Tower of Power 

NSO shines in its new recording under Leonard Slatkin

Who says there’s no mass market for great art? A few years ago, 65 small to midsize orchestras decided to commission a new work from a prominent composer. The result was Made in America, a dynamic 13-minute piece that’s already received an unprecedented 70-plus performances in all 50 states.
Who says there’s no mass market for great art? A few years ago, 65 small to midsize orchestras decided to commission a new work from a prominent composer. The result was Made in America, a dynamic 13-minute piece that’s already received an unprecedented 70-plus performances in all 50 states.

Last summer, conductor Leonard Slatkin led the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere recording of Made in America at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. That CD, a terrific disc just released on the classical label Naxos, reveals Joan Tower as a symphonic composer of the first rank. And the NSO, which was giving its acoustically marvelous new concert hall one of its first test drives, gives the composer her due.

Tower says the inspiration for Made in America came from her time living in Bolivia. “When I returned to the United States [at age 18], I was proud to have free choices, upward mobility and the chance to be who I wanted to be,” Tower writes in her program notes. “I also enjoyed the basic luxuries of an American citizen that we so often take for granted: hot running water, blankets for the cold winters, floors that are not made of dirt and easy modes of transportation.”

For Tower, the music that best represents her deep and abiding love of country is “America the Beautiful,” so she uses snippets of that song throughout her piece. But she never quotes any part of the tune in its entirety. She starts out with “O beautiful, for spacious skies,” but when she comes to the second part of the phrase—“and amber waves of grain”—she rewrites the tune so that it keeps rising instead of descending to its expected cadence. In effect, it sounds as if the notes have suddenly broken free of gravity. “I like to go up,” Tower writes of her compositional technique.

Made in America is by no means a fiendishly difficult piece—Tower was commissioned to write music that both large and small orchestras could play. But it is a vivid and colorful piece, a work full of dramatic sweep. Slatkin and the NSO, for their parts, give the music an expert performance. They play with vigor and precision, but also with flexibility, making the rendition sound almost improvisational. The sound quality of the recording is also first-rate, with the Schermerhorn adding its bell-like clarity to the final product.

The CD features two other Tower pieces: Tambor and the Concerto for Orchestra.

Tambor is the Spanish word for drum, and this kinetic, 15-minute work is indeed a showcase for percussion. Aggressive, offbeat rhythms abound in the piece; various percussion instruments are allowed to shine in extended cadenza-like passages. Slatkin and the NSO give a take-no-prisoners account that pushes the envelope on volume and tempo. Yet they never shortchange the music’s lyrical qualities (an extended solo violin section is especially affecting), and no matter how grueling the passagework, they consistently maintain a tight ensemble.

Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra (1991) is one of the great symphonic works of the past quarter-century. Lasting 30 minutes, this is an action-packed piece that tests every section of the orchestra. Blistering fast passages for winds and strings alternate with big block chords for the entire orchestra. Dynamics range from dulcet pianissimos to thundering fortissimos. Gratefully, Slatkin and his players leave no emotion unexplored. Their playing pulsates with raw energy in storm-and-stress sections, and shimmers with plaintive beauty in lyrical passages. It is a fully engrossing and satisfying musical experience.

It’s perhaps worth noting that the symphony hasn’t been sounding this polished and enthralling in concert. In fact, the orchestra has tended to sound like a slightly different ensemble every other week, an inconsistency no doubt due to the idiosyncrasies of the season’s long roster of guest conductors. In any case, the new CD shows what this orchestra is capable of under Slatkin.

Basically Bartók

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra must be doing something right, since last week it attracted the attention of Alex Ross, the esteemed classical critic for the The New Yorker. Ross was in town Thursday night as part of a marathon trip to hear three heartland orchestras in two days. (He attended an Indianapolis Symphony matinee on Thursday morning, the Nashville Symphony Thursday night and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra the following evening.)

What did he think of the almost new Schermerhorn? “It has a lot more reverb than I was expecting,” he says. What did he think of the performance? Well, for that, you’ll have to read his upcoming review in The New Yorker. In the meantime, you should check out Ross’ Nashville photos—and one truly funny anecdote about his room-service guy—on his website, therestisnoise.com.

Given Ross’ presence in the hall, it seems likely that the NSO and its leadership breathed a collective sigh of relief at the end of the performance, since there were no major gaffes or embarrassments. The program, led by guest conductor Alasdair Neale, was all-orchestral (there were no concerto soloists last week) and featured Kevin Puts’ “...this noble company” (Processional for Orchestra), Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major “Drumroll” and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. All three works received passable interpretations.

Puts’ processional, which opened the concert, is intended to provide an American perspective to British composer Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Puts dispenses with the Edwardian sturdiness of the Elgar march, creating instead a piece that is melodious, mellow and wonderfully down to earth. Neale and the NSO performed the music with considerable color and deep feeling. Puts, who was in the hall, accepted a well-deserved ovation.

Neale’s interpretation of Haydn’s Drumroll Symphony was not completely to my taste. His rendition was lyrically appealing, and he used silence to great effect, holding onto rests for their full duration. Still, the performance lacked the classical elegance and nuance (a little more dynamic shading would have been welcome) that makes Haydn special.

I was also disappointed in the NSO’s Bartók. The Concerto for Orchestra is one of the unquestioned masterpieces of the canon, a work that is at once brooding, mysterious, poignant and exuberant. The NSO’s playing, however, struck me as overly fussy and lacking in pizzazz. This is a concerto that demands panache and raw power. Yet Neale and his musicians mostly played it safe.

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