The Boyer College of Music and Drama at Temple University are clearly very proud of their commission from Michael Daugherty of this Tuba Concerto entitled Reflections on the Mississippi
. So proud that the cover of this disc is emblazoned with the title to the near exclusion of the coupling of the Shostakovich Symphony which huddles down in the bottom right-hand cover of the sleeve. That's about as good as it gets for the Shostakovich for nowhere else in the liner is the work mentioned at all
except in the orchestral list where some principal players are designated for the symphony.
Admirers of Daugherty's work will want the disc since it is performed by the players who gave the premiere; namely the Temple University Symphony Orchestra under their conductor Luis Biava with soloist Carol Jantsch. Jantsch is currently principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra so no surprise that she is an exceptionally fine player. Indeed, her playing is the main reason for hearing this disc. My interest in Daugherty's compositions is waning. There is a certain formulaic sameness in his preference for multi-movement quasi-narrative forms that has begun to pall. As often is the case he provides a brief explicatory note and as before this explains the biographical or illustrative basis of the movement or whole work. The basis for this work to quote Daugherty is that it was; "composed in memory of my father Willis Daugherty, this concerto is a musical reflection on family trips during my childhood to the Mississippi River."
The strengths of the work are Daugherty's keen ear for instrumental colour and infectious use of rhythm. The opening movement is thematically particularly weak based on a broken tonic triad it proves to be very disappointing. The second movement, Fury,
is on much safer ground if a movement based on a flood in 1927 could be so termed. Here it possible to hear just how well prepared this student orchestra is - in no sense does one have to make even the slightest allowance for a nominally non-professional ensemble. With its constantly shifting time-signatures this is the kind of movement that is Daugherty specialty and as such works well. I suppose what I want to hear now from him is something more profound not just toe-tappingly infectious - there is no peril in this flood. The third movement Prayer
takes on the role of 'slow movement' and has a latter-day Morton Gould blues inflected folksiness that again is easily appealing without touching deep emotional nerves. Daugherty's use of various bells and tuned percussion provides an effective sonic bed over which the soloist and strings lead the hymn-like prayer of the title, the music teetering on the edge of a cinematic sense of heroic fervour. By some distance I most enjoyed the closing Steamboat
section most which features a kind of duelling banjos between violin and tuba - a passage as novely bizarre as that sounds and quite brilliantly played. Daugherty gives Jantsch a ferociously hard stride-piano type figure. This movement features a cadenza for the tuba which in turn leads back to material which recalls the opening. At no point in the work do you have any sense that Jantsch is playing an instrument which can sound unwieldy or leaden. Her playing is brilliantly lithe and athletic or mellifluous and lyrical as required - a real tour de force
. In that sense the work is
successful because it does not allow itself to be limited by any preconceptions about what the instrument could or should do.
Which brings me to that minor make-weight of a piece; Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. Risky putting the work of a competent and talented composer next to that of a certain genius. More so when it is clear that conductor Luis Biava has little if anything to offer in this work and the orchestra are significantly less well prepared. The Daugherty is really very well performed indeed and is a far from straightforward work. The Shostakovich suffers from some cautious string playing which verges on the occasionally scrappy and thoroughly underwhelming brass. There are some quite gorgeous woodwind solos; the clarinets are particular stars both in a stunningly beautiful opening to the second movement Moderato
- as well as I have heard it played - and the cheeky thirrd movement Presto
- even if this is too slow as well. The principal bassoon is very fine too in the 4th movement Largo
- exactly the right sense of a chilled lament with the quiet dynamics beautifully observed. Sadly Biava completely misjudges the opening and closing movements. The first is played at around a complacent minim/half not 113 instead of the 132 marked in the score. Hence it ambles along with an easy self-contented blandness. Likewise the (in)famous closing march which should be all pantomime and blaring circus music instead of the expected Soviet triumphal march. Biava chooses a safe tempo underpinned by safe dynamics safely played with the result the music rum-ti-tums along with none of the gleeful menace that underpins the work . Given that Biava spent many years as a string principal in the Philadelphia Orchestra presumably working with the likes of Shostakovich expert Eugene Ormandy the utter lack of empathy with this work confounds me. It's one of the few times I have ever been bored by a Shostakovich symphony. Why bother presenting a performance such as this on disc if it has such little resonance or purpose? At least explain why
the works are so paired.
