After two days of oppressive heat, the heavens let loose in the midst of the Colorado Music Festival's concert on 25th July. They relented when Alisa Weilerstein stepped on stage to play Joan Tower's new cello concerto, A New Day. It was a case of three elemental powers which, together with conductor Peter Oundjian, conspired to create.

Peter Oundjian, Joan Tower and Alisa Weilerstein
© Abbey Davis

The evening had begun with an array of trumpeters splendidly proclaiming the last of Tower's five Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman. This one was composed in honor of the philanthropist Joan Harris who once said, “Collaboration is what I like more than anything. I think women are much better at it than men.”

Next came Tower's Made in America, the composer's paean to America the Beautiful, embodying an implicit plea for its adoption as the country's national anthem. But just as the visceral power of Tower's belief in America, rooted like Carl Sandburg's poetry in the industry and integrity of those who worked to build the nation, was giving way to sadness in the strings and the beautiful, delicately orchestrated French horn solo, the music was engulfed in a terrible loud thunderstorm with a musical bent. In fact, too many of the of terrifying thunderclaps came on the beat for it to have been a coincidence. The storm had been attracted to Tower's music. The effect, combined with the bass drum and timpani, made fearsome and appropriate loud, deep sounds.

Nature's ardor, unfortunately, was not yet satisfied. No sooner had the opening cello duet of Tower's Duets begun than the storm intensified and settled in, veiling or obscuring many of the softer moments. On the other hand, the heavy rain and unstable atmospheric conditions lent a certain urgency to the playing. When the two cellos returned toward the end they were framed by stereo thunder, and thunder seemed to be reading the score at the climax which Oundjian had described onstage as “a battle between triplets and 16th notes.”

Mollified perhaps by an extended intermission, the heavens parted for the birth of A New Day, the 82-year old Tower's extraordinary outpouring of love for her 94-year old husband. The titles of the four movements recall those of Strauss' Four Last Songs; she supplied no other program notes. The new concerto was commissioned for the 39-year old Weilerstein by the Festival and The Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra; it was written with a great deal of collaborative input. On the issue of what is playable by a virtuoso cellist, the team seem mostly to have come down on the side of very, very difficult but possible if played with fierce, desperate passion and a prodigious appetite for insanely fast, highly entertaining passagework.

The cello enters almost immediately at Daybreak with a lovely plaintive melody, reveling in figurations and gestures, overcoming thrilling virtuoso challenges before great orchestral strides open onto a lovely moment with the oboe; there's more energy, then a beautiful tune in the violins and winds. Delightful writing for the French horn fleetingly suggested its use in Dvořák's Cello Concerto. Weilerstein made quicksilver magic of Tower's cleverly written chromatic runs synced to the winds.

Working Out is a brilliant Scherzo in double time, with celestial and challenging solo double bass double stops, relentlessly fast cello work with some dazzling sul ponticello, finishing with more double bass double stops, leading the cello to a radiant concluding chord. Wonderfully exhausting.

The last two movements make a pair. In Mostly Alone the sad solo cello, as if pouring out the composer's own soul in song, never finds safety and ends with a glissando to the highest reaches of the A string. Into the Night begins with an upwelling of lyrical energy that is calmed and serenaded by a soaring solo violin, before developing into a presto with the cellist moving up, down and around the cello at lightning speed, fueled by pure motive power. As the figurations slow and an end seems to be approaching, the cello, played with deeply moving stillness by Weilerstein, lets all cares go in a final glissando sigh higher than the first, consoled by echoes in the bass and drums.

Through all the challenges the orchestra held fast, a dream of a partner who were as virtuosic and almost as flexible as Weilerstein herself. On the podium, Oundjian carefully paced and shaped the course of Tower's narratives and opened his heart, and the audience's, to the authenticity of their emotional impact.


*****