Sunday, November 29, 2015

Joan Tower: Made in America

This Naxos recording features the remarkable "Made in America," as well as "Tambor" and the two-part "Concerto for Orchestra" by one of America's finest composers.

The title piece was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts and was organized through the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer.  What Tower did was to develop something of a "fantasy on the theme," as Gail Wein's helpful notes suggest, based on a classic piece of musican Americana.  Tower stated:
When I started composing this piece, the song America the Beautiful kept coming into my consciousness and eventually became the main theme for the work . . . this theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, interjecting, unsettling it . .  a musical struggle is heard throughout the work.  Perhaps it was my unconscious reaction to the challenge of how do we keep America beautiful, dignified and free.
Not only is the piece full of richness, powerful dynamics, daring harmonics and dignity, but Tower wrote it to be performed in all fifty states, which took place through 65 smaller American orchestras between October 2005 and June 2007.

"Tambor" is Spanish for "drum" and there is an undeniably powerful rhythmic emphasis in this piece that puts percussion front and center.  Tower noted that the percussion section of the orchestra was "to influence the behavior of the rest of the orchestra to the point that the other instruments began to act more and more like a percussion section themselves."  The work, which premiered in 1998, begins with an explosion of percussive elements during the orchestra introduction and the tremendous performance by various types of percussion is underscored by an intense and colorful performance by the orchestra.

The "Concerto for Orchestra" takes its cue from the masterful 1940s composition by the great Béla Bartók, which was featured here on this blog in February 2014.  As with Bartók, Tower utilized soloists, duettists and and sections to develop a powerful and striking piece that is challenging and virtuosic.  To write a piece that is so directly linked to a modern masterpiece is an indication both of respect for the earlier work and a personal statement by Tower about how the form can be utilized in a highly personal way even while influenced by the other.

This disc won three Grammy Awards in 1998 for Best Classical Album, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and Best Orchestral Performance.  This last award is testament to the astounding work of the Nashville Symphony and its conductor Leonard Slatkin, the latter of which has won several Grammys and been nominated for dozens and has worked for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra among others.

This album is a perfect example of great composition enhanced by the highest form of excellence in performance by the orchestra.  Naxos deserves great credit for realizing a project of the highest order.

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