The landscape of modern American classical music is always evolving. The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming performance, “Made in America,” will feature works by seminal American composers Howard Hanson and Joan Tower that both explore the origins of contemporary music tradition and, with the addition of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, presents the future of American talent.
First on the program is the concert’s namesake piece -- Joan Tower’s “Made in America.” Tower has been a fixture in the classical music world for more than 50 years. As a composer and performer, she has championed American contemporary music around the world. Tower is also a long-time faculty member at the Bard College, has given masterclasses all around the world, and has played an active role in molding generations of artists. “Made in America” was jointly commissioned in 2004 by 65 different orchestras in collaboration with the American Symphony Orchestra League. After being premiered by the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra, the piece was performed in all 50 states; in Alaska it was performed by the Juneau Symphony in 2007.
“Made in America” is based on the tune of “America the Beautiful” and features a number of direct quotes that are hard to miss. The piece begins slowly, evoking images of an Appalachian spring, but quickly something is amiss. Tower toys with the audience, giving little hints of the iconic theme, but then diverges, wanders far enough that the waves of grain become a blur on the horizon. Despite the opening, Tower’s musical language isn’t distinctly American in the same way as Aaron Copland or Charles Ives, with their open harmonies and perfect intervals. Instead, Tower takes digestible musical ideas and harmonies and slowly breaks them apart until they are utterly unrecognizable. The music crests, ebbs and flows, never going so far as to alienate the listener, always giving the audience some new idea, be it a rhythmic figure or tempo modulation, to grasp on to. In the end, the “America the Beautiful” theme returns for one final, triumphant moment, only to descend again into chaos before a rousing finish.
The heart of the program is Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2. Hanson holds a powerful position in the scope of American music history. His decades-long relationship with the Eastman school of music played a vital role in taking the small school from the periphery of musical society to the forefront of American musical institutions. His second symphony was commissioned and first performed by the Boston Symphony in 1930 and has endured a fruitful performance life since. Despite his impact as an educator and the continued performances of many of his works, Hanson remains a relatively unknown composer.
ASO music director Randall Craig Fleischer said he took this into consideration when programming the concert, “It’s a risky business, performing works of living or unfamiliar composers,” he said. Nonetheless, he thinks Hanson will be met with warm welcome, and he hopes the audience will bring some of what he called “that Alaska sense of adventure” to the concert hall.
Sandwiched between the Tower and Hanson, Daniel Hsu will join the orchestra for a more traditional selection in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s third piano concert. Widely regarded as one of the most challenging works for piano, Hsu takes on the challenge coming off his 2017 bronze medal success at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Named for the legendary American pianist, the Van Cliburn competition is held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas, and has been the starting point for many renowned pianists. The ASO has a long standing relationship with the Van Cliburn competition and has featured many of their medalists over the years.
Fleischer says that the ASO’s relationship with the competition has been an important part of his tenure with the orchestra. A Rachmaninoff piano concerto is by no means a groundbreaking programming decision, and in an American themed concert, the selection does seem a little out of place at first glance. However, the third piano concerto was first performed New York, during Rachmaninoff’s very first tour of the states, and with the composer himself at the keyboard.
All told, it’s a program that showcases both the history and future of American music.
Anchorage Symphony Orchestra’s “Made in America”
When: 8 pm Saturday, March 2
Where: Atwood Concert Hall
Tickets: $27-$52 at centertix.com