Asked about her new piano concerto, Rapids, which will have its world premiere performance Saturday evening at the Union Theater with renowned soloist Ursula Oppens and the University Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Becker, composer Joan Tower says, "Well, I'm currently in denial, I guess. I'm very nervous before a performance, as though standing before a large building that went up very slowly and with a lot of labor, and now there it is and I'm worrying about it: will it work?" The new piece evokes a thoroughly intrigued response from the people who will be performing it.
Oppens had asked Tower specifically for a work that was brilliant pianistically (the title reflects the idea of high-speed flow). "I love the piano part," Oppens told me, "but though I can tell that the orchestration is wonderful, I haven't actually heard it yet." Becker concedes the new work is extremely challenging for the students of the orchestra. "It's very quick, a highly rhythmic piece, and its textures are soloistic and exposed, an interesting conversation between the pianist and the orchestral players."
Tower's relationship with Madison goes back to the early 80s, when as the pianist of the award-winning chamber ensemble Da Capo Players she performed a work of UW faculty composer Les Thimmig. She was prominently featured in the 1993 Women in Music Festival sponsored by the School of Music. Her Clarinet Concerto was performed here last season by the UW's Linda Bartley and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
The new piano concerto will probably also find a receptive audience here. "It doesn't offer a lot of respite," Tower said. "For most of its 12-13 minutes it's rushing right along." I asked Oppens if she found the work especially difficult to play. "It's not a finger-breaker, not difficult in the same way as Elliott Carter's Night Fantasies, for example, but it is very much a virtuoso piece, which is exactly what I wanted, very elegant, full of rhythmic variety. It starts with a bang and keeps going in a very intricate way, with only brief moments of relaxation." I was curious about the form of the work. "It's more a rhapsody than a sonata form," Oppens told me, "very much a one-movement piece, working with the same materials throughout."
The new Tower work is part of the on-going Centennial Commissions project of the UW School of Music. "Though very much in demand, Tower was a natural choice for us," Music School Director John Stevens says. "She has a very strong reputation, her music is enjoyable, and she is well-known to Madison audiences." One goal of the Centennial Commissions is to create a body of works that can live on, providing learning experiences for future generations of players and audiences. Of his current students, Becker reports: "They are very excited by the challenge and opportunity this concerto presents. They have learned so much. I'm confident they are going to do a fine job."
In addition to the Tower concerto, Saturday evening's program includes three other American works, one of them another world premiere: Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid, Virgil Thompson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune, and composer Douglas Hill's A Place for Hawks. This last work is a setting of four short poems, scored for strings, French horn, and mezzo-soprano, and will feature the composer and Ilona Kombrink, both members of the UW faculty, in its first performance.
Isthmus, February, 1996
Copyright 1996 Jess Anderson