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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Tower of Power

From the Classical Archives Dept.: Back in May we saw the return of composer Joan Tower, with Cho-Liang Lin performing Tower’s Violin Concerto with the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller. Tower, who may be the only contemporary composer celebrated in the comic strip “Peanuts,” has relationship with the ASO that goes much farther back, as this review of mine from 1984 attests. (The phrase “pursuit of venery,” by the way, is lifted from Thomas Berger's novel Who Is Teddy Villanova?)


IT’S EASY TO DEVELOP a granite block against contemporary classical music – even (or especially) with so dedicated a group as the Albany Symphony at hand, presenting something fairly new at every concert.

Joan Tower
Photo by Steve J. Sherman

You reassure yourself with the thought that Beethoven’s contemporaries had a hard time with his stuff, but still it’s hard to imagine that audiences 200 years from now will consider today’s chaos to be tame.

That’s why “Music for Cello and Orchestra” by contemporary composer Joan Tower was such a delight to listen to at the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s concert Saturday at the Palace Theater. It’s very modern – this weekend receiving its second and third performances – and it has a suitably modern-sounding voice. It’s a charming, cheerful piece, however, accessible to a first hearing and without the glittery garbage that might pall on a listener after repeated exposure.

“Ravel told me he couldn’t sit through another performance of ‘Bolero,’” Ms. Tower prefaced the performance of her piece by saying, “and Paine and Dvořák were ill. So I’m here. Which means that the players have to deal with me. But I think they’re used to dealing with composers who aren’t six feet under by now and it’s very exciting to me that we can work together.”

The cello soloist was Andre Emilianoff, for whom the piece was written. He had a hand in the germination of the concerto with the result that the virtuoso challenges, which are impressive and many, suit him perfectly.

One of the hardest problems to overcome, according to the composer, was preventing the orchestra from drowning out the cello. This was achieved through a number of methods, among them careful orchestration, with subtle doublings of the solo line, adding extra richness to it, with setting the soloist in contrast to the orchestra from time to time, and so on.

The orchestration has a lot of color. It’s astonishing to learn this is only Ms. Tower’s third work for orchestra.

The material is well suited to the solo instrument. This is more than a collection of nice themes. Little insistent motifs appear throughout the three sections, and were richly developed. More new music such as this piece could give bad contemporary music a bad name.

Emilianoff opened the program, as musical director Julius Hegyi conducted a small group of players, with Dvořák’s Rondo in G Minor for Cello and Orchestra. It’s like a solist-enhanced extended Slavonic Dance, with some tough passages thrown in. It was played charmingly and served its purpose well.

The First Symphony by American composer John Knowles Paine closed the first part. Paine wrote this in 1875, borrowing freely from his European contemporaries. Thus there is a first movement right out of Mendelssohn, a scherzo out of Brahms, and other similar borrowings. But it was well done, surprisingly so for such a derivative work.

The third-movement had a little surprise, a slow theme with a native sound to it, reminiscent of popular songs of the period (such as “In the Gloaming” of 1877), although Paine went right back to Europe for the variations. Special praise must be given the Albany Symphony’s playing of the piece. Performed with such vigor as this, the symphony certainly could become more popular.

Ravel’s “Bolero,” which closed the concert, must be a terror for the drummer. Richard Albagli tended the snare with a rock-steady beat and a no-nonsense crescendo. Except for some  over-zealousness by the alto saxophone, who glissed all over the map, the piece was played with just the right amount of charm and understatement (although a little more hell could have broken loose at the end). Despite the precedent set by popular entertainment, it appeared that most patrons shunned the pursuit of venery and remained seated until the end.

– Albany Knickerbocker News, Nov. 12, 1984

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