American Byways | Michael Daugherty, composer

American Byways
Equilibrium/December 2012


Firecracker/Regrets Only/Rosa Parks Boulevard
Walk the Walk/Blue like an Orange
Diamond in the Rough/Bizarro
University of Central Oklahoma Wind Symphony & Friends
Brian Lamb, conductor



Michael Daugherty is one of America’s very best and best known living composers. The Iowa native (Cedar Rapids) is on the composition faculty of the University of Michigan and has for many years had a very unique style. His music frequently relies on a somewhat “tongue in cheek” look at American culture or human behavior in general. Readers may be familiar with his somewhat outrageous opera, Jackie O or his Metropolis Symphony, based on the “Superman” comics.

Just a quick look at the always clever titles to his works, including those in this collection, gives you a good idea about the unique nature of his music. Daugherty’s music is upbeat, tuneful, frequently jazz- influenced and actually quite demanding to play but, I think, always great fun to listen to. This collection makes for a wonderful introduction to his wind music and contains some great works that are not as well known as some of his output.

Firecracker, which opens this set, is, basically, a virtuoso concerto for oboe and chamber ensemble. Based on the notoriously difficult etudes by early 20th century master oboist Antonio Pasculli, this work requires some separation in the staging of the players to achieve a “stereo” effect and is quite a show for soloist Kadee Bramlett, who plays wonderfully! Other works in this set that feature commanding solo performances include Walk the Walk for baritone sax and ensemble and a couple of fascinating trio works. Walk the Walk is a perfect example of Daugherty’s creative sense of humor. Based on a riff from The Temptations’ “My Girl,” this showpiece includes sound moments from the worlds of rock, jazz and Motown. Soloist Jared Cathey has great tone and carries this off with the necessary verve.

The two works that feature a trio are Regrets Only, from 2006, and Diamond in the Rough of the same year. Regrets Only, scored for violin, cello and piano is reminiscent of late 19th-century salon music and the title comes from a quote by Thoreau. This is a more reserved and nostalgic side of the composer’s output; quite beautiful. Diamond in the Rough is a brief three movement work for violin, viola and percussion and chamber ensemble that was written for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 1756. This incredibly creative work is based on three examples of Mozart’s monumental output. “Magic” uses glockenspiel to emulate Papageno’s aria in The Magic Flute; “Fifty-Five Minutes Past Midnight” utilizes the eerie sound of crystal glasses to conjure up the mystery surrounding the exact time of Mozart’s death and “Wig Dance” is a wildly irreverent musing on the populist image of Mozart as an immature partyier (as in the film Amadeus). This, too, is a brilliant piece, a little different from the others herein.

There are also three wonderful examples of whole ensemble writing. Rosa Parks Boulevard pays tribute to the American civil rights icon but is also a very personal work for Daugherty who had the privilege of meeting her at a church service and talk in Detroit. Parks told the composer that her favorite piece of music was the traditional spiritual “Oh Freedom” which plays a prominent role in this work. The three trombone soloists who carry much of the melody do a tremendous job and this work is quite inspirational. Blue Like an Orange is a wide ranging and cheeky look at the nearly countless ways that music treats the idiomatic g-minor blues and is quite entertaining.

Bizarro, the one work here I had heard before, is a kind of spin-off from Daugherty’s well-known work, the Metropolis Symphony. “Bizarro”, in the “Superman” comics is a kind of ‘anti-Superman’ character created by a diabolical ray gun invented by Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. As one might expect, this is a high energy and frenetic work that gets faster, louder, more and more wild until it crashes (the percussion section gets quite the workout!)

This is a wholly entertaining album for true Michael Daugherty fans like me, but also makes for a great way for the uninitiated to get to know this brilliantly eclectic composer. The University of Central Oklahoma Wind Symphony and all the great soloists are also a revelation. I had never heard anything from this group and from a state not yet immediately thought of for great music and music education. Highest compliments to conductor Brian Lamb for putting his school on the musical map where it clearly belongs!

~Daniel Coombs