Story by Kyle MacMillan
Photo by Bernard Mindich
Joan Tower called it one of the best days of her life.
She was talking about a rare event for a living composer: a concert that was completely devoted to her music. That’s what the Colorado Music Festival made happen in July 2021, with an all-Tower line-up that included the world premiere of her cello concerto A New Day.
“The whole thing was just a dream in heaven come true,” she said.
Since taking over as the Festival’s Music Director in 2019, Peter Oundjian has made commissioning new works a priority, and he believes Tower was an obvious choice for such a project.
The 85-year-old American composer, whose 15-minute Made in America won her a 2008 Grammy Award for best classical composition, is perhaps best known for her oft-played Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. “Joan is truly one of the outstanding American composers of all time,” Oundjian said.
The Canadian-American conductor asked her what kind of a work she would like to write for the Festival, and she knew immediately: a cello concerto. Tower penned an earlier piece in that form, her Music for Cello and Orchestra (1984), and was not pleased with how it turned out.
A New Day was written for Tower’s husband, who was struggling with severe medical problems at the time and passed away a year later. The four movements are devoted to ordinary happenings during a day – “Daybreak,” “Working Out,” “Mostly Alone,” and “Into the Night.”
“I never knew when I woke up if he would still be there or not,” she said. “And that’s why it is called A New Day.”
Four months before the premiere, Oundjian called Tower to discuss a draft of the score, and, as a former violinist, he had a few suggestions for the orchestral strings. “I said, ‘Yes, let’s try that,’’’ the composer said. “It was a real kind of cooperative, creative project that we were doing together. That is very unusual with conductors.”
That close cooperation continued during the rehearsals, where Tower said the piece received more attention and time than is often the case in such situations, and she was able to make changes to some of the work’s articulations and tempos before the performance.
Oundjian described the resulting four-movement concerto as “fabulous.” “It has a lot of very moving, beautiful cello writing,” he said, “and it has also plenty of brilliance and colors in the orchestra.”
The composer had high praise for the soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, a 2011 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner. “She was fantastic,” Tower said. “She was totally ready when the first rehearsal came, and she went with all the changes. She is a real pro and a very good player.”
To share the costs of the new work and assure that it would be performed multiple times right out of the gate, the Festival put together a commissioning consortium that included the Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, and National Symphony in Washington, D.C. The Pittsburgh Symphony has programmed it as well.
“I’ve been around some major orchestras with this piece,” Tower said. “This piece has had good reception.”
Following the concerto’s May 2022 debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Michael Andor Brodeur, classical music critic for the Washington Post, called A New Day one of the “most exciting new works” he had heard in that season.
Brodeur wrote, “Early on, Weilerstein introduced a vocabulary of arcing glissandos and serrated harmonics that would slice through the surface of the ‘day’ like recurring anxieties. But her playing also drew a fully formed figure, a personality, the presence of a protagonist moving through the whirl of the world painted by the orchestra.”
Colorado Music Festival leaders and Tower are in discussions about a saxophone concerto that could be debuted in a couple of years. But for now, the composer is looking forward to more performances of A New Day, including those at the Detroit Symphony that had to be postponed to a future season.
“All in all, it was a wonderful success,” Oundjian said, “and I think it’s a really important addition to the cello concerto repertoire.”
Have you enjoyed hearing new music at the Colorado Music Festival by Joan Tower, Joel Thompson, Wang Jie, and many other contemporary composers? Donate today so we can commission new works like this in the future.
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