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Michael Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony, Deux ex / Guerrero, et al

Album Summary

>Daugherty, Michael : Metropolis Symphony, for orchestra
>Daugherty, Michael : Deus Ex Machina, for piano & orchestra
Performers Conductor Ensemble
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Notes & Reviews:

Inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of Superman's first appearance in the comics, 'Metropolis Symphony' has been performed by orchestras all over the world. Hailed by the London Times as a "'Symphonie Fantastique' for our times," 'Metropolis Symphony' is a musical response to the myth of Superman, expressing the energies, ambiguities, paradoxes, and wit of American popular culture. 'Deus ex Machina' is a piano concerto inspired by trains of the future and past: 'Fast Forward' re-creates the machine-like rhythms of modern trains admired by the Italian futurists; 'Train of Tears' recalls Abraham Lincoln's funeral train; 'Night Steam' evokes O. Winston Link's historic photographs of steam locomotives rumbling and whistling their way into extinction.

"Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony, with its five movements based on characters and events from the Superman comics (including the destruction of the planet Krypton), is holding up well as an iconic example of the Andy Warhol school of modern American composition, in which pop-inspired material rubs shoulders with classical forms. It's terrifically entertaining, and this new recording is every bit as fine as the premiere from David Zinman on Argo. The Nashville Symphony plays with the necessary brilliance, and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero turns in an interpretation just as vivid as its predecessor, timing out within a few seconds in just about every movement... As an overview of the art of one of the major voices in American music, this disc is pretty hard to beat, and if you missed the original release of the Metropolis Symphony you can stop looking and just pick up this even more compelling program." -Classics Today (10/10)

This recording of two large works by Michael Daugherty is part of Naxos’s "American Classics" seriesThe recorded sound is top drawer, and balance is nicely gauged. Certain special effects come through nicely, including the four referee whistles in the first movement of Metropolis Symphony."-Fanfare

There have been many obituaries written for the symphony - dating back to the years when Beethoven's were considered unsurpassable (and his Ninth was deemed virtually unplayable). But the form is so attractive to so many composers that even those for whom Beethoven's shadow seemed longest (think Brahms) eventually overcame their misgivings and tried their own essays in symphonic form. The pattern continues even today: what more can there possibly be to say in a symphony? Yet the form's inherent adaptability, added to the thoughtfulness of some composers in redefining and expanding what the term can mean, has led to startlingly varied symphonic productions throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. One of the cleverest recent approaches to the symphony is Michael Daugherty's - although purists will argue, with some justification, that his Metropolis Symphony is really a suite, its movements related in concept but not musically. Indeed, Daugherty himself says the five movements can be played independently. Matters of definition aside, Metropolis Symphonyis a work of appealing sound, interesting instrumentation, and cleverly interconnected themes (not musical themes but programmatic ones); and it is great fun to listen to - a statement that cannot always be made about 20th-century symphonies. The work is a non-meditative meditation on the Superman ethos. Daugherty started composing it in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic comic-book hero; he completed it in 1993; and it was first performed in 1994. It has received a number of performances since, and it deserves to: this is appealing music that speaks to a peculiarly American cultural icon using a firm grasp of compositional techniques and keeping one eye (or ears) always on pleasing the audience. Quite an accomplishment. The styles of the five movements vary widely: "Lex" (for archvillain Lex Luthor) features perpetuum mobile triplets on a solo violin (well played here by Mary Kathryn Van Osdale); "Krypton" (Superman's home planet) combines eerie glissandi with increasingly ominous fire bells; "MXYZPTLK" (for the fifth-dimensional imp who troubles Superman periodically) includes antiphonally placed flute soloists and an emphasis on all the instruments' higher registers; "Oh, Lois!" is a virtuosic and very funny tribute to Superman's many rescues of Lois Lane; and "Red Cape Tango," inspired by Superman's death (and later resurrection), sounds like a stylized fight with interpolations of the Medieval Dies irae.Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony really go to town with this music - hearing it is an exhilarating experience. The symphony is paired with a sort-of piano concerto, written in 2007, called Deus ex Machina. This is Daugherty's three-movement tribute to the world of trains, from the future they once seemed to represent (first movement) to their funereal role (second movement, which recalls the train that carried assassinated President Lincoln's body home for burial) to the end of the steam-locomotive era (third movement). The sound pictures here are lovingly painted, the piano writing is forthright and clever, and the work as a whole is appealing both as entertainment and as an extended meditation on a once-crucial form of transportation that has largely fallen by the wayside in the United States (although scarcely so in other countries).

MusicWeb International - Rob Barnett
Daugherty holds the evangel for melody and rhythmic vitality without any hint of minimalism. He emerges from the epic American high plains of Harris and 1940s Copland yet strides with confidence amid the language of high culture, popular music and classic film score. It's a volatile brew transcending any fears of comic book trivia.

The Metropolis Symphony is a big burly phantasmagoric romp of a symphony. That it was inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of Superman's arrival in the pages of DC Comics is consistent with the work's riotous primary colours and indefatigable rowdy energy. We are assured by the composer that the five movements are not narrative. They're a series of bold mood pictures with the neon brashness and whole spectrum gaud of the pulp magazine covers. Interesting the sleeve illustration affectionately parodies the genre as well.

