Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Route 66 (1998) [6:56]
Ghost Ranch (2006) [24:10]
Sunset Strip (1999) [17:09]
Time Machine (2003) [20:33]
Richard Vaughan-Thomas, Kevin Pritchard, Robert Harris, Ed Lockwood, Andrew Jones (French Horns – Ghost Ranch); Peter Turnbull, Denis Curlett (trumpets – Sunset Strip); Matt King, Oliver Yates (percussion – Sunset Strip)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop; Mei-Ann Chen; Laura Jackson (Conductors 2 and 3 - Time Machine);
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, England, 30 June – 1 July 2008

“Michael Daugherty is one of the most frequently commissioned, programmed and recorded composers on the American concert music scene today”. So reads the first line of Daugherty’s biography in this new disc – the fourth from Naxos – of his orchestral music. And leading the vanguard of that popularity has to be both the conductor Marin Alsop and Naxos.

The four discs released to date have featured four different orchestras and three conductors – this is Alsop’s second disc. Once you accept the concept of contemporary music having the possibility of being fun then enjoyment of Daugherty’s music is only a step away. Collectors familiar with this composer’s style will recognise many of the musical landmarks – signposts perhaps would be more apt given the disc’s opening work Route 66 – but the fascination here is the broadening of Daugherty’s musical vocabulary to include music of less instant appeal.

For those not yet familiar with Daugherty then I would characterise his music as being a gleefully virtuosic celebration of popular culture. He is one of the few contemporary ‘serious’ composers who seems able to integrate the rhythms and essence of popular music culture into his work without it sounding contrived or arch. It’s the compositional equivalent of “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. But at the same time it is not about trying to make an orchestra sound like a rock band. Daugherty achieves this fusion. The Australian composer Matthew Hindson is another – his extraordinary work Speed amongst others rivals the music here. If you like Daugherty you must hear Hindson. For this disc Naxos returned with Marin Alsop to the scene of many triumphs; the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Add engineering by Mike Hatch, who from his Floating Earth days was responsible for many of the technically great discs of the CD era, and the presence of the composer at the sessions and you realise that you have an A* product being offered at a bargain price.

Time and again in recent years the Bournemouth Orchestra has impressed me with their extraordinary ability to sound ‘inside’ vastly differing musical styles. This goes way beyond mere technical prowess – all orchestras play with superb technique now given the chance – this is about playing with a real sense of what the music is about. Another of Daugherty’s particular penchants is to feature orchestral players within a concert work. Elsewhere in this series this has resulted in terrifyingly hard passages for everyone from the timpanist [Raise the Roof – Naxos 8.559372] to the lead violin and flute section [Metropolis Symphony – Naxos 8.559635]. Here the horn section and trumpets must have blanched when they first opened their parts but the results are – just as I expected – superb.

But to start at the beginning; Route 66 is the earliest work recorded here. Daugherty in his evocative and informative liner describes this as; “a high-octane musical romp.” The opening is typical – a highly rhythmic riff underpinned by driving percussion rhythms. At just over six minutes its easy to imagine this opening a concert. But now I’m getting more familiar with the Daugherty style I can’t help but think this is a bit of a ‘back-pocket’ work. Great fun, a romp for sure, but just a little put together by numbers. Too much reliance on the rhythm of the opening riff with the local colour interjections a tad obvious. I couldn’t help feeling this was Hawaii 5-0 on acid, right down to the big-finish final chord. So, if I’m honest just a little bit disappointing as a disc opener. Also, and this might read as a paradox given my praise previously for the quality of Mike Hatch’s engineering, this is music that seems to need an interventionist approach from the technical team. By that I mean that this is cinematic, technicolor music so ‘natural’ engineering – which is what we have here beautifully neutral sound; detailed well-balanced and wide ranging – results in an orchestral sound that’s just not as viscerally exciting as it might be. Decca Phase 4 engineers would have loved Michael Daugherty!

