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Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Trail of Tears, for flute and chamber orchestra (2010) [23:00]
Dreamachine, for solo percussion and orchestra (2014) [34:20]
Reflections on the Mississippi, for tuba and orchestra (2013) [20:45]
Amy Porter (flute)
Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Carol Jantsch (tuba)
Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller
rec. 2015/16, EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York; Troy Savings Bank Hall, Troy, New York
NAXOS 8.559807 [78:20]

This is certainly one of the more important offerings in Naxos’ extensive and mostly acclaimed American Classics series. Trails of Tears and Dreamachine are given their first recordings. All three are quite worth your while, if you’re open to new music. My impression of Michael Daugherty’s orchestral and concertante music is that it is generally accessible, often light in mood, colorful and masterly in orchestration, sometimes a bit exotic, and occasionally divulging jazzy rhythms or other popular music characteristics. Another disc of his on Naxos contains two works, Philadelphia Stories and UFO, the latter piece featuring Evelyn Glennie on percussion as well. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the music on that recording, but this new collection of works strikes me as quite engaging. The three compositions, concertos all as noted by the composer in his extensive album commentary, are quite fine indeed, especially Dreamachine and Reflections on the Mississippi.

Dreamachine is the most solidly crafted piece here, a rare example of a serious and quite effective work for percussion. No, it does not aim to be deeply profound, but it is substantive and highly imaginative in its shifting moods and sci-fi oriented depictions of Leonardo da Vinci, Rube Goldberg, a Fritz Kahn drawing and Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. As you might expect from its diverse subject matter, it is at times quite exotic and colorful. It clearly has a sense of fantasy about it too in its bell-like sonorities (mainly from the vibraphone) and dreamy moods, especially in the third movement which, as the composer explains in the album notes, depicts Kahn’s “drawing of an incandescent light bulb plugged into an electric eel.” All four movements are splendid creations, though some of the percussion bravura in the finale might reek a bit of claptrap. But then, Dame Evelyn Glennie’s brilliant playing here can come across as exciting, even thrilling especially to drum aficionados. Her performance throughout the work is both tasteful and flashy, also quite nuanced and subtle, most notably in her playing of the vibraphone. David Alan Miller draws an excellent performance from the Albany Symphony Orchestra.

Anyone who can write a thoroughly convincing concerto for that most neglected of instruments, the tuba, deserves high praise. So I tip my hat to Michael Daugherty for producing this piece, Reflections on the Mississippi. To me it rivals the very solidly crafted and very different Vaughan Williams Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra, which has been generally regarded as the preeminent large work for tuba. This new work by Daugherty may now be a good candidate for achieving perhaps a modest level of currency in the concert halls. The tuba writing is very effective and imaginative, sounding as though it is a natural fit for the instrument. Moreover, the music as a whole is very good: it has the flavor at times of mid-20th century American music, with hints of Copland, Diamond and maybe a few others of the period. That said, it is still quite firmly in the eclectic style of Daugherty: try the third movement (Prayer) with its bluesy, jazzy elements that sound both very familiar yet quite fresh as the composer seems to look backward while ultimately evoking a timeless sense. Carol Jantsch, principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, turns in an excellent performance in every respect, and once again David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra offer fine support.

The Trail of Tears, for flute and orchestra, is the most serious work here in terms of both its music and subject matter—a depiction of the forcible displacement of the Native American Cherokee people as a result of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. In 1838 15,000 of these people were removed from their homes and over the next year or so 4,000 died as a result of a government-imposed 800-mile relocation trek in Oklahoma during the winter. Known historically as the Trail of Tears (hence, the title of the work), this death march is portrayed in the first movement. The ensuing panel is a meditation on the overwhelming human loss and the finale depicts a Plains Indians’ religious dance. Daugherty puts a lot of emotion and tension into the music. The flute often wails with wavering tones via exaggerated vibrato and makes spastic, breathy sounds through tonguing effects, but these sonic devices can come across as a little too familiar from their use in so many film scores written for movies and documentaries about Native Americans. The mournful main theme in the first movement—an attractive, dramatic melody that actually appears in many guises—is repeated quite often and begins to wear thin. Still, the music is reasonably well crafted throughout and at times exudes an expressive depth that makes the listener feel the pain and suffering, thus effectively yielding an artistic redress of sorts to the injustice. The finale may be the best movement: its fast pacing, driving rhythms, imaginative orchestration, and scurrying flute music evoke images of its subject matter most effectively. Amy Porter delivers a knock-out performance of this challenging score, and once more David Alan Miller and the Albany players turn in fine work.

Naxos offers clear, well balanced sound in all three pieces, and the acoustics of the two concert halls in Troy, New York seem quite fine. This is one of the finest discs of new works I’ve encountered in recent years. As I suggested at the outset, if you have an interest in new and accessible music, this Naxos CD is definitely a worthwhile acquisition—and you get nearly eighty minutes of music.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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