Fire & BloodFire and Blood, MotorCity Triptych, Raise the Roof

Ida Kavafian, violin

Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Jí¤rvi, conductor

Naxos Records

The Detroit Symphony released three excellent performances (live recordings, to boot) of orchestral music by Michigan-based composer Michael Daugherty.  Fire and Blood for violin and orchestra was inspired by Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals and throughout the composition Daugherty adeptly integrates Latin-inspired touches into his regular boisterous musical language without sounding cliche or silly.  Ida Kavafian draws every ounce of passion and fire (and blood) out of the music and brings it into the sonic world.  Daugherty’s musical language is, on one hand, very traditional and comfortable but also includes touches and flares of more expressionistic passages that lend much to the drama and tension of his music.  Given the picturesque subject matter I hear a lot of musical connections to, of all pieces, Scheherazade.  Yes, Daugherty’s work is a full-blown violin concerto but the story lines of each movement propel the drama forward in a similar manner as in the Rimsky-Korsakov.  Maybe it is just me.

MotorCity Tryptich is a lighter exploration of Detroit-inspired sources.  In “Motown Mondays,” Daugherty again takes a foreign (to orchestras, anyway) musical language and sets it within the orchestra with flair and panache that goes above and beyond cheesy “pops concert” fodder.  ”Pedal-to-the-Metal” takes some obvious Copland references and runs wild and free with them.  ”Rosa Parks Boulevard” starts with some dramatic harmonies and morphs into and out of various scenes and landscapes.  The trombone section is heavily featured in this movement and play with a rich, soulful sound.

The timpani concerto/showpiece Raise the Roof is a perfect closer for the disc.  Brian Jones, timpani soloist, is a great force in front of the orchestra but also brings subtlety and nuance to the quieter passages.  The rapid pitch changes of the midpoint cadenza are clean, crisp, and musically done.  The roof gets sufficiently raised, in case you were worried.

Metropolis Symphony Metropolis Symphony, Deus ex Machina

Terrence Wilson, piano

Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Naxos Records

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.

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