. 2015/16, EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
Pdf booklet included
*World premiere recordings

Michael Daugherty is one of the more engaging and imaginative composers now operating in the US – or anywhere else, for that matter. He first piqued my interest with Sunset Strip, which headlined a terrific BIS collection, American Spectrum. After that came a couple of Naxos issues, among them Mount Rushmore and Tales of Hemingway. With their focus on landmarks and their references to pop culture – superheroes, celebrities, the cinema – these albums are most entertaining. And no, that’s not damning with faint praise for the quality and range of Daugherty’s writing is never in doubt; all these performances are pretty good, too.

What we have here are three spanking new concertos, for flute, solo percussion and tuba respectively. Of the soloists, Dame Evelyn Glennie is probably the best known. I last heard her in The Conjurer, an extraordinary work by John Corigliano (Naxos). In a two-handed review, John Quinn and I agreed to make that a Recording of the Month. Flautist Amy Porter, who premiered Trail of Tears in 2010, is new to me, as is Carol Jantsch, principal tuba with the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2005. Ditto the Albany Symphony and their conductor, David Alan Miller, so this really is an ‘innocent ear’ review.

In his booklet notes, Daugherty explains that Trail of Tears is a ‘musical journey’ that charts the removal of Native Americans living east of the Mississippi, a process that began with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This shameful period in American history saw the relocation of the Cherokee, who were forced to march 800 miles to Oklahoma in the winter of 1839. Nearly 4,000 of them died during the five-month trek, which has become known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. The composer writes movingly about this event, which has powerful resonances with other times and places in more recent history.

The title of the first movement is a poignant quote from the Native American leaser, Geronimo: ‘I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun.’ Porter’s opening solo – mournful, yet strangely uplifting – is greeted by an expansive orchestral riposte that speaks of big skies and wide horizons. It seems Daugherty insists on every flute technique available, a challenge to which this flautist responds with fluency and feeling. That said, she – and the piece – wear their virtuosity quite lightly, so the deeply expressive nature of this music is never compromised. As for the orchestral writing, it’s both eloquent and forceful, and that creates a compelling soundscape.

In my review of The Conjurer, I commended Naxos for their exemplary sonics, and I must do so here. This is a full, immensely dynamic recording that ekes out every last detail of Porter’s performance – the calls and cries of Incantation are especially well caught – not to mention the weight and warmth of the orchestra in the jubilant Sun dance. Miller directs it all with authority and insight. As so often with Daugherty, one is subliminally aware of a much broader musical/cultural influences – the work’s breath-taking vistas bring to mind the plains and rivers of Virgil Thomson and the unspoilt prairies of Aaron Copland – and yet his language is always arresting and original.

This is a splendid addition to Daugherty’s growing discography. Superbly played and very well engineered/edited by Silas Brown and Doron Schächter, it doesn’t match the musical or technical excellence of The Conjurer; that said, it comes tantalisingly close. My review is based on a 16-bit press download, although I did subsequently buy the 24-bit version from Qobuz. I was disappointed to find the latter is sampled at the basic 44.1kHz; not only that, the presentation now seems brighter, perhaps even a little hard edged. So, forget about the ‘high-res’ files and stick with the ‘CD quality’ ones, which are more than adequate here.

Daugherty at his inimitable and engaging best; don’t hesitate.
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