However, what might be perceived as a loss as far as the impact of Route 66 is concerned benefits hugely the next work Ghost Ranch. This is by some distance the most impressive work on this disc and as alluded to above expands our knowledge of the range and depth of Daugherty’s musical and emotional vocabulary. Is it my imagination but the playing too has that extra tiny percentage of commitment? Hurrah for the BBC – this was a commission by them for these performers who gave the premiere in 2006. This three movement work celebrates the life and art of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1968) who created works of art inspired by the landscape and unforgiving environment of her New Mexico home. Daugherty, although still using a large orchestral canvas, pares back the gestures creating at times minimalist passages quite unlike his usual music. Polyrhythms abound which the orchestra navigate with nonchalant ease. I particularly like the way Daugherty integrates this motivic-cell structure into his usual feeling for syncopation and orchestral colour creating a texture where the detail is busy but the overall sense is of stasis. The central panel of this triptych is in many ways the most impressive. In Above Clouds it is the five French horns who are spread across and above the orchestra. Daugherty says he sought to emulate O’Keeffe’s desire to achieve “the near and far, both in time and space” in her work. The resonance of the Poole Arts Centre which detracted from the edginess of the earlier work adds atmosphere and warmth allowing the horns to sound heroically over surging strings. Yes, this is a tad cinematic but you would have to have a very cold heart not to be moved by the climax. After the exalting strings and horns of this movement the final Black Rattle has more of the nervous energy more usually associated with this composer. It has a toccata-like quality but with fewer of the comic-book associations. The slower central section is simultaneously lyrical and faintly threatening representing, according to the composer, “the feeling of slowly walking in blackness”. This brief section is swept away by scurrying winds over walking bass lines and jerky brass fanfares. The close of the work is typically exciting with rhythms and instrumental groups piled on each other vying for supremacy.

Sunset Strip is back on more familiar comic-strip [pun intended] territory. Daugherty has a natural affinity for throwing together in opposition and juxtaposition musical styles. So a piece which represents a cultural melting pot – the premise is wandering down the eponymous Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles from dusk to dawn is tailor-made to appeal. Enormous praise to trumpeters Peter Turnbull and Denis Curlett who are magnificent in every sense of this work. I’m no brass player but their parts sound horribly hard but they play them superbly; technique to spare but with bags of blowsy character. I kept thinking of a kind of X-rated ‘American in Paris’ particularly in the central Nocturne section – full of sexy sleaze. This is the piece here that will most appeal to listeners who enjoyed the razzle-dazzle of the earlier releases in this series. Not that this is all in your face display though – listen to the seductively sensuous wind solos (uncredited) that open the final 7 AM section [track 7] – gorgeous playing perfectly caught by the engineering. Perhaps the homage to Gershwin is a little too undigested here but I’m not complaining. A mariachi band drunkenly wander through at one point before a chromium plated sunrise. Great fun.

After which the final piece Time Machine comes as something of a let-down. I sure that a lot of this work’s success comes from the visual theatre of seeing three distinct groups requiring three conductors. In the concert the eye allows a listener to fillet out musical lines, visual cues helping the ear. The engineering here is as good as it can be but even with headphones the brain resolutely tries to cohere the three distinct orchestral groups into one. Also, the undoubted skill in performance of synchronising the ensembles to come together and then phase apart again counts for little. This is evidently a more self-consciously serious work; the strings have impassioned hymn-like writing reminiscent of Arvo Pärt over dancing wind and ritualistic percussion and soaring brass. Not that this isn’t often effective and certainly excitingly played, it is just that you really do not get the sense that it needed three separate groups to achieve the effect. But there are always going to be personal favourites within the oeuvre of any composer. The overall impression I have is that the more I get to know of Daugherty’s music the more I respect and admire it as a body of work.

Anyone already collecting this series will be delighted to add this to their collection. For those coming to Daugherty for the first time I would not make this disc the point of entry – either of the other two discs mentioned above are preferable in that respect. But it is important to stress what a fine disc this is in technical terms – absurd when offered at Naxos bargain price – and worth sampling for the heroics of the Bournemouth brass.

Nick Barnard

Great fun.