DAUGHERTY: Fire and Blood. Flamingo. Ladder to the Moon.
Alexandre Da Costa (violin); Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/Pedro Halffter.
Warner Classics 2564 67195-7 TT: 60:33.

Gonzo music in blah performances. Michael Daugherty's ability to make high art from pop is well known, as shown by such works as the Metropolis Symphony (based on the Superman comic books), Desi (a super-conga tribute to Desi Arnaz. Baba-loo!), and Le tombeau de Liberace (no explanation required). However, his inspiration from painting has resulted in some quite powerful music. For years, Daugherty has taught in the composition department at The University of Michigan, and Michigan as well -- specifically Detroit -- has figured in several works.

The violin concerto Fire and Blood brings together Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Detroit. In the Thirties, Rivera visited the Ford River Rouge plant which inspired one of his best murals (on the walls of the Detroit Museum of Art), a hymn to the worker on the mass production line. Fiery and passionate, the work's three movements -- "Volcano," "River Rouge," and "Assembly Line" -- comprise one of the most exciting violin concertos in the repertory, a contemporary update of the Tchaikovsky, just in the elevated pulse rate it sets in listeners.

The entire concerto displays two cultural strains: the powerful dynamics of the an iconic American manufacturing capital and the rhythms and songs of Mexico.

The slow movement, which depicts Frida Kahlo's miscarriage in Detroit, impresses me most. The title, "River Rouge," points both to the literal, dingy river and the river of Kahlo's menstrual blood. The music contains great pathos, as well as occasionally great joy. There's no cheap grope for sentiment. Daugherty avoids the emotional cliché.

When most of us think of Georgia O'Keefe, we imagine the desert paintings -- the oceans of sand, the glowing skulls of cattle. However, before she moved West, O'Keefe painted the city of New York. These paintings spurred Daugherty's Ladder to the Moon, for solo violin and chamber ensemble: wind octet, percussion, and double bass. I have trouble with musical evocations of painting. I often don't see the connection between the paintings and the music. Daugherty's score doesn't make me think of Georgia O'Keefe's art, but that relationship, fortunately, doesn't really matter, except to Daugherty. However, both of the score's two movements create and sustain musical interest. The first movement gnaws obsessively on a descending minor third and draws you in, rather than pushes you away. After a slow intro, the second movement jumps with energy and good humor. There's even a high-class musical joke, which I won't give away here.

Flamingo, for two stereophonically-placed tambourines and orchestra, has its roots in a driving vacation to Florida Daugherty made with his family when he was a boy. It conjures up the Caribbean, more than anything else, with a characteristic Afro-Hispanic rhythm that infuses most of the piece. The tambourine writing flabbergasted me with its imaginative variety and the polyrhythms Daugherty generated.

From the descriptions of these works, you can tell the innate flamboyance and color of Daugherty's artistic sensibility. You simply cannot play it safe with this music. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens with Da Costa and Halffter and Montreál. The scores don't quite descend into the ordinary, but if you hadn't heard these pieces elsewhere (and, luckily, I had), they wouldn't necessarily have excited you. They do best in Flamingo, but it too suffers from what I can only call a fatal occasional inattention. I prefer Fire and Blood with Ida Kavafian, Neeme Järvi, and Detroit and Ladder to the Moon with Glenn Basham, Gary Green, and a wind ensemble from the University of Miami, both on Naxos (8.559372 and 8.572439, respectively). Zinman and the London Sinfonietta on Decca 458145, devoted to Daugherty's music (it presents mainly his pop-inspired pieces), get the garishness of Flamingo.

S.G.S. (March 2012)