We were teased with a snippet of Woody Guthrie singing his anthemic “This Land Is Your Land,” and the concert’s first half finished with composer Michael Daugherty’s instrumental meditation on the song, a tune that he noted had pre-Woody identities as the Baptist hymn “O My Loving Brother” and the Carter Family’s “When the World Is on Fire.” That’s how a folk song evolves, and Daugherty’s variations found a place for fiddle and washboard effects, for a three-quarter-time dance, even for a reprise of a melody from an earlier number.
“This Land Sings” is Daugherty’s multi-movement meditation on Guthrie’s life and legacy, and it received its second-ever performance with members of the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller during last week’s American Music Festival. Although there were plenty of recognizable elements, Daugherty’s own voice was woven throughout, a reminder that intelligently and skillfully synthesizing surrounding sounds into a more formal setting used to be the job of what’s (insufficiently) termed “classical” music.
In truth, there’s no label that easily fits Daugherty’s creation. He describes it as a radio show – he served as announcer – and that’s a good conceit for the work’s aural theatricality. Biographical snippets introduced each of the 16 selections, and the opener set the tone for what was to come.
Joe Hill was a union organizer murdered by Utah copper bosses, his legacy immortalized in a poem by Alfred Hayes. It’s best known in Earl Robinson’s musical setting, performed by Pete Seeger and others – and Seeger often paired it with Hill’s last will, a short, wry poem written on the eve of the organizer’s execution.
Daugherty effectively combined the two poems, opening with soprano Annika Socolofsky singing “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” over solo violin (Jamecyn Morey); after the first stanza, bassoon, trombone, and double bass joined behind baritone John Daugherty (no relation) for the “Last Will” opening. Thus it alternated, more instruments added as the momentum built until they surged together in bittersweet harmony.
Also established was the tangential nature of the piece. Guthrie-inspired it was, but it became more about the (very important) idea of Guthrie than the songs he wrote and sang. Thus, “Perpetual Motion Man,” which followed, had an original text by the composer set with a bluesy feel nicely realized by the two singers.
The seven-member ensemble, conducted by ASO music director David Alan Miller, was given plenty of moments to shine. “Marfa Lights” featured Eric M. Berlin’s fluegelhorn, a Spanish feel to its chord progressions and ornamentation, with percussionist Matt Gold adding color on marimba.
Daugherty wasn’t bashful about re-fashioning texts. “Hear the Dust Blow” was the classic “Down in the Valley,” beautifully sung by Socolofsky, but re-lyricked to describe 1935’s arid weather horrors, the music colored by winds and muted brass.
“Woody wasn’t a fan of the big money man,” said Daugherty to introduce “Graceland,” a setting of a 1912 poem by Carl Sandburg that mocks the extravagance of the Chicago wealthy in lavishing decorations on their tombs – situated in a cemetery called Graceland, the Elvis tie-in evident both in its up-tempo nature and hilarious finish. Baritone Daugherty went into pop-singer mode as the lively ensemble echoed a refrain behind him.
Composer Daugherty isn’t bashful about daubing his opinions onto Woody’s canvas. “Hot Air” celebrated the bloviators who follow in Father Coughlin’s footsteps – “I am a radio talk show host / Spreading my lies from coast to coast,” and “Silver Bullet” suggests how Woody might sing about gun fanatics (“it’s a license to eradicate, decapitate, exterminate, annihilate, assassinate”), to a tune reminiscent of “Ghost Riders,” itself summoning a bit of “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.”
“This Trombone Kills Fascists” gave Greg Spiridopoulos a rousing round with percussionist Gold, and clarinetist Weixiong Wang was solo-featured with baritone Daugherty in composer Daugherty’s poignant reworking of “I’m Gonna Walk That Lonesome Valley.”
Soprano and bassoon seem an unlikely pairing, yet that’s how the composer set (or, more accurately, re-set) the classic “Bread and Roses,” with Oleksiy Zakharov showing the tender side of his instrument alongside Socolofsky’s emotional vocal.
If Daugherty didn’t capture the vintage essence of the Ben Grauer school of announcing, he has an endearing presence and put together a wry, witty commentary. And he even took a solo spot on harmonica (“My Heart Is Burning”) along busy double-bassist Michael Fittipaldi.
An instrumental titled “Mermaid Avenue” saluted Guthrie’s Coney Island residency by bringing Klezmer elements into what otherwise seemed a bit Ivesian, itself a melting-pot designation. And “Wayfaring Stranger,” sung by baritone Daugherty, alternated stanzas with Socolofsky’s “900 Miles” until the two songs played together for an effective program finish. And the best news is that a studio session was scheduled for an upcoming Naxos-label release.
“A Tribute to Woodie Guthrie,” 6/3, EMPAC