Metropolis Symphony/Deus ex Machina
Terrence Wilson, piano / Nashville Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
REVIEW FROM MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL, NOVEMBER 2009
Without a doubt Michael Daugherty has a nifty knack for a name. It’s a bit like a good news headline—you find yourself drawn in out of curiosity about what lies beneath. The two works here are perfect examples. The one, Metropolis is a series of symphonic movements relating to the Superman comic strip, the other Deus ex Machina is far less clear in its “meaning” but more of that later.
Michael Daugherty is one of those composers whose work sharply divides opinion. I have to say I am firmly in the fan camp. This is contemporary music as fun. Not to say it does not have passages of reflective and searching beauty but the abiding impression is of a composer who revels in using a modern virtuosic orchestra to spectacular effect. The Metropolis Symphonywritten between 1988 and 1993 was his breakthrough work. It is not a symphony—much more a symphonic suite—but this is underlined by the fact that each of the movements is playable as an individual entity. I suspect it might almost work better like that—heard as a sequence there is a certain lack of differentiation that diminishes the overall impression of the work. But that is minor carping. This is comic strip as music (a fact wittily underlined by the album art)—not the epic action movie style of a John Williams. The opening movement Lex sets the tone for the whole disc—antiphonal police whistles, terrifyingly vertiginous solo violin writing superbly dispatched—who is that masked fiddler!?! (actually it is Mary Kathryn Van Osdale who since she gets no separate credit I assume is Concertmistress in Nashville). Listening to more Daugherty you start to recognise compositional fingerprints. He clearly enjoys writing at extremes be they dynamic, spatial (a lot of antiphonal writing and phrases being tossed across and around the orchestra) or registrational (instruments playing at their physical limits). After a nominal slow movement Krypton which grinds from the depths leading to a final apocalyptic destruction of Superman’s home planet we reach the scherzo movement. Wouldn’t you just love hearing a radio announcer trying to pronounce MXYZPTLK?! Here the antiphonal effects are provided by a pair of duelling flutes. What I like is the way Daugherty throughout uses the vocabulary of contemporary music but in a way that clearly links it to more populist musical genres as well as making it compelling listening in its own right. This carried through to the final pair of movements which I liked most of all. Oh, Lois! is marked to be played “faster than a speeding bullet” and as Daugherty explains in his liner note it “…suggests a cartoon history of mishap, screams, dialogue, crashes, and disasters, all in rapid motion.” This is a perfect succinct description for a real romp of a piece quite brilliantly performed—as is the whole disc by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero. Much play is made in some of the publicity material for this disc of a London performance being likened to a modern day Symphonie Fantastique. I guess in the main this is due to the dominance of the plain song Dies Irae which dominates the last movement much as it does in Berlioz’s work. That is one of the more fatuous parallels—you might as well say it’s a latter day Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances for the same reason. Metropolis has no need of any comparative crutches—it wholly succeeds on its own merits. The last movement Red Cape Tango is essentially a thirteen minute symphonic tango based in the main on the aforementioned Dies Irae chant for the dead. Quite whether it has anything at all to do with Superman I am not sure but it sustains a menacingly building tension brilliantly.
Deus ex Machina is a much later work—in essence a piano concerto from 2007. Again to quote Daugherty; “Each of the three movements is a musical response to the world of trains”. Again this is a brilliantly scored work and is more an integrated whole than the preceding symphony. If I enjoyed it slightly less overall than Metropolis this is a purely personal response. It follows a traditional fast-slow-fast format with the emotional core being carried by the central movement’s evocation of the train that carried President Lincoln’s body back to Illinois in 1865. The final movement evokes the last days of steam in America and the booklet includes a beautiful example of one of the photographs by O. Winston Link that inspired it. Pianist Terrence Wilson dispatches the awkward-sounding piano writing with great aplomb. Much of the time the solo part leads from within the orchestral texture—perhaps more sinfonia concertante than true concerto but again this is to obsess over semantics. One final interesting thought though going back to my opening comment about titles. Deus ex Machina indeed does literally translate as “God from the machine” as Daugherty points out. However the derivation of the phrase is quite different. It comes from ancient Greek theatre and meant a theatrical/plot device whereby a character or situation was suddenly radically altered by the intervention of the Gods. Literally the actor playing the God was lowered into the performing space by machine to “save the day”. This was considered a weak plot device since it allowed for massive alterations with no dramatic preparation. One could argue—and this is the interesting point—that Super heroes are the ultimate modern-day “deus ex machinas” since they can be free “with a single bound” so perhaps this title should apply more to Metropolis! Not that it matters a jot but did Daugherty pick the title because it certainly is a good title or is there more at work here than he admits to in the liner?
