Friday, October 23, 2009

The Orchestral Music of Michael Daugherty

We live in a pluralistic world. In the visual arts today, for example, no one style holds absolute sway. Traverse the galleries this autumn and you'll find any number of post-, neo-, quasi-, appropriated or just plain straightforward work in the style of "x." So conceptualism, performance art, expressionism, abstract expressionism, neo-geo, representational, hyper-realism and any number of other styles rub shoulders indiscriminately. I suppose this is a healthy trend. I really am rather neutral about it, though.

In contemporary classical concert music the same thing might be said. There are the minimalists, post-minimalists, neo-romantics, post-serialists, noise artists, and any number of other avenues of musical composition. The days of "this style and no other" have seemingly passed. That brings us to American composer Michael Daugherty. He is not easily categorized. He writes music that shows imagination, exceptional orchestrational craftsmanship and a thoroughgoing eclecticism.

A recent Naxos release is a case in point. It contains three interesting works, performed with excellence by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi. The principal work on the disk, Fire and Blood for Violin and Orchestra, features Ida Kavafian as soloist playing a part that has distinct roots in the romantic era violin showpiece. Yet the piece itself combines a rhapsodic orientation with modern orchestral tone painting of a high order. The piece musically depicts artist Diego Rivera and his 1932 mural commissions honoring the auto industry. Subsequently the music in this piece incorporates Mexican musical folk elements, and not just in terms of the marimba part. It's a masterful work, and both Ms. Kavafian and the Detroit Symphony give a stirring performance.

Daugherty's Motor City Triptych, a work from 2000, gives the listener another half-hour of attractive tone painting. The third movement with its Villa Lobos-like writing for three trombones particularly stands out.

The CD concludes with Raise the Roof, an exciting piece for solo timpani and orchestra. It is one of the single most convincing vehicles for the solo timpani that I have yet to hear, a tour de force of kinetic energy with some wonderful playing by soloist Brian Jones.

Michael Daugherty writes a directly communicating music that has the straightforward qualities of some of Aaron Copland's best scores. The Naxos CD has brilliant sound and Neeme Jarvi gives us a precision rendering that does not eschew the passion Daugherty's scores contain. A most satisfying release is this, and highly recommended for anyone interested in what orchestral music is about today.

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