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North Carolina is blessed with an abundance of talented composers, many of them affiliated with our various institutions of higher learning. Nevertheless, concerts focusing on the works of a single composer (rather than being designed around the interests of a performing ensemble or soloist) are rare. Even rarer are such concerts where the composer takes an active performing role, so perhaps it is not surprising that even on a cold and misty night a large turnout greeted the concert by composer and percussionist Nathan Daughtrey, faculty of the Department of Music of High Point University, which offered a spectrum of his recent works from 2001 to 2012.
As we often forget, the piano is a percussion instrument, and often belongs to the diverse instrumentarium of the percussionist. First up on the program was the “Improvisation” movement from Episodes for Solo Piano (2000), performed by the composer. Without explicitly referencing styles, the piece works with harmonies that evoke a bluesy/jazzy effect, with a loud opening moving to an ostinato. Daughtrey showed himself to be a capable pianist, and the music was effective and attractive.
Next was a four-movement work, based, as were many of the pieces on the program, on pre-existing literary images, in this case from poems by Brian Andreas. Strange Dreams was scored for alto saxophone and marimba. The writing for sax was effective, and expressively interpreted by Robert Faub (of the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet). The marimba writing took particular advantage of the deepest tones of the instrument, with an almost orchestral quality.
The next two works, Encantada, for solo vibraphone, and Coming Home, for euphonium and piano, shared a relatively conservative harmonic idiom, the first in the sort of modal/tonal style common to much contemporary jazz improvisation, based around duple rhythms with occasional triplets. Coming Home was commissioned by the euphonium soloist Christian Folk, and is based on the late 19th century hymn “Lord, I’m Coming Home,” a specimen of the popular sentimental hymnody of the day, with sweet melody, simple harmony, and unambitious but personal poetry. Whether you know and treasure such melodies will depend on where you grew up and what denomination you might be, and on the musical styles present in your church. Daughtrey’s music draws on the lyrical and romantic possibilities of the euphonium (similar to the baritone horn), with a trajectory moving from anxiety to peace. Brian Meixner played beautifully.
Next up was the composer’s Concerto for Vibraphone, originally scored for vibraphone and percussion ensemble, here performed with piano reduction, played capably by Susan Young. Both movements, “El Canto de la Noche,” and La Luz Encantada,” were inspired by poetry of Neruda, and the first had an evident Latin tinge, heard in the major mode with a flat sixth degree, as well as the harmonies sliding by semitone. The second movement showed Daughtrey’s virtuoso mallet technique off to excellent advantage.
For these ears, however, the most successful works on the program were the last two. An Extraordinary Correspondence, for flute and marimba, featured Laura Stevens on flute. Daughtrey’s writing for flute is particularly idiomatic, taking full advantage of its expressive possibilities, including a number of extended techniques, but all integrated in the service of an in-drawing musical shape. Stevens has a simply stunning tone, and her performance was one of the best I have heard on flute in quite some time, with every detail in place, including the quarter-tone slides. One-word review: Wow!
The closing work was a version of Halcyon Deconstruction (originally for marimba and percussion) with the accompaniment for tape (that is to say, pre-recorded electronic sounds). Here the program for the work, the story of Alcyone and Ceyx, is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and includes both a shipwreck and the transformation of the lovers into birds. Daughtrey’s musical narrative, matching the story, finds his own voice with a beautiful and skywards-heading conclusion.