It's not all scorching Sabre-Jet ascents and dives. Much of it revels in closely recorded soloistic episodes including warm and hoarse violin writing, skittering bell-bright percussion and gannet-diving flutes duos: MXYZPTLK (III). The horns step up the plate in an exultant golden roar as if in tribute to Bernard Herrmann's Death Hunt. Krypton (II) makes howling-growling and minatory use of the motor siren and the wailing string ululations we associate with Penderecki and Hovhaness. The writing then becomes psychedelically evocative of Tippett and Silvestrov in its dense and slowly writhing richness. Yet there's also sufficient brightly imagined gravamen to give the work a huge shot of symphonic weight. It was quite a coup to make the dynamo finale a tango with its delicious shiver of Schedrin meets Dies Irae meets Totentanz. The Schuman-like kinetic charge of the final pages is radiant with optimism. This adds up to a deeply enjoyable symphony with enough of the cinema about to make it often confident and exciting. Great stuff!

The dedicatee of the Metropolis Symphony is David Zinman who encouraged its writing. He gave the world première at Carnegie Hall in January 1994 with the Baltimore Symphony.

Deus ex Machina for piano and orchestra was a collegiate commission from the orchestras of Charlotte, Nashville, New Jersey, Rochester and Syracuse. This three movement piano concerto can now join the list of musical works linked to railroads and trains. Fast Forward is a storm of rhythmic sound recalling Mossolov, Honegger and Markevich. This is linked in the composer's mind with futurism and the role that trains played in that movement - breathless stuff. Train of Tears marks a shift of mood: elegiac and more musical and engaging than the visceral blast of Fast Forward. Noble Americana is the engine for this piece which leans on the image of the train that carried the corpse of Abraham Lincoln from Washington to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. The piano writing is distinctive - my closes approximation would be a sort of blend of Rachmaninov and pastoral Copland. The finale is Night Steam. Here Daugherty pays exciting tribute to the coal-burning steam locomotives that survived into the early 1960s in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. Each grand colossus was documented in the monochrome photographs taken by O. Winston Link. These smoke belching dreadnoughts of the rails live again in Daugherty's jazzy-bluesy kaleidoscopic and brakeless careering hayride.

Both works are played to the hilt and the recording - especially in the case of the symphony - is the modern equivalent of Decca's best analogue vintage.

Daugherty must be very pleased with this disc which also draws attention to a name new to me: Giancarlo Guerrero. Watch out for more from him and from Daugherty.

Film Music: The Neglected Art - sdtom
Inspired by the 50th anniversary of Superman in comics, Michael Daugherty began composing his 5-movement work in 1988. Its premiere performance was given in 1994 at Carnegie Hall, performed by the Baltimore Symphony conducted by David Zinman. While it has been around for 15 years this new Naxos release is my first introduction to this intriguing work, which even includes comic book font on the outer sleeve of the CD.

The talented Daugherty received his doctorate from Yale, teaches music, theater, and dance at the University of Michigan, and has conducted many of the major symphonies of the world. Not only is he involved in orchestral works but he is also known for his chamber and band compositions.

While each of the 5 movements of Metropolis are works in their own right and can be performed individually, according to the liner notes from the composer, this reviewer enjoys the work in full. "Lex," a diabolical foe of Superman, is presented on the violin in a frantic devilish fashion. One could find it similar to what Herrmann did with his music for Mr Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Websteror Danse Macabre from Saint-Saëns. "Krypton," where Superman was born and escaped from, is a dark movement that begins with strings, a fire horn, and the ominous sound of the clanging of bells, with a main theme that has a similar style to the theme from Sunset Boulevard. The trombones let one know that the end is near in this movement. "Mxyzptlk," was a comical character, and a scherzo that features two flutes on either side of the stage one trying to outdo the other! It nicely represents the mischievous 5th dimension demon. "Oh, Lois!" is not a romantic encounter but a modern sounding slapstick style played as the composer puts it "faster than a speeding bullet." "Red Cape Tango," the highlight and finale of the movement, features the often-played Latin death chant Dies Irae, one of the more recognizable melodies of all time. Given a tango beat part of the time featuring castanets and generous selection of percussion, the movement of 13+ minutes is given ample time to develop. Setting aside the Superman character one could easily see how this could be part of a ballet. This reviewer was extremely impressed with Daugherty's effective use of percussion in this symphony.

Deus ex Machina, God from the machine, is a work for piano and orchestra about the impact that the coal burning train had on our country. Divided into three movements each one tells a story through paintings, the funeral train of Lincoln, and historic photographs, rather than following the structure of a typical piano concerto. "Fast Forward," uses the piano not as a source of melody but rhythmic chords and tempos which complements the percussion and the orchestra to create the sounds one might think of with a train. "Train of Tears" is a eulogy that also features "Taps" in the slow, sad, and moving piece of the 7-day trip the train took from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois for the burial of Abraham Lincoln. One can hear the sound of the trains on the tracks in the final movement "Night Steam."

This will make a nice addition to your hopefully ever growing collection of American Classics on Naxos. Superman collectors will also find this a welcome addition to their collections.

This month, the Nashville Symphony releases its latest recording on Naxos American Classics, featuring two works by American composer Michael Daugherty. Scheduled for release on September 29, the recording is the Symphony's first with new Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero.

To celebrate this release, the Nashville Symphony and Naxos are co-hosting a special CD signing party in Nashville on Wednesday, September 30, at Flying Saucer, located just off Broadway behind the Union Station Hotel at 111 10th Ave. S., #310. Scheduled for 7-9 p.m., the event features appearances by both Daugherty and Guerrero, who will discuss Daugherty's music and sign copies of the new CD, which will be available for purchase. The public is invited.

According to the League of American Orchestras, Daugherty is one of this country's 10 most performed living composers. His Metropolis Symphony pays tribute to the American comic book hero Superman, with movements devoted to characters such as Lex Luthor and Lois Lane. The London Times has called the work a "Symphonie Fantastique for our times." Featured performers include Nashville Symphony musicians Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (violin), Erik Gratton (flute) and Ann Richards (flute/piccolo).

The recording also includes the piano concerto Deus ex Machina, which was co-commissioned by the Nashville Symphony and four other American orchestras. Inspired by trains of the past and the future, the piece features award-winning soloist Terrence Wilson.

"I'm a big fan of Michael Daugherty's music," Guerrero said. "It's amazingly rich with color, rhythm and vivid orchestral effects, and I think this recording will appeal to a wide range of listeners."

"In these pieces, I seek to express the energies, ambiguities, paradoxes and wit of American popular culture," Daugherty added. "The Nashville Symphony has done a truly remarkable job of bringing this music to life."

Over the past decade, the Nashville Symphony has become one of the most active recording orchestras in the country. Recorded at Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, this latest release is the orchestra's 17th for Naxos. Past releases include Joan Tower's Made in America, which received 3 GRAMMY® Awards in 2008.

For more information about the Nashville Symphony, please visit NashvilleSymphony.org.

Brink Magazine - Jack Borrebach
If you're just getting to know composer Michael Daugherty, a glance at the titles in his discography will give you a sense of his artistic agenda: "Dead Elvis," "Motown Metal," "I Loved Lucy," "UFO," and "Le Tombeau de Liberace" have a distinctive ring. Daugherty's music bursts with jazzy syncopations, showy percussion, and kitsch, and the composer matches them with nervous energy and an acid edge. Melodic hooks are often sharpened into insistent motifs that aren't so much developed as obsessively worked over. Like the artificially colored pop material it's inspired by, Daugherty's music is inviting, even aggressively so, but something uncompromising coexists alongside the pop glitz. There's a complexity and depth beneath the whirling scraps of jingles and Latin jazz.

Two recent recordings issued on the industrious Naxos label (as ever, transcending its budget label category) show off a handful of Daugherty's orchestral works from the past decade. In these collections, earnest drama overlays frenetic edginess, and the combination leads to a startling emotional honesty. Daugherty's romanticism is cut with sardonic asides and stylistic free associations, but sentimentality takes hold here and there to disarming effect. The pictorial titles, though they can seem cheesy or quaint at first, allow a sparking interplay between earnestness and irony. Meanwhile, and most important, Daugherty is composing music with lucid thematic development, bold dramatic contours, and exciting orchestral effects.

The disc Fire and Blood [Naxos 8.559372] features the violin concerto by that name (2003), which Ida Kavafian tears into alongside the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and their now-emeritus music director Neeme Järvi. The disc is rounded out by the orchestral works MotorCity Triptych (2000) and Raise the Roof (2003). Another concerto, Deus ex Machina (2007), appears on the disc Metropolis Symphony [Naxos 8.559635] and spotlights pianist Terrence Wilson with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. The title work is Daugherty's ambitious Superman-inspired symphony (1988 - 93), his breakout orchestra piece. Both discs pull their material from live recordings, which lose a little exactness but make up for it in vicacity. Kavafian and Wilson both sound excellent, as do the orchestras.

Fire and Blood is exciting: it's really one of the better violin concertos written recently, and is the work that Daugherty has most successfully drawn a tight dramatic thread through. The thematic cue here is Diego Rivera's series of Detroit Industry murals - a local homage for the orchestra and for Daugherty, who has taught nearby at the University of Michigan for close to thirty years. Daugherty pulls off enough pulsing, muscular machine-music to do justice to Rivera's images, while creating enough shadows and dissonance to accommodate whatever tensions you cares to read in. The solo violin is a tightly wound engine of wiry energy, charging through a richly colored and percussion-heavy orchestral field.

Contrasting ruminations and plaintive harmonic tugs provide emotional counterpoint. The slow middle movement shifts in homage to Frida Kahlo, and even if Daugherty's soulful mariachi tune in her honor is a compositional non sequitur or a glib national gesture, it's dramatically effective. Later in the movement, Daugherty blends the theme into the broader orchestral texture to successful effect; the violin's scalding lyricism is truly Kahlo-worthy. The finale, all ferocious fiddling energy in skittish 7/8 time, winds up the piece while heightening its characteristic volatile combination of liveliness and anxiety.

The MotorCity Triptych offers more Detroit music, but its pleasures are uneven, primarily because its concluding image of Rosa Parks Boulevard fails to gather enough power. Orchestral expressionism isn't the best vehicle for calling to mind the civil rights movement, and Daugherty's three blues-summoning trombones mostly go to show how far the average concert hall is from Montgomery. In contrast, the opening Motown Mondays movement lands in a pleasingly unusual place for trying against similarly long odds to evoke Motown music. Near the start Daugherty pulls together a meandering oboe melody, percolating percussion, some asymmetrical pizzicato strings, and a muted-brass horn hook: for all its distance from the inspirational article, the moment carries itself in charm, modesty, and off-kilter lilt.

Raise the Roof, a festive overture that spotlights tympani, sends a Gregorian-style chant through technicolor variations, then barrels into a raucous dance-orchestra scene and a resounding sendoff.

On the Nashville disc [Naxos 8.559635], Deus ex Machina packs less punch as a concerto than Fire and Blood - there's less of a dramatic give-and-take between the piano and the orchestra at the center of the piece - but Daugherty's color and personality are out in full force. He composes nominally about trains here, but passes over the mechanical energy of Fire and Blood for more freely associative snapshots. The first movement, an homage to the train paintings of the Italian Futurists, begins with the soloist playing on the strings inside the piano - an authentic early-20th-century experimental touch. In the middle movement Daugherty turns to a Lincoln portrait, an evocation of the slain president's funeral train. The scenario is a throwback to the earnest Americana of the 1940s or '50s, but it sets up a genuinely moving scene. A trumpet and an English horn, intoning taps in a gentle nocturnal canon, float over a velvety piano patter just quick enough to intimate an unsettled atmosphere.

In the final movement, Daugherty turns back to more recent popular nostalgia, transposing locomotive momentum into a boogie-woogie mode with piano that's all drive and splashy virtuosity. Here is a composer in his element, and it's great fun.

The Metropolis Symphony [Naxos 8.559635] demonstrates how Daugherty has enriched his orchestral music in the past two decades: the instrumental colors are more garish, the textures more acerbic, the gestures sharper and more obsessive. At forty minutes long, the piece is a good deal to take in all at once, but it's a wild, unusual, and rewarding listen. I can't help but admire Daugherty's fearlessness in the concluding Red Cape Tango, which for much of its fourteen minutes sets the requiem-mass Dies Irae melody to a tango beat and sticks to the idea for longer than you'd think possible.

New orchestral music with this vibrancy and clarity is a rare commodity, and it's magnificent to be able to hear so much of Daugherty's recent work all at once. Both discs are also available for download and can be heard on Naxos' indispensable online listening library.

Acoustic Levitation - Steve Koenig
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... I look forward to hearing more of his Naxos recordings, and seeing his opera Jackie-O.

ClassicsToday.com - David Hurwitz
Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony, with its five movements based on characters and events from the Superman comics (including the destruction of the planet Krypton), is holding up well as an iconic example of the Andy Warhol school of modern American composition, in which pop-inspired material rubs shoulders with classical forms. It's terrifically entertaining, and this new recording is every bit as fine as the premiere from David Zinman on Argo. The Nashville Symphony plays with the necessary brilliance, and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero turns in an interpretation just as vivid as its predecessor, timing out within a few seconds in just about every movement.

This newcomer gains over the Argo release (assuming you can find it) in two major respects. It is more naturally recorded, and it has a very substantial coupling in Daugherty's piano concerto Deus ex machina. The titles of the movements - "Fast Forward", "Train of Tears", and "Night Steam" - give a good idea of what the music expresses, and it's very excitingly played by pianist Terrence Wilson. As an overview of the art of one of the major voices in American music, this disc is pretty hard to beat, and if you missed the original release of the Metropolis Symphony you can stop looking and just pick up this even more compelling program.

Audiophile Audition - John Sunier
Michael Daugherty, originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has become one of the most commissioned, programmed and recorded living composers on the U.S. concert scene today. Among his teachers have been Ligeti, Boulez, Roger Reynolds and Gil Evans. One critic referred to his "maverick imagination," which has produced works based on Elvis, Jackie O, and other beacons of 20th century pop culture. Including Superman in the second of these new discs.

Daugherty grew up in a family of musicians of all sorts and has been able to bring the pop/jazz world into his compositions in innovative ways, giving them instant appeal to many listeners. The first of these two CDs [8.559372] is tied in with three works commissioned and premiered by the Detroit Symphony during the composer's four years of residency there. Diego Rivera's huge fresco and the paintings of his wife Frida Kahlo inspired Fire and Blood. The Rivera murals partly inspired Daugherty due to the artist himself predicting the possibility of turning his artwork into music. The first movement is Volcanos, referring to the environment of Mexico City, where he was born, as well as their association with revolution. The second movement, River Rouge, deals with the Riveras' visit to the Ford factory at River Rouge, as well as the suffering of Frida with her lifelong medical problems. Assembly Line, the last movement, stresses a perpetual motion theme in picturing the collaboration of man and machine, which Rivera saw as bringing liberation for the workers.

MotorCity Triptych is a sort of musical travelog in three movements. The first honors the Motown recordings which were central to the composer's youth. The second is Pedal-to-the-Metal - a high-speed drive along Michigan Avenue in the world's auto capital. Rosa Parks Boulvard, the third movement, has solos by three trombonists: Michael Becker, Kenneth Thompkins and Randall Hawes. Daugherty's inspirations for the timpani/orchestra work were Notre Dame cathedral, the Empire State Building, and other architectural wonders. He designed the work to give the timpanist long expressive melodies not usually hear from the timpani.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Superman's first appearance in the comics, so naturally Daugherty has to create a "symphonie fantastique for our times." [8.559635] His response to the myth of Superman expresses the energies, ambiguities, paradoxes and wit of American pop culture. The work's five movements cover various elements of the Superman myth: Lex, the first, represents Lex Luthor, the hero's main villain. No. 2, Krypton, is the exploding planet from which Superman is launched as an infant. The third movement is MXYZPTLK, a wild imp from another dimension who occasionally threatens Superman's Metropolis. Lois Lane, the newspaper report who is Clark Kent's love interest, is focused on in the fourth movement, and the suite concludes with Red Cape Tango, which uses the well-known Dies Irae theme in a death chant conceived as a tango. Deux Ex Machina - meaning "god from the machine" - is Daugherty's three-movement piano concerto capturing the world of trains. The first movement synthesizers various avant-garde ideas about trains into the composer's own "musical manifesto." The second movement is Train of Tears, and refers to the slow-moving funeral train after Lincoln's assassination. Night Stream, the last movement, is about the few steam locomotives left on American railroads after the 1950s, and receives here its world premiere recording.

All of these are accessible and fun works which should have a wide appeal, and they are superbly performed and recorded.

American Record Guide - Allen Gimbel
The Metropolis Symphony (1993), a set of five orchestral tone poems on the topic of Superman, was Michael Daugherty's breakthrough piece back in the early 90s. 'Lex' is a spectacular scherzo gigue for violin and orchestra depicting the diabolical villain Lex Luthor. Violinist Mary Kathryn van Ogdale is dizzying, as are her fine Nashville colleagues. 'Krypton' is smeary and dramatic. 'MXYZPTLK', the "mischievous imp", is another concertante scherzo, this one for two flutes. 'Oh, Lois' is a "faster than a speeding bullet" scherzo. Finally, 'Red Cape Tango' is a standing ovation-inspiring 'Dies Irae' fantasy commemorating Superman's culminating battle with Doomsday, filled with humor and spectacular orchestration. The whole work is entertaining and impressive, extremely well played here by this excellent orchestra, and a reminder of this often inconsistent composer's gifts and technical accomplishment.

Deus ex Machina (2007) is a three-movement piano concerto on the topic of trains. I ('Fast Forward') is more indebted to Chuck Jones than Arthur Honegger. 2 ('Train of Tears') follows the slow funeral train of Abraham Lincoln from the capital to Springfield, Illinois. 'Taps' threads its way expressively through the texture. The finale, 'Night Steam', is a boogie-woogie tribute to the steam locomotive. Rachmaninoff sneaks in for the coda, to the delight of the packed house (this was recorded in concert in Nashville in 2008). Pianist Terence Wilson is up to the task.

Simply put, people willing to enjoy this will have a great time, and people disposed to hate it will have plenty of opportunity to vent. Anyone interested in post-Copland Americana will certainly want to have this for the excellent Metropolis Symphony.

MusicWeb International - Nick Barnard
Without a doubt Michael Daugherty has a nifty knack for a name. It's a bit like a good news headline - you find yourself drawn in out of curiosity about what lies beneath. The two works here are perfect examples. The one, Metropolis is a series of symphonic movements relating to the Superman comic strip, the other Deus ex Machina is far less clear in its "meaning" but more of that later.

Michael Daugherty is one of those composers whose work sharply divides opinion. I have to say I am firmly in the fan camp. This is contemporary music as fun. Not to say it does not have passages of reflective and searching beauty but the abiding impression is of a composer who revels in using a modern virtuosic orchestra to spectacular effect. The Metropolis Symphony written between 1988 and 1993 was his breakthrough work. It is not a symphony - much more a symphonic suite - but this is underlined by the fact that each of the movements is playable as an individual entity. I suspect it might almost work better like that - heard as a sequence there is a certain lack of differentiation that diminishes the overall impression of the work. But that is minor carping. This is comic strip as music (a fact wittily underlined by the album art) - not the epic action movie style of a John Williams. The opening movement Lex sets the tone for the whole disc - antiphonal police whistles, terrifyingly vertiginous solo violin writing superbly dispatched - who is that masked fiddler!?! (actually it is Mary Kathryn Van Osdale who since she gets no separate credit I assume is Concertmistress in Nashville). Listening to more Daugherty you start to recognise compositional fingerprints. He clearly enjoys writing at extremes be they dynamic, spatial (a lot of antiphonal writing and phrases being tossed across and around the orchestra) or registrational (instruments playing at their physical limits). After a nominal slow movement Krypton which grinds from the depths leading to a final apocalyptic destruction of Superman's home planet we reach the scherzo movement. Wouldn't you just love hearing a radio announcer trying to pronounce MXYZPTLK?! Here the antiphonal effects are provided by a pair of duelling flutes. What I like is the way Daugherty throughout uses the vocabulary of contemporary music but in a way that clearly links it to more populist musical genres as well as making it compelling listening in its own right. This carried through to the final pair of movements which I liked most of all. Oh, Lois! is marked to be played "faster than a speeding bullet" and as Daugherty explains in his liner note it "... suggests a cartoon history of mishap, screams, dialogue, crashes, and disasters, all in rapid motion." This is a perfect succinct description for a real romp of a piece quite brilliantly performed - as is the whole disc by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero. Much play is made in some of the publicity material for this disc of a London performance being likened to a modern day Symphonie Fantastique. I guess in the main this is due to the dominance of the plain song Dies Irae which dominates the last movement much as it does in Berlioz's work. That is one of the more fatuous parallels - you might as well say it's a latter day Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances for the same reason. Metropolis has no need of any comparative crutches - it wholly succeeds on its own merits. The last movement Red Cape Tango is essentially a thirteen minute symphonic tango based in the main on the aforementioned Dies Irae chant for the dead. Quite whether it has anything at all to do with Superman I am not sure but it sustains a menacingly building tension brilliantly.

Deus ex Machina is a much later work - in essence a piano concerto from 2007. Again to quote Daugherty; "Each of the three movements is a musical response to the world of trains". Again this is a brilliantly scored work and is more an integrated whole than the preceding symphony. If I enjoyed it slightly less overall than Metropolis this is a purely personal response. It follows a traditional fast-slow-fast format with the emotional core being carried by the central movement's evocation of the train that carried President Lincoln's body back to Illinois in 1865. The final movement evokes the last days of steam in America and the booklet includes a beautiful example of one of the photographs by O. Winston Link that inspired it. Pianist Terrence Wilson dispatches the awkward-sounding piano writing with great aplomb. Much of the time the solo part leads from within the orchestral texture - perhaps more sinfonia concertante than true concerto but again this is to obsess over semantics. One final interesting thought though going back to my opening comment about titles. Deus ex Machina indeed does literally translate as "God from the machine" as Daugherty points out. However the derivation of the phrase is quite different. It comes from ancient Greek theatre and meant a theatrical/plot device whereby a character or situation was suddenly radically altered by the intervention of the Gods. Literally the actor playing the God was lowered into the performing space by machine to "save the day". This was considered a weak plot device since it allowed for massive alterations with no dramatic preparation. One could argue - and this is the interesting point - that Super heroes are the ultimate modern-day "deus ex machinas" since they can be free "with a single bound" so perhaps this title should apply more to Metropolis! Not that it matters a jot but did Daugherty pick the title because it certainly is a good title or is there more at work here than he admits to in the liner?

Naxos has been doing Daugherty proud in recent years - already their discs of his music are proving to be reference recordings (see review of 8.559165 - Philadelphia Stories). Engineering and performance here is ridiculously good. If I am being very very slightly picky, the sound on the last disc - (Fire & Blood Naxos 8.559372) was a fraction better - even richer and full-blooded than this but this is very good too and excellent value at Naxos' give-away price and 75+ minutes playing time. To be honest any of the three Naxos discs are a good entry point into his compositional world. My guess is that if you like what you hear on one you will find yourself buying all three - I have!

Cyclic Defrost - Joshua Meggitt
For an unabashed populist, Michael Daugherty packs in a dizzying array of genuinely thrilling sonic effects into his compositions. 'Metropolis', the title work on this new disc for Naxos, is devoted to Superman, but unless you're a die hard fan of the superhero listeners are advised to ignore Daugherty's narrative inspirations ("Lex derives its title from one of Superman's most vexing foes", with the "fiendishly difficult" violin solo standing for the villain, for example) and succumb to his riotous music.

After the virtuosic opening movement, 'Krypton' packs dense microtones and explosive glissandi into an otherworldy patchwork, 'MXYYZPTLK' explores luminous high registers, while the final 'Red Cape Tango' offers a schizophrenic dance which erupts in percussive fire. 'Deus Ex Machina' ('God in the Machine'), dedicated to the world of the railway, throws the smooth linearity of Kraftwerk and Reich's musical train journeys off their rails, powered by clamorous-yet-rickety piano hammerings. The varied moods of the piece's three movements demonstrate Daugherty's versatility. The mournful strings and trumpet lament of 'Train of Tears' was inspired by the "lonesome train on a lonesome track" of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, and the manner in which this picks up steam while remaining resolutely bleak is particularly impressive. This is rich and exciting music, and Daugherty is one to watch.

InsideCatholic.com - Robert R. Reilly
Look up in the sky! Is it a bird? A plane? No, it's Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) and his Metropolis Symphony, an evocation of the myth of Superman, on one of two new Naxos releases dedicated to Daugherty's music. He writes fun, brash, American music with a high entertainment quotient. Metropolis is a hoot. This is sort of the musical equivalent of what Warren Beatty tried to do when he made Dick Tracy, only this is more successful for having nothing cartoonish about it.

Daugherty splashes on his music, replete with whistles and sirens, with large daubs of primary colors. The music stomps with syncopated energy and lively rhythms. In its employment of popular idioms, it comes close to crossover in places but does not go over the line, like some of Mark O'Connor's country hoedown, barn-raising music. Daugherty is a composer with sense of humor. He pulls off the hijinks with aplomb and complete confidence. If he has not written any film scores, it is obvious that he should; they would be terrific. The accompanying piece, Deus ex Machina, is an evocation of trains. I think it is less successful and even a bit trite in its second movement, "Train of Tears." Only in the funky last movement, "Night Stream," does Daugherty seem at his best. The Nashville Symphony, under conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, gives this music everything it needs, and the recording is startlingly good.

MaestroSteve on Xanga
Michael Daugherty has become one of the 10 most performed living American composers. His dramatic sense and brilliant orchestration demonstrated in engaging, and audience-pleasing, orchestral works have helped him carve out that respect over the past twenty years. Marin Alsop's new release is a sort of musical journey from the familiar into time and space and features four pieces composed over the last ten years. But it is important to start with the work that began Daugherty's rise in the orchestral world, Metropolis Symphony.

The 2009 Naxos recording is a critically acclaimed release that features a piano concerto and the Metropolis Symphony in a generous 75-minute recording. The symphony was begun in 1988 and premiered in 1994 by its dedicatee David Zinman with the Baltimore Symphony. The work is a paean to comic book heroes, and specifically the iconic Superman. Cast in five movements, the work is really a series of miniatures dramatically depicting specific scenarios or characters. The first movement ("Lex") focuses on Lex Luthor in what is a scherzo-like piece reminiscent of a Hollywood action cue. Daugherty's musical language pulls together the threads of contemporary classical music (the scurrying, almost aleatoric segments show influence of Ligeti and Penderecki), with the sort of action adventure music one hears in the film works of say Goldsmith or Goldenthal. Beyond the always brilliant orchestration, is the flirtation with jazz and popular musical sounds and an innate structural sense that allows even the strangest of musical combinations to be comprehended by the listener. Hear how in "Krypton" Daugherty takes a small motivic idea and then begins to infiltrate the entire orchestra with this idea sometimes in more traditional post-romantic sound sometimes in an almost Antheil-like Ballet Mecanique. The interior movements are a bit less interesting but the work ends with the somewhat overlong, but no less interesting "Red Cape Tango" (a tango based on "Ðies Irae"). The work can be performed in any number of combinations as each moment can stand alone, a smart move for what amounts to a 43-minute contemporary symphony. The other work on this release is inspired by trains and is essentially a 3-movement piano concerto that is fairly engaging even without its programmatic overtones. Again, this is another perfect way to hear how Daugherty's structural sense allows listeners an entry point for a deeper appreciation of the music that has form besides just being an engaging listening experience. The live recording has some minimal audience applause dialed out at the end. The release is one of those essential music library recordings of contemporary American music that will increase the appreciation of the new release under review here. To say that the Nashville Symphony performs brilliantly is an understatement and they are given about the best recorded sound for which one could wish. The disc is an important companion to the new release with the Bournemouth orchestra and has been nominated for 4 Grammys this year.

Marin Alsop has been a champion of Daugherty's music for 20 years and her release, with the Bournemouth Symphony, is a chance to see if how a European orchestra can respond to this music. Each of the four works recorded moves through evocations of American landscapes and even into the fourth dimension. The opening piece, Route 66 (1998), is an overture-like work that takes the listener through a musical journey down "Main Street America." Someone might take a look at all these brief little post-minimalist works that are about the American automobile or travel as there are quite a number of them from the 1990s. At any rate, the work is intended to briefly show off different parts of the orchestra with fun dance-like rhythms and jazzy flourishes. In some respects it feels like a brief study for the same idea explored by Daugherty in Sunset Strip composed about the same time.Sunset Strip (1999) appeared on a BIS release with the North Carolina Symphony not long ago sharing space with other jazz-influenced works among them John Williams' Escapades. That is a release worth tracking down for its variety. The work is another musical road trip down Sunset Boulevard and features a variety of musical borrowings of styles and pop sounds. It is perhaps Daugherty's best work easily capable of sharing space with Gershwin's big orchestral jazz works.

Ghost Ranch (2006) is a three-movement work inspired by the life and paintings of Georgia O'Keefe. Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony commissioned this work of intriguing stark contrasts. Though there is some of that nervous energy one hears in Daugherty's other music, this piece tends to focus on many gorgeously orchestrated melodic ideas. The opening movement, "Bones," is a beautifully lyrical work with an engaging thematic idea that is presented at its start and then somewhat deconstructed through the orchestra in various rhythmic variations that is connected by an underlying pulse (not quite minimalistic in nature) and occasionally romantic harmonies. "Above Clouds" is a study in orchestral crescendo that starts low in the orchestra and then works its way upwards to soaring French horns. "Black Rattle" concludes the work in an almost cinematic style of writing that also has a "rattle" idea that is moved through the ensemble and appears in different guises. While Ghost Ranch feels like three independent musical ideas conveniently connected, there is no denying its emotional power that feels more personal than the other works in the composer's canon.

The final piece on the disc is Time Machine (2003). The piece is in one sense a conceptual art work in that it requires the orchestra to be spatially separated into three units each requiring its own conductor. This might limit the work's performances, and in recordings a potential nightmare to image the ensembles correctly. The three groups are located stage left, center stage, and stage right. Somehow Naxos does manage to create a fine imaging, helped by which instruments are part of each orchestral segment. The work is cast in two movements. The first, "Past," has an almost hymn-like quality with a long melodic idea on stage left in strings that is offset by winds and percussion ideas coming from center and right of the sound pattern. By creating these three ensembles, Daugherty is able to create fascinating blend of rhythmic variety and mixed meters that when played together feel almost as if they are melding in to some new whole. In "Future," Daugherty is experimenting with controlled aleatoric musical ideas by creating a variety of modules that can be played in controlled randomness decided on by the three conductors. The movement is quite eerie as it begins and harp ideas lend it a sort of shimmering texture that references motion in time. Unusual sounds are explored more here than in other works Daugherty has composed and this is perhaps closest to Ligeti, though far less atonal, then anything else on this disc, or perhaps in the composer's work to date suggesting that he too is exploring and evolving his music from those early more romantically-filled works.

The Bournemouth orchestra engages these pieces with commitment and is on brilliant display in the sound picture captured throughout. The sound is a bit warmer than that Naxos used in their Nashville recording (though this may have more to do with the recording venue than any electronic tampering). These pieces provide several windows into Daugherty's music that continues to develop a narrative flow that many will hear as cinematic reference. The selections here also bring in folk dance and pop music threads that lend the works a freshness and familiarity somehow at the same time. This will be an essential release for students of contemporary music. Highly recommended.

Taken together, one can discover not only Daugherty's most familiar works, but also get a sense of his development as a composer. The performances are simply demonstration quality throughout.


A home run for Nashville/Guerrero!
This disc is fantastic: 2 energetic pieces by a gifted American composer, performed by an excellent orchestra under an exciting new conductor. Sonically, the performances are beautifully captured, top to bottom, and the recording sounds great on 5-channel surround. The nuances the composer points out in the liner notes are easily heard in the mix, and the Nashville Symphony's sound is balanced and full. Just a beautiful recording, and an excellent addition to a growing and impressive catalog from Music City's excellent orchestra. As for the pieces themselves, the Metropolis Symphony, though not program music, certainly evokes images of the mythology to which it pays tribute: sounds of a busy city, soaring melodic lines, bright horns, and robust orchestration. It is beautifully and ably written. The piano concerto, Deus Ex Machina, is another brilliantly rendered composition--in response, in the composer's words, to the world of trains. The highlight here is part II: The Train of Tears, "music for a slow-moving funeral train"--specifically, the train that carried Abraham Lincoln's body from Washington, DC, to its final resting place in Illinois. The movement is dark, brooding, lonely, and fatalistic. Terrence Wilson (piano) plays very well throughout the whole emotional and stylistic range of the concerto.
Submitted on 09/30/09 by musicbizkid 
High-octane Michael Daugherty
I continue to be blown away by Iowa-born composer Michael Daugherty. His music tells a uniquely American story and that appeals to me very much. Most recently it was a recording of his Fire and Blood, a muscular violin concerto inspired by Diego Rivera that grabbed my attention. This time it’s the antic and frantic Metropolis Symphony, an orchestral extravaganza inspired by the 1938 debut of Superman in comic books. I love the very notion of a giant orchestral work inspired by American pop culture and can almost see the sneers of Euro-snobs and the pasty-faced, self-appointed American guardians of modern music. Metropolis Symphony is in five movements, each one inspired by a Superman character or theme. Lex, the opening movement, is a deliriously diabolic romp for solo violin and percussion-laced orchestra that captures the manic evil of arch-baddie Lex Luthor. Here’s the smack-mouth drive that made Fire and Blood so thrilling. The solo part is played with guts by the Nashville Symphony’s Mary Kathryn Van Osdale. More subdued but equally evocative is Krypton, an eerie tone poem that opens with sirens, gongs and disturbing string glissandi. There’s more terrifying solo fiddling, snippets of what sounds like “Silent Night” and an apocalyptic finale that gives the Rite of Spring a run for its money. MXYZPTLK, the nasty imp from the fifth dimension, is a mercurial scherzo-like third movement that showcases the orchestra’s flute section. The fourth movement entitled Oh Lois! evokes the comic’s heroine alongside Clark Kent. Here’s another wildfire rave-up with a tempo marked “faster than a speeding bullet” that plays out as a delicious example of orchestral slapstick. The closing Red Cape Tango is a moving elegy that evolves into a tango-inspired dance of death with Daugherty quoting the Dies irae. Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina for piano and orchestra, which rounds out the recording, is the composer’s take on the world of trains with each movement focusing on a train or railway. The first movement Fast Forward conjures up images of the avant-garde and displays the rhythmic firestorm that is found in many of Daugherty’s works. The second movement Train of Tears refers to the funeral train that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body through seven states. Here’s Daugherty in an elegiac mood that will remind some of Copland but there is nothing derivative here, Daugherty’s superb orchestration and emotional depth rise to the top throughout. The finale, Night Stream, is Daugherty’s tribute to the coal-burning locomotives of the Norfolk and Western lines and here’s more of the hard-driving, blues-inflected virtuosity that make his music so thrilling. The knuckle-busting piano part is played with breath-taking skill by Terence Wilson and the Nashville Symphony, conducted by its new music director Giancarlo Guerrero, proves once again that it is one of America’s finest orchestras. Superbly engineered and nicely packaged this is another gem from one of our finest composers.
Submitted on 10/26/09 by Craig Zeichner 
Mythic music with bells & whistles
All I knew of the Metropolis Symphony by Michael Daugherty was that it was written in 1988 as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in comics. So I began with Daugherty’s liner notes: “The symphony is a rigorously structured non-programmatic work, expressing the energies, ambiguities, paradoxes, and wit of American popular culture.” To test this I put down the notes, plugged in to my iPod, and went for a 42-1/2 minute walk in the rain. My findings from the first listen? Energies? Check! Ambiguities, paradoxes? Check! Wit? Check! Maybe, though, Daugherty saved some of the wit for the sentence I quoted above, for as mythic as this music is, it’s still programmatic. The second movement, for example, is a representation of the trickster MXYZPTLK (the second in music history if you count Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, which I don’t). The imp’s multi-dimensional nature is mirrored in the aural spaces Daugherty creates. That’s a much more sophisticated programme than Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes scores (or Beethoven’s Scene at the Brook), but it’s a programme nevertheless. A non-musical aside: Daugherty assumes that the Superman myth is particularly American, though all Canadians know that Superman was first drawn by Torontonian Joe Shuster. Clark Kent’s first job was with the Metropolis Daily Star, whose name was taken from the Toronto Daily Star where Shuster worked, and the Metropolis skyline was modelled after that of Toronto. Perhaps Superman is American, but Clark Kent is Canadian. Obvious, eh? The other work on the disc, Deus ex Machina, is shorter but more profound, and more in line with Fire & Blood, which I reviewed last month. Both works make reference to the visual arts: Fire & Blood to Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo, and Deus ex Machina to the Italian Futurists. Daugherty’s three train pictures in the form of a piano concerto are in the honourable tradition of Honegger and Villa-Lobos, and will probably bear more repetition than the Symphony. The Naxos disc shows off the splendid Nashville Symphony, who shone in their 2005 recording of the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras (also for Naxos), music as rhythmically complex, if not always as boisterous, as this. The orchestral and solo playing (by pianist Terrence Wilson) is excellent. Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero seems to have everything in hand, and Naxos has engineered and packaged another winner here.
Submitted on 10/30/09 by Dean Frey 
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Works Details

>Daugherty, Michael : Metropolis Symphony, for orchestra
  • Performers: Terrence Wilson (Piano); Erik Gratton (Flute); Ann Richards (Piccolo); Ann Richards (Flute); Mary VanOsdale (Violin)
  • Conductor: Giancarlo Guerrero
  • Notes: Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, TN (11/20/2008-11/22/2008)
  • Running Time: 42 min. 8 sec.
  • Period Time: Contemporary
  • Form: Orchestral
  • Written: 1988-1993

>Daugherty, Michael : Deus Ex Machina, for piano & orchestra
  • Performer: Terrence Wilson (Piano)
  • Conductor: Giancarlo Guerrero
  • Notes: Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, TN (05/31/2007-06/02/2007)
  • Running Time: 33 min. 2 sec.
  • Period Time: Contemporary
  • Written: 2007