American Maid

The Santa Barbara Symphony Joins Forces with Composer Joan Tower for Made in America

by Gerald Carpenter

Nir Kabaretti will conduct three of the four pieces on the next program of the Santa Barbara Symphony, which takes place on Saturday and Sunday, November 11 and 12, in the Arlington. Kabaretti will lead the orchestra in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the instrumental movements only, since there are no singers announced; probably the miraculous “Overture,” the “Scherzo,” and the “Wedding March”), the Divertissement of Jacques Ibert, and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, with its jaunty/jazzy outer movements and its dreamy, wistful center. The soloist for the Ravel will be the dazzling Music Academy alum, Orion Weiss.

The fourth piece, Made in America, will be conducted by its composer, the eminent Joan Tower — and thereby hangs a tale.

In 2000, representatives from the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer put their heads together to work out a way for smaller-budget orchestras, such as the Santa Barbara Symphony, to commission works by big-name composers, such as Joan Tower. The simplest solution was to pool their resources. Working with a grant from the Ford Motor Company Fund, the two organizations put together a consortium of 65 orchestras, including at least one from each of the 50 states. They called their program Ford Made in America, and it immediately became the largest known orchestra consortium. Each participating orchestra contributes to the commissioning fund and, in turn, performs the new work during the premiere season.

Joan Tower was the first composer selected for the program. The work she composed is called Made in America, and she built it on the foundation of “America the Beautiful.” I have heard Tower play the opening bars on the piano, an elegant tease leading clearly toward the statement of the song’s first line: “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies.” In an interview regarding the completed composition, Tower said, “You will hear things that are totally familiar to you, and things that are totally unfamiliar.”

Tower is comfortable talking about her music. “I like to go up!” she said, on writing a line of music. “I keep going up. It’s a thing I have. What happened as the piece wore on was that the tune started to get more and more challenged, and ‘America the Beautiful’ was having trouble surviving, actually. This wonderfully beautiful tune was being challenged throughout the piece, and just kept coming back in different guises, sometimes tender, sometimes big, sometimes angry, but it was always popping back up.”

The temptation is irresistible to assume that Tower is using “America the Beautiful” the song as a metaphor for “America the Beautiful” the country, which has certainly been undergoing more than its share of “challenges” recently.

Joan Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1938, but her family moved to Bolivia (her father was a mining engineer) when she was nine and she didn’t return to the United States until she was 18. She began playing the piano as a child, and studied the instrument, with some composition, at Bennington College in Vermont. Her studies in composition continued at Columbia University. Her awards, triumphs, and firsts are too numerous to list. She now teaches composition at Bard College in Annandale-on-the-Hudson, New York.

Tower’s music has tremendous variety but is always attractive. Her tonality is flexible, with an edge. She has composed for every instrument and ensemble, but not for vocalists. Her piece, as performed by the Santa Barbara Symphony, should not be missed.

The Santa Barbara Symphony will perform at the Arlington Theatre on Saturday, November 11 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 12 at 3 p.m. For tickets, call the Arlington at 963-4408.

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