For a disc presumably produced by an academic institution I find the poor amateurish quality of the presentation quite inexplicable; as mentioned nothing about the Symphony, no detailed recording data, some bland biographies, an orchestral list and a couple of pictures is the sum of its contents. The packaging itself is a lightweight cardboard gatefold with an additional paper insert the combination of which does not feel like a premium presentation. Engineering-wise this disc is well-done. Occasionally the upper strings lack the sheer weight of tone their professional counterparts would produce although I could not be sure if this was a function of the playing or the engineering. Generally the orchestral perspective is natural and well-handled - Jantsch's breaths in the concerto are occasionally audible. The lack of recording information makes it very hard to be sure if this has been made under studio or concert conditions. Possibly the latter which would account for the occasional scrappiness and some very faint 'noises off' that might come from an audience - but there is no applause and these noises are very slight. Given a total playing time of sub fifty minutes and the fact that more than half of that is of little enduring interest to anyone except the participants, this is a disc of strictly limited appeal.
Another viewpoint ...
Michael Daugherty’s tuba concerto Reflections on the Mississippi
is the kind of music that any concert audience will like. Colourfully scored, full of Americana tune, and unironically populist, it divides into four movements of music that reflects on scenic vistas and the stories of Mark Twain. The first movement is a slow one, the tuba intoning the theme over lots of writing for glockenspiel and other percussion. Then we get the scherzo, which follows Copland and Bernstein closely. You’ll hear a lot of the fight scenes from West Side Story
and the dramatic shootouts from Copland’s westerns.
Next is a “Prayer,” a cinematic score which combines church bells, hymn-like tunes and a climax where the tuba sings alongside massed violins. Hints of blues tease at the raucous finale, with its folk influences from Cajun country.
All in all, this is a very Daugherty score. It’s so populist, so ready-made for movies and so heavy on percussion batteries that it will provide great delight to those who find most contemporary music hostile and inaccessible. On the other hand, snobs and connoisseurs may turn their noses up at the abundant tunes, splashy orchestrations and emotional detachment. Either way, you have to admire Daugherty’s conquest of the difficulty of writing a tuba concerto. The tuba part is terrific: blessed with great melodies, exploring the instrument’s entire range, challenging the soloist, and fun to hear. You certainly never tire of tuba, especially since Carol Jantsch, principal tuba player of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is so good. Jantsch, who is just 29 years old, is phenomenally talented and gives this performance everything she’s got. Jantsch will be touring the piece, starting with her own Philadelphia Orchestra.
The coupling is Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony; I’m not sure why. Copland’s Billy the Kid
and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances
would have made more sense, given the similarities of musical language. Maybe they would have been unflattering to Daugherty, since the rewards of his piece are mostly on the surface level. I must agree with a critic elsewhere who points out that although the Shostakovich performance is consistently very fine and most solos are on-point, tempos are slow in every single movement, probably to protect the student orchestra from running off the rails.
The Temple University Symphony is yet more proof that American conservatories have remarkably high standards for their student ensembles. The Shostakovich recording will probably be nobody’s favourite, but they are doing a great service by letting us hear Michael Daugherty’s tuba concerto. This release, from Temple University’s own music department, is basically a glorified envelope with the CD in one pouch and artist biographies in the other. The recorded sound is surprisingly good and totally professional, but do I hear somebody talking at track 5, 3:52?
Michael Daugherty is trying his darnedest to be the most American of American composers. He’s already written a symphony about Superman
, a musical portrait of Mount Rushmore
, a percussion concerto called “UFO”
, tributes to Route 66
, and a celebration of Detroit
. All of it lacks the depth and meaning of the best Bernstein, Copland or Barber, which Daugherty compensates for by out-glitzing them all. I guess that makes him a fitting composer for our time.
Masterwork Index: Shostakovich symphony 9