Naxos has been doing Daugherty proud in recent years—already their discs of his music are proving to be reference recordings (see review of 8.559165—Philadelphia Stories). Engineering and performance here is ridiculously good. If I am being very very slightly picky, the sound on the last disc—(Fire & Blood Naxos 8.559372) was a fraction better—even richer and full-blooded than this but this is very good too and excellent value at Naxos’ give-away price and 75+ minutes playing time. To be honest any of the three Naxos discs are a good entry point into his compositional world. My guess is that if you like what you hear on one you will find yourself buying all three—I have!
- Nick Barnard
REVIEW FROM SEQUENZA 21, JANUARY 19, 2010
Now it is Nashville’s turn. Metropolis Symphony was the first piece by Michael Daugherty that I ever heard. Drawing from Superman mythos, Daugherty creates vibrant and energetic aural pictures of people, places, and events that are vital to the Man of Steel. Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and Mxyzptlk all show up in almost perfect musical form. Completed around the time of Superman’s highly publicized death in the early 90s (as opposed to the other deaths of Superman’s, but that is a different story), the piece culminates in the “Red Cape Tango” which mixes tango rhythms with the Dies irae chant. Each movement is well crafted, expressively performed, and just fun to listen to. The five movements function as a concerto for orchestra, with each section getting time to shine. Nashville breathes wonderful life into this character music and is able to give the piece everything it needs to be successful.
Deus ex Machina, for piano and orchestra, takes its inspiration from trains. ”Fast Forward” spins and whirls around with the kind of focused energy you’d expect from a train motif. The middle movement, “Train of Tears,” is a heartful and sad exploration full of expressive and colorful piano gestures and haunting orchestral solos. The final movement, as you might expect, is a barn burner that rides along a boogie-woogie style bass line in the piano. This recording is another instance of a great orchestra playing well, recording it in concert, and getting it out for others to enjoy.
I know some who poo-poo Michael Daugherty’s music as being “gimmicky.” I disagree completely. While Daugherty is quite a ways away from “high modernism,” he is extremely capable of writing good tunes with vivid imagery and satisfying dramatic arcs. I get the sense that his music is a fluid extension of his creative desires. Nothing sounds forced or strained, instead the music just goes where it needs to go. If you think that “accessible” is a four-letter word, you probably won’t enjoy these discs. If you want to hear traditional tone poems written for a modern audience, I can’t think of a better place to start.
REVIEW FROM ACOUSTIC LEVITATION
For some reason, I mistakenly connected Michael Daugherty with the Bang On A Can crew. He is post-modern, though, in the sense of using materials from everywhere. From Wikipedia, the background details most revealing about his music was that he learned to play piano himself ("Alexander's Ragtime Band") via the family player-piano, that he wanted to become a composer after hearing a performance of Sam Barber's Piano Concerto, studied with Charles Wuorinen, and had a stint at IRCAM where he encountered Gerard Grisey and Frank Zappa.
Leonard Bernstein told him to combine American popular with concert music. He worked on his Yale dissertation about the connection between Mahler and Ives, and Emerson and Goethe. Well-rounded is what I'm aiming at, musically and otherwise. Clearly you'd want to be seated next to him at a dinner party. But how goes the music?
Wonderfully! This will be on my 2009 Best List. The slipcase cover of Metropolis Symphony loudly declares its intent and content: a red-caped Superman-like character in rapid flight over a metropolitan skyline. The composition is in five movements, they are non-programmatic, and each may be performed (or, at home, played) individually.
"Lexx" opens with a police whistle; right away there's trouble afoot. There's only the broadest minimalist reference of a broadly repeating phrase, and just for a minute or so.
"Krypton" opens with a police siren, then darkly ominous strings, very realistically captured fire bells, triangles and other percussive materials. Think: Appalachian Spring gone askew thanks to spiraling string glissandi and Mary Kathryn Van Osdale's violin, ending with a siren going off in homage to Varèse's Ionisation.
"MXYZPTLK" is more chamber-like with its flutes and piccolo and ends with a crack. "Oh, Lois!" offers swirling strings and that wind-swirly-whistling thing (forgive my technical exactitude), following by a manic brass chase that starts to sound like the well-known bumblebee flight, then quickly shifts off into it's own wild-ride.
"Red Cape Tango" is appropriately slow and insinuating, with a reprise of the previous bells.
