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CD Review

Michael Daugherty

American Icons

  • Dead Elvis 1
  • Snap! 2
  • What's That Spell? 3
  • Jackie's Song 4
  • Le Tombeau de Liberace 5
  • Motown Metal 6
  • Flamingo 7
1 Charles Ullery, bassoon
3 Lisa Bielawa & Alex Sweeton, vocalists
4 Christopher van Kampen, cello
5 Paul Crossley, piano
1,6,7 London Sinfonietta/David Zinman
2,5 London Sinfonietta/Markus Stenz
3 Dogs of Desire/David Alan Miller
4 London Sinfonietta/Michael Daugherty
Argo 458145-2 DDD 67:27
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Tail fins and the King.

Michael Daugherty studied with several beasts of the postwar European avant-garde, including Boulez, Stockhausen, and Ligéti. However, he sounds like none of them, for he's also an Iowa boy, who grew up in rock bands and marching bands in the land of the cheeseburger.

With this heady mix, no wonder Daugherty sometimes confuses listeners. Many accuse him of superficiality – that is, his music rarely goes beyond surface. Of course, I take another view, namely that his music shows a deep love and understanding of the things he writes about, even if those things in ordinary context may be indeed trivial. But I also believe that your reaction to Daugherty may well depend on how you feel about American kitsch. If your heart doesn't beat a little faster at the sight of the "cigarette-smoking" sign which blew out perfect rings over the old Times Square or of a full-blown Wurlitzer jukebox, Daugherty may not have much to say to you.

The poet Theodore Roethke once remarked that, sooner or later, every American poet must come to terms with Walt Whitman. Daugherty echoes that remark when he writes in the CD's liner notes, "If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis." I don't know about all American riddles, but understanding the phenomenon of Elvis will probably solve quite a few. Dead Elvis varies the Dies irae chant, often with skewed canons, and with various Elvis references thrown in. The most startling of these is the bassoon's crooning of the Presley hit "It's Now or Never" (his version of "O sole mio"). Furthermore, Daugherty specifies that the soloist dress as an Elvis impersonator, complete with wig, aviator shades, scarf, and sequined suit. More subtly, the orchestra plays rockabilly rhythmic riffs, both up-tempo and ballad. Some writers have asked, "to what end?" The thing is, music never gives you an answer. Instead, it invites you to meditate. For me, Daugherty talks about Elvis as both a commodity and an artist, and the myth of Adonis, Venus's beautiful young man who died young. The rather goofy canons made me think both of the immediate outpouring of mass grief and the lingering tabloid question of whether the pop star had really died or had just gone off to hide somewhere.

In Snap! Daugherty pays tribute to Jimmy Cagney – not the actor, but the hoofer whose acrobatic, eccentric style wowed 'em in such flicks as Yankee Doodle Dandy and Footlight Parade. Daugherty has in mind a specific musical, Something to Sing About, which I haven't seen. He cites a sequence of Cagney dancing to two jazz bands, moving from one to the other, as the camera follows in a pan shot. It really doesn't matter whether you've seen the picture. I could easily transplant the situation to Yankee Doodle Dandy's "Give My Regards to Broadway," where Cagney "walks up the proscenium" on both sides of the stage. The piece exudes the optimistic energy of the Thirties movie musical and of Cagney. I don't know how Daugherty did it (other than a "stereo" placement of two cymbal players), but I swear the music made me see the panning shot from one side to the other.

Closer to satire than to tribute, the mini-cantata What's That Spell? takes up Barbie dolls and cheerleaders and features two "Barbie-sopranos." We seem to be let into Barbie's fantasy life – cheerleader, ballerina, drum majorette, and the ups and downs of her romance with Ken ("Oh Ken"). If you lean toward mean, you might sneer at the shallowness of Barbie's values. If you take a more loving view, you might find yourself thinking about the fragility and persistence of American innocence.

Jackie's Song is the prologue to Daugherty's opera Jackie O, about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's "sad" and "lonely" life after JFK's assassination. The opera is one of the few works by Daugherty I dislike and on the whole justifies the charge of shallowness. The title itself leaves a bad taste. Mrs. Onassis is a far tougher and more complex figure who really doesn't need Daugherty's tabloid-sentimental pity. The opera demonstrates the risks of Daugherty's compositional approach: sometimes you don't raise kitsch, you produce it. However, Jackie's Song stands as an exception to my criticism. A Konzertstück for cello and chamber ensemble, Jackie's Song acts out the dramatic structure of an interrupted lament. It begins with a restrained, somber unaccompanied passage for the cello and gradually becomes agitated. The lament replaces the agitation temporarily, when the distress returns. That, too, peters out, and the work ends with the unaccompanied cello fading away into the high aether. Again, Daugherty invites the listener to speculate. During the song's course, one hears two surprise rim shots on the snare drum, which announce the faster, disturbed sections. The shots that killed the President? Despite such symbols, the work expresses genuine grief.

A mini piano concerto, Le Tombeau de Liberace pays homage to the outrageously flamboyant entertainer as well as to American pop. The work has four movements: "Rhinestone Kickstep," "How Do I Love Thee?" (which Liberace liked to recite during his shows – Kulcha!), "Sequin Music," and "Candelabra Rhumba." Daugherty refers to the score as a "lexicon of forbidden music" – that is, music not normally found in the concert hall. The "Kickstep" evokes the glitzy Vegas big band with boogie rhythms, to which Liberace resorted when he wanted to show how hip he was. Daugherty supplies the image of someone strutting down the main Vegas drag. The second movement begins as a slow, low-down tango which occasionally melts into a cheesy waltz. As the movement proceeds, it gets the super-glam treatment, complete with Liberace's trademark fussy and musically pointless runs and arpeggios. Some of the material from "Sequin Music" comes from the "sequence" of notes on a wall at Liberace's pool. For piano solo only, it serves as a cadenza. The concerto ends in a blaze of Latin-American schmaltz, a supercharged rhumba with a North African tinge and a slower section resembling Ernesto Lecuona's "Malagueña." Daugherty writes a solo part with lots of flash. However, he also convinces you that he has extracted the power of pulp art without becoming a Schlockmeister himself.

Motown Metal uses an all-metal orchestra of brass and percussion, the latter including brake drum. Drivers rev their engines and zoom away, without mufflers, yet – a sound sweet to gearheads everywhere. At one point, a drunk lurches through the streets, singing boozily some jukebox ballad.

I admit I don't really get the point of Flamingo as a title, at least so far as the music goes. However, I do like the score, even if it resembles other works on the program. Another Daugherty "stereo" piece, this one features dueling tambourines placed stage left and stage right, plus the usual untethered canons the composer likes to create.

The performances are terrific, especially good in What's That Spell?, Jackie's Song, and Le Tombeau. Pianist Paul Crossley has a ball with the hammy double octaves and roulades that mark Liberace's style. The late cellist Christopher van Kampen sails through the treacherous difficulties of Jackie's Song. The part lies mostly in the extreme upper register of the instrument. Indeed, the cello goes higher than I've ever heard or even thought possible, and van Kampen keeps his pitch-perfect tone without constriction or scratch. Lisa Bielawa and Alex Sweeton sound like little plastic Lolitas and get into the satiric spirit of things, although Bielawa imbues her Barbie with a bit of lover's Angst in "Oh Ken." It's a moment where Coppélia hangs on the cusp of becoming a real, live girl.

Argo relaunched itself at least a decade ago as a label devoted to American and contemporary music. Apparently, it didn't work, despite some uniformly fine and interesting releases. Fortunately, ArkivCD, the label of the web site, has picked up many of these recordings. You can find Daugherty's disc there.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz