Michael Daugherty Finds Eclectic Wit In American Icons


Michael Daugherty’s cello concerto was inspired by works of Ernest Hemingway. (Kenya safari, 1953, jfklibrary.org)

Michael Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway for Cello and Orchestra (Zuill Bailey, soloist). American Gothic. Once Upon a Castle for Organ and Orchestra (Paul Jacobs, soloist). Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero. CD, stream, or download. Naxos 8.559798. Total Time: 77:43.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – Statistics show that Michael Daugherty is one of the most often performed living American composers, right up there with John Adams, Mason Bates, Philip Glass, and Jennifer Higdon. With good reason. He writes music that, while serious and complex, is downright entertaining. This new CD – a compilation of three works, one based on Hemingway, the second inspired by the painter of American Gothic, Grant Wood, and the third, a portrait of the legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst as memorialized by Orson Welles in his film Citizen Kane – is a case in point. Who wouldn’t want to hear what a talented composer does with this trio of subjects? Daugherty mostly delivers.

'Tales of Hemingway' is a Naxos CD releaseComposers have often tried to translate books into music; in the case of Don Quixote, Richard Strauss (1864-1949) left us a famous version with solo cello and orchestra, a combination adopted by Daugherty in Tales of Hemingway. The problem with Daugherty’s piece is that he tackles not one book but three – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises – as well as a short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.In the Strauss piece, a cello concerto in all but name, the cello is clearly Don Quixote. In Daugherty’s piece, one logically assumes – knowing that Hemingway played cello in school orchestras when he was growing up in Chicago – that the solo cello is Hemingway. That said, it is difficult to see this instrument as a unifying element throughout the piece, since there are no specific themes associated with it. Ultimately, at least to my ears, the various parts of Tales of Hemingway simply don’t hang together musically.

Appropriately, there are some Spanish musical elements in the movement titled The Sun Also Rises, which is partly set in Spain. There is also a prominent Spanish-flavored theme in The Old Man and the Sea, which Hemingway set in Cuba. While there may be more to this piece than was revealed to me on my first two hearings, it is certainly clear that Zuill Bailey is an eloquent soloist and that Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony give an excellent account of the orchestral material.

Grant Wood's 'American Gothic.' (Art Institute of Chicago)

Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ is celebrated in a Daugherty opus.
(Art Institute of Chicago)

American Gothic, a much more successful work, would probably be even more effective if the Grant Wood paintings depicted in each of the three movements were projected on a screen during performance. Michael Daugherty grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Grant Wood’s paintings, murals, and stained glass windows were on display everywhere in the city. Daugherty honors Wood’s most famous painting, American Gothic – of a farmer standing beside his daughter and holding a pitchfork, with a gothic window in the background – in the last movement (“Pitchfork”) of his own American Gothic. Both father and daughter are stone-faced. Daugherty, apparently convinced that this is an example of Wood’s dry wit, has written a wonderfully entertaining movement depicting this scene. This spectacular celebration of Americana is here played for all it is worth by Guerrero and his Nashville band.

Once Upon a Castle (2003, rev. 2015) was premiered by the artists featured on this recording. Hearst Castle, located on a mountain just off Highway 1 between Monterey and Cambria on the California coast, was the private residence of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). This enormous mansion, which he began building in 1919, still exists today and is a major tourist attraction.

A scene from Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane.'

‘Citizen Kane’ is channeled in Daugherty’s ‘Once Upon a Castle.’

Hearst was both admired and despised in his time and was certainly not pleased by the portrait of him painted by Orson Welles in the 1941 film Citizen Kane, which depicts a ruthless narcissist destroying anything and everything that gets in his way. The film received nine Academy Award nominations and is generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. While it was primarily Welles’ genius that made Citizen Kane the masterpiece it is, one cannot underestimate the contribution Bernard Herrmann made with his evocative score.

In Once Upon a Castle, Daugherty is competing with both Welles and Herrmann – a formidable challenge. I must confess that my doubts began to mount as soon as I heard the opening bars, titled “The Winding Road to San Simeon.” This is off-the-shelf haunted house fare, creepy organ music and all, suggestive of the opening scene from Citizen Kane in which Herrmann introduces the “Power motive” associated with Kane/Hearst throughout the film.

Fortunately, being the craftsman that he is, Daugherty isn’t after short-lived effects in this opening movement. He goes on to develop his material into a fairly complex structure based on a diversity of ideas, including hints of eastern music meant to suggest Hearst’s vast collection of antiques and priceless paintings inside the 165 rooms of the Hearst Castle.

The second movement is a depiction of the Neptune Pool in the Hearst Castle; Daugherty has described it as “reflective water music.” This is a somewhat misleading description since the music itself sounds more like a grand procession, with a distinctive Spanish flavor.

Composer Michael Daugherty

Composer Michael Daugherty

“Rosebud,” the third movement, is based on a scene from Citizen Kane in which Kane and his mistress argue from opposite ends of an enormous room in the castle. Kane is represented by the organ and his mistress, Susan, by a solo violin.  (Preview it here.) Musically, this is a mismatch, but perhaps that was Daugherty’s intention. The “Rosebud” reference in the film relates to the name painted on Kane’s childhood sled. Daugherty uses sleigh bells here.

In the fourth and last movement, an exuberant representation of Xanadu (the name used in the film for the Hearst castle) and a celebration of the parties given there in the 1920s and ’30s, Daugherty goes for broke, using every conceivable orchestral device. Paul Jacobs is the impressive organ soloist in this movement, and the engineers have done a fine job capturing the massive sonorities of the movement. Personally, I would have liked less tam-tam – a lot less. (Listening to this section, I was reminded of Walter Piston’s understated but wise words in Orchestration (1955): “The tam-tam should be used very sparingly.”)

Tam-tam aside, in Once Upon a Castle, Daugherty’s masterful orchestration – another encore-begging finale on the level of the last movement of American Gothic – ultimately prevails.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for musicaltoronto.org, and myscena.org, as well as for his own site, theartoftheconductor.com.

Date posted: November 15, 2016

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