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Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Tales of Hemingway (2015), for cello and orchestra [28:28]
American Gothic (2013) [21:49]
Once Upon a Castle (2015), for organ and orchestra [27:26]
Zuill Bailey (cello)
Paul Jacobs (organ)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. live, Schermerhorn Symphony Centre, Nashville, Tennessee, 17‒18 April 2015 (Tales of Hemingway, American Gothic) and 4‒7 November 2015 (Once Upon a Castle)
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559798 [77:43]

I have always tended to regard the music of Michael Daugherty as a slightly guilty pleasure. After all, he has no shortage of critics, who accuse his music of being not just eclectic (which it is), but also brash, self-indulgent and even shallow, and one can, up to a point, see what they mean. Personally, though, when listening to Daugherty I just get caught up in the unembarrassed, exuberant energy and virtuosity of it all, and find his music exciting and invigorating in a – sorry, have to say it ‒ quintessentially American way.

One of the things that make Daugherty instantly recognizable as an American composer is of course his subject matter. He has written a great deal of music about America and Americans, not least about celebrated icons of American culture: my first encounter with his work was a memorable concert performance of the wonderfully outrageous Tombeau de Liberace, and he has focused other works on figures as diverse as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elvis Presley, Rosa Parks, Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski. In recent years, however, he seems also to have been writing a good deal of concertante music, such as Dreamachine (2014, for percussion), Reflections on the Mississippi (2013, for tuba ‒ review), Deus ex Machina (2007, for piano ‒ review), or Brooklyn Bridge (2005, for clarinet ‒ review). In this context it should probably come as no surprise that we here have a disc, including a cello concerto about Ernest Hemingway, an organ concerto about Randolph Hearst (with a dash of Orson Welles thrown in) and – bucking the trend only slightly – a concerto for orchestra about the Iowan artist Grant Wood. As the dates given above imply, these are all very recent compositions, recorded here for the first time, though the original version of Once Upon a Castle was completed and premiered in 2003. Quite how this revised version differs from it we are not told.

The work that proclaims itself most obviously as being by Daugherty is probably American Gothic. After a brief opening drum roll, we are immediately confronted by a jaunty solo tuba, playing what Daugherty himself calls “a rollicking melody with colourful orchestration, suggesting the vivid colors and dynamic curves of Grant Wood’s paintings of rural Iowa”, and we soon realize that we are in the presence of a concerto for orchestra, as we follow this melody ascending and descending through all the sections and sub-sections of the Nashville Symphony, until it returns to the very instruments with which the movement started. The energy is infectious, but equally as effective is the slow movement that follows, in which the violins, cellos and woodwind conjure up an impression of “the bleak winter scenes of rural Iowa depicted in Grant Wood’s paintings and black-and-white lithographs of the 1930s‒1940s”. Finally, it’s hoe-down time, featuring “a quirky melody played by the woodwinds, punctuated by spiky chords in the brass section and bluegrass string riffs”. This third movement also is great fun, but does not come across to me, at least, as remotely empty or shallow. On the contrary, one senses that this commission from Orchestra Iowa was, for Daugherty, a particular labour of love: he comes from the same town as Grant Wood (Cedar Springs, IA), and his father was apparently a great admirer and connoisseur of Wood’s regionalist art. Music that by-passes the heart this emphatically is not.

Nor, for certain, is the new cello concerto Tales of Hemingway. The choice of solo instrument presumably reflects the fact that Hemingway himself was a cellist, and each of the work’s four movements is inspired by one or other of his novels and stories: Big Two-Hearted River, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun also Rises. Daugherty claims in his notes that his concerto “evokes the turbulent life, adventures, and literature” of Hemingway. This is a big, indeed probably unachievable claim, and I’m not sure that he altogether delivers on it. Rather, the focus tends to be on Hemingway’s works, their central characters and their geographical settings: if the cello soloist could be said to ‘represent’ anyone, then not Hemingway himself but, for the most part, the male protagonists of the works that Daugherty foregrounds.

