American Pop | Michael Daugherty, composer

American Pop – The Works of Michael Daugherty
Naxos/April 2013
3-CD Box Set


Philadelphia Stories/UFO
Route 66/Ghost Ranch/Sunset Strip/Time Machine
Metropolis Symphony/Deus ex Machina

Evelyn Glennie, percussion
Colorado Symphony
Bournemouth Symphony, Marin Alsop
Terrence Wilson, piano
Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero



By now, anyone who follows contemporary American classical music knows that Michael Daugherty is one of the country’s greatest and most original composers. Anyone who does not know this should get these releases comprising four discs and ten of his most compelling works which offer a great way to get up to speed.

For over twenty years now, the focus of Daugherty’s composition has been to take an admiring, somewhat amusing, sometimes wry and always visionary look at the iconic trends, sights and moments of American culture and history. In so doing, he has created a brilliantly unique style utilizing smatterings of jazz, pop, “minimalism” and his own touches that cannot be characterized that makes Michael Daugherty, in his own way, a uniquely “American” composer. His approach and his writing make him, perhaps, the most unique and archetypical American composer since Copland.

There is so much music here, much of which I hope is familiar to many. For example, his ode to Superman, the Metropolis Symphony, has been played by many orchestras all over the country. Similarly, his amazingly eccentric UFO written for the great percussionist Evelyn Glennie and his beautiful and quirky “road trip”, Route 66, are much honored works in the Daugherty catalogue.

Some of this music may be less familiar, unjustifiably so. Time Machine, from 2003, does not have anything directly in connection with the ‘travelogue’ aspects of the other works on the “Route 66” disc. However, its focus on “Past” and “Future” works nicely to mesh with some of the nostalgic tour of the other works. This is a big vivid orchestral work wherein the ensemble is divided into three parts, requiring three conductors as the orchestra is physically divided on the stage. Daugherty explains that when the three parts play together, it creates a “three dimensional” effect to simulate flying through time. His orchestration is, again, colorful, relying on odd but beautiful effects in the percussion and winds. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra led by the outstanding American conductor and Daugherty expert Marin Alsop give another great performance.

Philadelphia Stories is, essentially, a three-movement tone “Concerto for the City of Brotherly Love” (in a way), paying homage to various aspects of the inner city (“Sundown On South Street“), the macabre nature of Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart“), and the legacy of the dynamic but sometimes controversial conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski (“Bells For Stokowski“). In this last movement, Daugherty creates a sound as if all the bells tolling in Philadelphia represented Stokowski visiting the Liberty Bell. In this recording, Marin Alsop leads the Colorado Symphony in a stirring and committed performance.

Deus ex Machina is a brilliant piano concerto that should get more play for all it has to offer. What makes this surprisingly “serious” work interesting is that it is a concerto for piano in which each movement uses imagery of trains (which, in turn have helped to define and create American expansion). For example, the opening “Fast Forward” is a look at a visionary future in which we have an interconnected world, surging ever forward, brightly. The mood shifts dramatically with “Train of Tears” about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train ride. This is a sad and reverent look at a critical moment in history. The closing “Night Steam” is a bit of a fun ride on the last of the coal-fired trains of the late nineteenth century in a sweeping view of the country. Soloist Terrence Wilson gives a thoughtful, brilliant performance and the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero is a great orchestra, not known enough, in my opinion.

The most recent Naxos Daugherty offering is “Mount Rushmore” which features the title work for chorus and orchestra. Mount Rushmore for chorus and orchestra takes its cue from the iconic four president’s faces carved into the Black Hills by Gutzon Borglum. Each movement uses a blend of music endemic to the time of the president’s term and/or some of their words and thoughts. One of the more interesting movements, in fact, is the superimposition of the hymn “Rock of Ages” over some words about the grandeur of nature delivered by Theodore Roosevelt at the Grand Canyon. (Borglum chose the faces he wanted to commemorate because of their contributions to the union and to expanding America.The net effect of this piece is simply wonderful! This makes an inspiring, grand and only somewhat quirky musical portrait of this monument and the four men themselves. The ‘symphonic fantasy’ Radio City in honor of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony is a very fun, majestic and somewhat reminiscent look at the Italian conductor who used the power of telecommunication to bring classical music to the masses during a time of great global unrest. Appropriately, this collection closes with the “wildest” work herein: The Gospel According to Sister Aimee in reference to the Depression-era Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. Daugherty cleverly captures the frenzy of the times in southern California during Prohibition as he takes us through her wild, guilt- inducing preaching (“Knock Out the Devil”) to the bizarre true escapade wherein Semple allegedly drowned and then ‘miraculously’ re-emerges in Mexico to her self-redeeming efforts selling war bonds, saving her soul and restoring America’s view of her as one their most beloved, if not outrageous, evangelists.

Naxos has shown a tremendous commitment to contemporary American music and here we have two new releases, four discs in all, of one of the country’s most important composers. Michael Daugherty’s music speaks to us all for its topicality and its tonal language that is invigorating, engaging and relevant. I heartily recommend any and all of the discs in these offerings and – for that matter – anything by Daugherty!

~Daniel Coombs