The Temple University Symphony Orchestra performed the New York premiere of Michael Daugherty’s Reflections on the Mississippi for tuba and orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center on Friday, April 5, 2013. The rich palette of this exceptional student ensemble did justice to the composer’s reminiscences of America’s heartland. The concert was dedicated to the late, great record producer Phil Ramone, who passed away just six days earlier. The featured soloist Carol Jantsch, principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, impressively remained standing beside conductor Luis Biava with her formidable brass behemoth throughout the duration of the 20-minute concerto.
The concerto’s first movement, Mist, opened with shimmery wind chimes, evoking the play of sunlight on the wavelets of America’s great river. Pitched percussion soon engaged in a gentle dialogue with the smooth tuba melody. This was all supported by fluid orchestral textures, which soon made way for a solo, rubato tuba recitative, which featured some bluesy explorations. The following movements for the most part succeeded one another without any lengthy pause.
The second movement, Fury, was driven by some boilerplate syncopations in the percussion, which smacked of film scores. Overall, though, the snare drum, xylophone and triangle propelled the urgent momentum of the orchestral “flood,” crisply guiding the ensemble through overlapping 3/4 and 5/4 time signatures that, as the composer explains in the concert notes, evokes “the jarring time shifts in William Faulkner’s 1927 novel, The Sound and the Fury.” This relentless percussive energy provided an excellent foil to Jantsch’s rounded sound on the tuba.
Prayer, begun after a short break for the soloist to clear the bilgewater from her shiny vessel, contained a gorgeous, wistful rural anthem to rival anything penned by Aaron Copland. The chimes greatly elaborated the sense of a mystical place where time plays by a different set of rules. The musical language overall by this point was quite accessible to a general audience but liberal use of deceptive cadences kept it from being predictable. Daugherty achieved a dexterous balance between foreboding and nostalgia, and in places conjured a lush hypnosis reminiscent of Ravel’s orchestral style.
The last movement, Steamboat, is composed of dense harmonies and propulsive rhythms that drive a glitzy, charged riverboat theme, which borrows the first movement’s initial melody. The concerto ends with a high register growl by the soloist, satisfying me greatly, as I had been hoping for some advanced technique on the tuba. Daugherty once again was inspired by the literature of the heartland, this time Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. His music “follows the gambling steamboats down the Mississippi River from Twain’s hometown in Hannibal, MO to the final stop in New Orleans, home of Zydeco and Second Line music.” The character of this concerto and its emotional origins (composed in memory of his father, Willis Daugherty, a self-taught dance band drummer) reminded me of a second Faulkner novel, As I Lay Dying, whose slow funeral procession mimics the unhurried progress of the great river and also depicts the sometimes arduous process of letting go of departed loved ones.
I am much more impressed by Michael Daugherty’s choice of a more popular, tonal musical language knowing that he studied with such Avant-garde composers as Ligeti and the Darmstadt school. The contemporary composer must carefully balance a spirit of experimentation with a consideration for the needs and tastes of a contemporary audience. I doubt that the composer placed many limitations on his score out of concern for a commission for a student orchestra, as the Temple orchestra clearly performs at a professional level, and the showcase of Jantsch’s virtuosity took a backseat to the evocation of deeper human sentiments and natural wonders.
Rob Wendt is a pianist / composer / music educator living in Astoria, NY. You can follow him on twitter: @RobWendt.