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Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Philadelphia Stories (2001)
UFO (1999)a
Evelyn Glennie (percussion)a
Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded: Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, November 2002
NAXOS 8.559165 [64:38]


Philadelphia Stories, that the composer describes as his third symphony, was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and first performed by them under the direction of David Zinman. In three movements, this "travelogue of the sounds and rhythms of Philadelphia" begins at sundown (Sundown on South Street) with a colourful evocation of one of the most popular streets of Philadelphia and one well-known to the composer who was used to play jazz there in the 1980s. The music is appropriately brilliant and full of energy, in a fairly eclectic, often jazzy way (shades of urban Leonard Bernstein here). The second movement (Tell-Tale Harp) is some sort of nocturne (the composer prefers to call it an arabesque for two harps and orchestra) that obliquely refers to Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. This homage to Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra ends with a tribute to Stokowski (Bells for Stokowski) that alludes to Stokowski’s pioneering concert making as well as to his often larger-than-life Bach arrangements. For the most part, this movement is a big set of variations on a Bach-like tune by Daugherty followed by the composer’s own transcription of Bach’s own C major prelude. It all ends in full "Stokowski sound".

Daugherty’s percussion concerto UFO was written for Evelyn Glennie (who else indeed?). As may be expected, the music sets out to explore a formidable range of sounds as well as to put Glennie’s virtuosity to the test. It is in five movements bringing a good deal of often intriguing percussion instruments, identified and unidentified as well. The first movement functions as a short prelude opening mysteriously with some rustling sounds and bringing-in a siren for good measure. The xylophone as well as some pieces of scrap metal feature prominently in the second, fast movement, a virtuoso scherzo in all but the name. Flying, that follows, is the longest movement of the whole work suggesting flying saucers (primarily vibraphone within a fluid orchestral fabric). The fourth movement (titled ???) leaves much to one’s imagination (note the use of that rare instrument, the contrabassoon). The final movement is – appropriately enough – what I would describe as a brilliant HST (High Speed Toccata) ending the work in high jinks. Though it must be fun to play (i.e. in the hands of a first-class virtuoso) and to watch in a live performance, the piece as a whole may be somewhat less successful than one might have expected. To a certain extent, Jerry Goldsmith’s main title for The Planet of the Apes is much more telling and more successful in suggesting outer space mysteries.

I have read some adverse comments on Daugherty’s music often described as brash, vulgar, vernacular, gaudy and populist. I really do not know since this is my first encounter (or my encounter of the first type!) with his music; and I found Philadelphia Stories an attractive, albeit joyfully eclectic but utterly serious piece of music, whereas UFO is – as far as I am concerned – somewhat less satisfying, although a formidable showcase for top-rank percussionists. Needless to say that Evelyn Glennie navigates almost effortlessly throughout the whole piece. No earth-shaking masterpieces here, but Daugherty obviously knows how to handle large orchestral forces. Marin Alsop and her Colorado orchestra respond with vivid and committed playing.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Colin Clarke

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