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Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Philadelphia Stories (2001) [28’39]
UFO (1999) [35’37]
Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop.
Rec. Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado, USA, 14-17 Nov 2002. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559165 [64’38]


My experiences of the music of Michael Daugherty so far have not been happy ones. His Metropolis Symphony in particular exudes a sense of the hopelessly futile. Alas this disc does not change matters one iota. There is no doubt he is well-served by Naxos, who have enlisted the services of the excellent Tim Handley as Producer and Engineer of this disc. And percussionists don’t get much more high-profile than super-virtuoso Evelyn Glennie.

Perhaps the first phrase of Naxos’s blurb that should set alarm-bells ringing is the claim that Daugherty is ‘one of the most performed American composers of concert music of his generation’. Well, that is because his music is accessible. But there is nothing to go hand-in-hand with that accessibility to give the sound any substance, beyond perhaps a certain craftsmanship.

Philadelphia Stories is a Philadelphia Orchestra commission. Providing his own booklet notes, Daugherty describes this work as ‘a musical travelogue of the sounds and rhythms of Philadelphia’. It tracks the course of a night, as the first movement is set at dusk, the second after midnight and the final one at sunrise.

Parts of Philadelphia have appeared before. James DePreist and the Oregon Symphony put down the first movement on Delos ; and the third movement has appeared on a Reference Recordings disc entitled ‘Bells for Stokowski’. Like most Daugherty, it is overlong for its materials so hearing it in bits is possibly the best way, if you have to hear it at all.

The first movement, ‘Sundown on South Street’ begins with a gesture (like a shaking of maracas) whose meaning is unclear. The ‘pop’ elements are, to my ears, hackneyed. It quickly becomes clear that this is music of empty rhetoric, just like all the other music I have heard by this composer. Antiphonally-placed harps dominate ‘Tell-Tale Harp’ (the composer describes this second movement as ‘an arabesque for two solo harps and orchestra’). Musically this is far better, with fairly effective rhythmic play. This is flighty and elusive, with elfin rhythms.

‘Bells for Stokowski’, at 13’33, is by far the longest of the three movements. Stokowski’s association with Philadelphia is the stuff of legend, of course. Daugherty imagines Stokowski ‘visiting the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia at sunrise and listening to all the bells of the city resonate’. Certainly the bells are nicely recorded (as is the uncredited solo violinist), yet the music easily returns to its reliance of succession of effects, often filmic in nature. This, though, is over-long, of that there can surely be little or no argument. It might be fun to play (it almost certainly is), but actually listening to it is another matter. Which makes the fact that it is excellently played and equally excellently recorded all the more of a shame. When the Colorado players get together again with this recording team with some contemporary music … now that will be a record to treasure!. (I note there is a Tchaikovsky disc by the Alsop/Colorado combi that would be interesting to hear: the Fourth Symphony and Romeo and Juliet, 8.555714, welcomed by Rob Barnett here on MusicWeb).

UFO is performed here by its dedicatee. Evelyn Glennie seems to relish each and every challenge Daugherty throws at her in his exploration of ‘unidentified flying objects and sounds’ (the composer). The first movement is entitled, ‘Traveling Music’ and is ‘where the percussion soloist, in the guise of an alien from outer space, mysteriously enters the concert hall playing a waterphone (http://www.oddmusic.com/gallery/om33000.html ) and a mechanical siren’. Hm. Maybe there are echoes of Stockhausen, presumably unintentional, in the ‘alien part’ (memories of trumpet-playing spacemen in the foyer of Covent Garden for Donnerstag aus ‘Licht’ come flooding back for no good reason). Whatever, it is not long before the music falls back into what I would term ‘energetic meandering’ – plenty of notes going nowhere much, and certainly nowhere particularly interesting. So many notes Glennie had to learn …

The second movement (there are five) is called ‘Unidentified’, referring to unidentified metal found at the scene of the ‘UFO crash’ in 1947 in New Mexico. So the percussionist plays xylophone (virtuosically, here) and ‘eight pieces of unidentified metal’. Nice to have some mystery.

‘Flying’ (the third movement) has Glennie on xylophone, cymbals and mark tree (the latter new to me … see http://www.bellperc.com/misc/marktree.htm for an explanation. Wind-chimes, basically). The highlight here is Glennie’s cadenza late on in the movement, notable not only for her virtuosity but also for exhibiting her innate musicality and sensitivity. The fourth movement is simply entitled, ‘???’ and, says the composer, ‘may leave the listener wondering: is this another UFO sighting?’. It is certainly atmospheric enough, contrasting with the big-bandesque finale. Sometimes this sounds like Daugherty is trying to take on Bernstein in West Side Story mode, and failing. Unfortunately, the empty, dismissive gestures that end the experience seem to sum it all up.

Great production values, supremely dedicated performances … of music that manifestly does not deserve either.

Colin Clarke

 


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