CMF presents world premiere of major piece by Joan Tower

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein gives dedicated performance of A New Day

By Peter Alexander July 25 at 11:25 p.m.

The Colorado Music Festival presented a major new piece at their concert in Chautauqua Auditorium tonight (July 25).

The Festival Orchestra, conductor Peter Oundjian and cellist Alisa Weilerstein collaborated in the world premiere of A New Day, a cello concerto by Joan Tower that was a CMF commission. A strong and exciting piece, A New Day should quickly find its way into the repertoire. I have no hesitation recommending this powerful concerto to every cellist, conductor and orchestra that would consider taking it up.

Joan Tower. Photo by Bernie Mindrich

The all-Tower concert opened with four trumpeters playing her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 5. It was, as the program characterizes her style, “bold and energetic,” boldly and energetically played. The players nailed the cinematic brilliance of the fanfare, one of several responses by Tower to Copland’s World War II-era Fanfare for the Common Man.

Oundjian and Tower came onstage to introduce the next piece, one of Tower’s best known: the Grammy-winning Made in America. Premiered in 2005 and written for 68 orchestras in 50 states, Made in America reflects Tower’s feelings about her home country after living several years in South America. It uses the song “America the Beautiful” “inside the piece,” as Tower aptly described it: not really a set of variations, it returns to the song throughout.

As she also explained, the score reflects both positive and negative feelings about the country. There are many passages of darkness and anger, over which the central theme sometimes prevails. It is a well calculated score that propels the audience through many moods and transitions to an ending of great forcefulness. People around me were shouting “bravo,” “brava” and “bravi” all at once.

The CMF Orchestra, which gets better each week, managed the tricky transitions and sudden tempo changes of the score seamlessly under Oundjian’s leadership. Contrasts between delicate, gentle passages and violent, louder ones were well marked, and the slower crescendi flowed smoothly. Brass and percussion—favorite sounds in Tower’s arsenal—were especially impressive.

Next was Tower’s rarely heard Duets, a kind of concerto for orchestra that contrasts a series of duets within the orchestra with dramatic full orchestra outbursts. Tower said she was grateful to the CMF players for performing Duets, since they made her “like the piece again.“

I will not describe any part of this piece as “angry.” When Oundjian used that word from the stage, Tower firmly corrected him that she was not angry. But I will say that the dramatic full orchestral passages become musically very powerful at times.

CMF artistic director Peter Oundjian

That effect was abetted by nature, as a violent thunderstorm broke over the Chautauqua Auditorium during the performance, sometimes obscuring the players. It is a tribute to the orchestra’s range of dynamics that the most delicate passages could be drowned out by the rain, but elsewhere the storm was decisively covered by the orchestra. 

What will be most remembered from the performance will be the orchestral explosions rather than the duets of individual instruments. Once again it was the brass section, deftly handling all of their complex passagework, and above all the athletic work of the timpanist that most impressed. Alas, the weather covered some of the wind and string duets that I would have liked to have heard better.

To avoid that happening during the following world premiere, the intermission was extended until the storm had passed and the music could be well heard. This was a good decision, as A New Day is a piece worth hearing well.

The piece makes great use of the cello and its characteristic gestures—long slides, string crossings, rapid figuration, shifts to thumb position high on the cello’s top string. This will be a challenge to any cellist, all within an accessible frame that audiences will enjoy. Based on the stations of a single day, it has an expressive profile that reaches out to the listeners and invites them in.

There are four movements, titled “Day Break,” “Working Out” (with the many possible meanings implied), “Almost Alone” and “Into the Night.” Dedicated to her husband, the piece is in part a celebration of their years together.

Alisa Weilerstein. Photo by Paul Stewart

“Day Break” opens gently but has many shifts of mood. Driving fragments in the cello are reinforced by chugging motion in the orchestra. Every mood and musical idea leads to another transition, building in intensity or relaxing back into tranquility. “Working out” might refer as much to the performance of the soloist as any activities in the day of a person or a relationship. It is fast and at time brilliant, never casual.

“Almost alone” is a calm, lyrical cadenza for the cellist, sometimes supported by beautiful chords from the string sections. “Into the Night” provides a strong contrast to the preceding movement, starting almost frantically and maintaining a high pace for most of the movement. The end provides a return to tranquility, with the concerto ending as gently as it began—signifying, Tower says, “hope for another day with my 94-year-old husband.” Her generosity in sharing that hope with the audience was the most touching moment of all.

Weilerstein performed with a focus that was evident in both the intensity of her playing, and visually as she felt the complex passages of her part. This was virtuosity at a high level, a performance totally dedicated to the music at hand. Tower could not have wanted more effective advocates for her new work, either soloist, conductor, or orchestra.

It was good to hear the work of such a remarkable living composer at Chautauqua. Tower’s command of the orchestra is unequalled, her music is both vivid and accessible, and it is performed widely. It should be heard more often.

Indeed, the entire “Music of Today” series at CMF has been a sensational success. Oundjian and the festival are to be commended for their commitment to living musicians.