Daugherty: This Land Sings review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Socolofsky/Daugherty/Dogs of Desire/Miller
Michael Daugherty’s tribute chronicles Guthrie’s life in 17 fluent pieces for soprano, baritone and ensemble, with tints of US music from folk to jazz

Michael Daugherty’s music has always embraced the full, polyglot spectrum of American culture. He’s composed a Metropolis Symphony after the Superman comics and an opera called Jackie O, while Dead Elvis was a work for bassoon and ensemble, and Tales of Hemingway is his cello concerto. But This Land Sings, “inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie”, first performed in 2016, is a much more straightforward, touching tribute to the singer-songwriter, who is one of the iconic figures in the history of American music.

Michael Daugherty: This Land Sings album art work
Michael Daugherty: This Land Sings album art work Photograph: PR Handout

Daugherty likens his portrait to “a Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast”. The original version also included narrations by a radio announcer, but those have been left out of this studio recording, so that the sequence of 17 vocal and instrumental numbers for soprano, baritone and a seven-piece ensemble suggests something between a song cycle and a revue. Most of the texts are Daugherty’s own; they provide a chronicle of Guthrie’s life and activism during the Great Depression, but his original songs are used sparingly, though the brief instrumental overture, further developed halfway through the work, is built around the most famous of them, This Land Is Your Land.

But there are plenty of musical references from American folk music and borrowings and near-quotes from elsewhere, too – the flugelhorn solo in one number depicting Guthrie’s wanderings near the Mexican border owes a lot to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, while another puts new words to the tune of the country favourite Ghost Riders in the Sky. It’s all done with a light, affectionate touch that often disguises its sheer musical fluency and ingenuity, while the performances by Annika Socolofsky and John Daugherty (no relation, apparently) with the ensemble Dogs of Desire under their conductor David Alan Miller, get just the right balance between edgy precision and freewheeling exuberance.

This week’s other pick

The Loser (Canteloupe) is a strange one-act opera by David Lang, a contemporary of Daugherty at Yale, and one of the co-founders of Bang on a Can. Based on a novel by Thomas Bernhard, it’s a fictional memoir by a former pianist of his encounter (equally fictional) with Glenn Gould at a Horowitz masterclass in the early 1950s, and of the effect that Gould’s astonishing pianism had upon him and his friend, who killed himself. Lang presents it as a narration for baritone (Rod Gilfry), mostly just accompanied by piano, with a small ensemble sometimes added to the mix; the effect is deadpan, dramatically restrained, but compellingly austere.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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