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Metropolis Symphony; Deus ex Machina

Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero, cond.
Terrence Wilson, piano.
Naxos 8.559635, 75:55.

Review by Steve Koenig

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.

Interview With Michael Daugherty

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