The slow, generally reflective first movement of Tales of Hemingway thematises, according to Daugherty’s note, the writer’s belief in the healing power of nature, and it features both an exceptionally beautiful main theme and a cogent development of it that would serve to confute anyone tempted to question Daugherty’s formal craftsmanship. The second, much faster movement has elements of a ‘demonic scherzo’: certainly Daugherty’s delineation of the protagonist Robert Jordan’s tragic progress to his death, complete with tolling bell, builds up considerable cumulative tension, and makes creative use of the Dies irae chant – this seems to be a favourite motif for Daugherty, who uses it also in Once Upon a Castle and, pervasively, in the much earlier Dead Elvis. The third movement in large measure follows the plot of The Old Man and the Sea, and as such features two big climaxes: the first when the fisherman Santiago manages to catch a gigantic marlin, and the second when his prize is summarily devoured by sharks. The final movement, based on Jake Barnes’s visit to the Fiesta at Pamplona in The Sun also Rises is, to my ear, by some way the least satisfactory. Daugherty majors rather too much on clichéd depictions of ‘Spanishness’: the castanets, flamenco-inspired rhythms and depiction of a bull fight tend somewhat to outstay their welcome, and so, unusually at least on this disc, does the movement as a whole, which spreads its material rather thinly over a span of almost exactly ten minutes. Overall, though, Daugherty regales us in this work also with music that is both entertaining and impressive, and which one can imagine many cellists wanting to take up. The writing for the cello is grateful, and makes every effort to exploit the full range of the instrument’s many expressive possibilities.

Much the same could be said for Daugherty’s writing for the organ in Once Upon a Castle. I earlier described this work as an organ concerto, but it might perhaps be more properly thought of as a sinfonia concertante, given the extent to which the organ sound is woven into the orchestral texture and the prominent solo roles allotted to orchestral soloists, especially the concertmaster in the third movement. He or she certainly deserves to be credited in the booklet, along with at least the principal flute and principal tuba, but, sadly, all remain anonymous.

Once Upon a Castle
centres on the so-called Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, which of course appears thinly disguised as Xanadu in Orson Welles’s great cinematic treatment of Randolph Hearst’s career, Citizen Kane. Its first movement, ‘The Winding Road to San Simeon’, which evokes the five-mile road leading up to the castle, seems to me to lack something in focus and melodic memorability; but the rest of the work goes swimmingly. The second movement is about ‘Neptune Pool’, in Daugherty’s words “the centrepiece of the Hearst Castle. Framed by statues of the sea-god Neptune and his Nereids, this magnificent outdoor Olympic-sized pool seems to hover above the clouds of the Pacific Ocean.” Daugherty’s music, describing this great icon, appropriately combines tinkling ‘water music’ with a ponderous godlike grandeur, all most imaginatively scored. In the particularly strong third movement, Orson Welles steps out from the shadow of the ‘real-life’ Hearst, as Daugherty recalls the scene in Citizen Kane in which Kane (the organ) and his by this time desperate wife Susan (the solo violin) argue across a vast empty space. Sleigh-bells at the end are clearly intended to remind us of the all-important but never explained word ‘Rosebud’, which appears on Kane’s childhood sledge. Finally, both Daugherty and his organist pull out all the stops in ‘Xanadu’, loudly and eloquently articulating both its splendour and its intrinsic, ultimately tragic misguidedness.

All in all, I would not say that all the music here is out of Daugherty’s very top drawer, but most of it is, and I would urge anyone unfamiliar with his work to give it a hearing. He is a one-off, and not to everyone’s taste; but he is a composer of real originality and great skill who, to my mind at least, also has important things to say about contemporary American, and hence Western culture. On this disc he is eminently well served by his musicians and by his engineers. The Nashville Symphony and both of its soloists are superb; Giancarlo Guerrero conducts with obvious passion as well as idiomatic expertise, and the recording is beyond reproach. Well worth investigating.

Nigel Harris

 

 




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