The recent release of the “Ford Made in America” series is a fascinating survey of Joan Tower’s orchestral music. Listeners may be tempted to play the three works in reverse order so as to have a better understanding of one of America’s finest composers—woman or not.
The 1991 Concerto for Orchestra is an ambitious undertaking and, inevitably must be compared with Bartók’s masterpiece and Lutoslawski’s underrated gem. But there is more in common with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the four-note motif and some glorious brass orchestration) than the storied work that found special favour and understanding with Rafael Kubelik. Tower’s essay also features a thoughtful horn lament, angry (and at times frantic) power that can’t, yet, escape its largely vertical construction. Still, following the woodblock’s signal to the end of Part I, the Nashville Symphony’s principal violins build on earlier dreamy colours provided by the low strings (and welcome relief to the onslaught) and marvellously deliver an intense dialogue that finally sweetens once their colleagues join the conversation. The layers continue to build fueled by interventions from the cellos and clarinet but the overall development can’t find its way beyond routine.
Seven years later, Tambor (last seen in these pages in 2004, cross-reference below) fires on all cylinders. The writing is more confident, secure and engaging. As is the case throughout, Leonard Slatkin shows impressive drive and masterful control of the heady soundscape while his intrepid band delivers near razor-sharp ensemble. Kudos as well to producer/engineer Tim Handley whose sonic mastery will be a welcome treat for any sound system.
Unquestionably, the showstopper is Made in America (premièred by the Glens Falls Symphony in 2005). Tower has accomplished the perilous feat of interpreting America to Americans (and their admirers or detractors as the case may be) without slipping into tiresome jingoism or masses of symphonic sound-in-search-of-a-screenplay to lessen the tedium of composition without real purpose. Her trademark percussion writing is used to complement with discretion (the bells) or threaten woofers everywhere with the unbridled majesty of the oh-so-metaphorical thundering drums. That telling bombast is skillfully balanced with the slight tinge of religion that slips into some cadences.
At the root of the work is quietude and inner beauty that lurks in every note of its thematic subject matter, “America the Beautiful.” Inevitably there are moments of Ives and Copland, but never in the earlier sense of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Here, the faint echoes only add to the fabric of the magnificent canvas and underline its truth. After all, those snippets were most certainly made in America too. What a pleasure to discover how Tower knows what came before and, adding her own ideas, thoughts and feelings to the fabric, has done her part to lovingly pass down America’s aural history. JWR