Deus ex Machina for Piano and Orchestra: It begins with Henry Cowell-like strums inside the piano, followed by an intricate, rapidly-ascending line that simultaneously recalls Nancarrow and ragtime. The orchestra with piano is truly grand without being grandiose or bombastic; a great accomplishment. The piano solos evoke tender emotions, until it thunders up spiral staircases to Hollywood action-film evocation. You hear Barber, you hear lots of Bernstein, some Rachmaninoff in the piano.
Each of the movements is meant to be "a musical response to the world of trains." You already know the famous works which do this.
The first movement, "Fast Forward," stands up to all of them. It's very loud, exciting stuff, inspired by Italian futurist painters. The "Train of Tears" uses "Taps," what the composer refers to as his own "ghost melody" and other elements to evoke Lincoln's funeral train.
The closer, "Night Steam," uses 20th Century American-style rhythms and speed in response to photographs of the motion of the last steam locomotives. Terrence Wilson does a fine job with the modernist piano part; I'd love to hear him tackle a Rachmaninoff concerto or the Barber sonata.
I'm not rushing this review for musical lack of quality, but rather, the adrenaline each work brought out in me forces me to walk away from the keyboard now, sit in front of the audio system, and enjoy another go-round for pure, close-listening pleasure.
If you've read this far, just get it. Worth more than twice the cost of Naxos' list price of nine bucks, available in NYC for seven or less. I look forward to hearing more of his Naxos recordings, and seeing his opera Jackie-O.
REVIEW FROM MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL
Daugherty holds the evangel for melody and rhythmic vitality without any hint of minimalism. He emerges from the epic American high plains of Harris and 1940s Copland yet strides with confidence amid the language of high culture, popular music and classic film score. It’s a volatile brew transcending any fears of comic book trivia.
TheMetropolis Symphonyis a big burly phantasmagoric romp of a symphony. That it was inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of Superman’s arrival in the pages of DC Comics is consistent with the work’s riotous primary colours and indefatigable rowdy energy. We are assured by the composer that the five movements are not narrative. They’re a series of bold mood pictures with the neon brashness and whole spectrum gaud of the pulp magazine covers. Interesting the sleeve illustration affectionately parodies the genre as well.
It’s not all scorching Sabre-Jet ascents and dives. Much of it revels in closely recorded soloistic episodes including warm and hoarse violin writing, skittering bell-bright percussion and gannet-diving flutes duos:MXYZPTLK(III). The horns step up the plate in an exultant golden roar as if in tribute to Bernard Herrmann’sDeath Hunt.Krypton(II) makes howling-growling and minatory use of the motor siren and the wailing string ululations we associate with Penderecki and Hovhaness. The writing then becomes psychedelically evocative of Tippett and Silvestrov in its dense and slowly writhing richness. Yet there’s also sufficient brightly imagined gravamen to give the work a huge shot of symphonic weight. It was quite a coup to make the dynamo finale a tango with its delicious shiver of Shchedrin meetsDies IraemeetsTotentanz. The Schuman-like kinetic charge of the final pages is radiant with optimism. This adds up to a deeply enjoyable symphony with enough of the cinema about to make it often confident and exciting. Great stuff!
The dedicatee of theMetropolis Symphonyis David Zinman who encouraged its writing. He gave the world première at Carnegie Hall in January 1994 with the Baltimore Symphony.
Deus ex Machinafor piano and orchestra was a collegiate commission from the orchestras of Charlotte, Nashville, New Jersey, Rochester and Syracuse. This three movement piano concerto can now join the list of musical works linked to railroads and trains.Fast Forwardis a storm of rhythmic sound recalling Mossolov, Honegger and Markevich. This is linked in the composer’s mind with futurism and the role that trains played in that movement - breathless stuff.Train of Tearsmarks a shift of mood: elegiac and more musical and engaging than the visceral blast ofFast Forward. Noble Americana is the engine for this piece which leans on the image of the train that carried the corpse of Abraham Lincoln from Washington to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. The piano writing is distinctive - my closes approximation would be a sort of blend of Rachmaninov and pastoral Copland. The finale isNight Steam. Here Daugherty pays exciting tribute to the coal-burning steam locomotives that survived into the early 1960s in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. Each grand colossus was documented in the monochrome photographs taken by O. Winston Link. These smoke belching dreadnoughts of the rails live again in Daugherty’s jazzy-bluesy kaleidoscopic and brakeless careering hayride.
Both works are played to the hilt and the recording - especially in the case of the symphony - is the modern equivalent of Decca’s best analogue vintage.
Daugherty must be very pleased with this disc which also draws attention to a name new to me: Giancarlo Guerrero. Watch out for more from him and from Daugherty.