Program Gives Big-Time Debut to Small Orchestras

This year, a new piece by world-famous composer Joan Tower will debut in unusually small venues nationwide. Community orchestras banded with other small groups across the nation to commission the piece themselves. Vivian Goodman of member station WKSU reports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This weekend, orchestra fans on both sides of the nation get a chance to hear a new piece by a world-famous composer. The composition by Joan Tower is called "Made in America." And part of the story here is the way that this American composition was made. The Reno Chamber Orchestra in Nevada and the Old York Road Symphony in Pennsylvania are not among this nation's biggest and most powerful cultural institutions. It is rare for community orchestras like these to be among the first to play a piece by a major composer. They got the chance because they joined with other small groups across the nation to commission this piece themselves. Vivian Goodman of member station WKSU caught one of the performances.

VIVIAN GOODMAN reporting:

The little bedroom community of Stow, Ohio, claimed its place in the pantheon of classical music. It saw the Ohio premiere and only the second performance ever of Joan Tower's "Made in America."

(Soundbite of "Made in America")

GOODMAN: For the Stow Symphony Orchestra's conductor, Darrell Lee Music--Yes, that's his real name--this was a terrifying experience, as he confided to his musicians during one of the final rehearsals.

Mr. DARRELL LEE MUSIC (Conductor, Stow Symphony Orchestra): I'm scared now. I can't imagine what it's going to be like with all those people. Joan Tower's...

GOODMAN: Composer Joan Tower came to Stow and traveled to Glens Falls, New York, for the world premiere the week before. She'll visit all 50 states for performances of her composition. The project began in Glens Falls, a town of 20,000, whose community orchestra wanted to find a way to commission a major new work. The idea was picked up by the American Symphony Orchestra League, which joined forces with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Motor Company to help fund the largest co-commission ever planned for a consortium of American orchestras. The half-million-dollar project also includes the pooled resources of 65 community orchestras, the smallest in the country. Again, Stow's Darrell Lee Music.

Mr. MUSIC: Because of our size--smallness of our size, we get to do it, and the big boys are excluded, OK. It was a way for the small orchestras to get an opportunity to do a world premiere by a noted, established composer, so it's like David and Goliath. It really is.

GOODMAN: For Joan Tower, it was a bit of a gamble to turn her work over to David instead of Goliath.

Ms. JOAN TOWER (Composer): The players are not at the level of the major orchestra players. I had to be careful of how fast I went, how high I went. There were certain restrictions that were placed on me, and I just thought this would be a very exciting venture for me, musically and socially.

(Soundbite of orchestra music)

GOODMAN: The musical limitations that Joan Tower felt were more than offset by the response she got when she arrived in Glens Falls to work with the orchestra there on the premiere.

Ms. TOWER: I experienced the most incredible community effort I have ever seen for a piece of music. I thought, if this is the way all these orchestras are going to go, this is going to be quite an experience, because, you know, with the major orchestras, you're lucky if they remember to invite you, and if you do show up, they forget to pick you up at the airport. You know, I'm putting them down, but they're not all like that, but you certainly are not a Yo Yo Ma coming in. But I was a Yo Yo Ma coming into Glens Falls. I had a woman come up to me at breakfast and say, `Excuse me, is this your picture in the newspaper?' you know, and some woman on the street with her children asking me for her autograph. I mean, I felt like a star.

GOODMAN: And so did the musicians in the orchestra, says their conductor, Charles Peltz.

Mr. CHARLES PELTZ (Conductor): The orchestra has definitely been energized by this process. Many of them are professional musicians who patch together a life playing this gig and that gig and this orchestra and that little opera company and that sort of thing and teaching. Their opportunities to take part in the creation of new music at such a high level is not frequent. They were honored to be part of it, and some of them were old, grizzled veterans, you know, and they still were excited about the opportunity that Joan Tower, a major voice in music, had come to their community, was working with them, molding this piece, with them being essential in that molding process.

(Soundbite of orchestra music)

GOODMAN: Glens Falls Symphony conductor Charles Peltz says great art can happen anywhere. Peltz leads a professional ensemble. But in Ohio, the Stow Symphony's 46 members are both professionals and amateurs. Caroline Arnold, now retired from the staff of former Ohio Senator John Glenn, is Stow's principal cellist.

Ms. CAROLINE ARNOLD (Musician): When music happens at the grassroots level like this, it's a very important part of our culture, and we have to make sure that it goes forward, so I'm really proud to be part of this orchestra.

GOODMAN: And that's another reason why Joan Tower prefers working in places like Stow, Glens Falls and Pine Bluff.

Ms. TOWER: Because there, you have people who are joining this orchestra because they want to. That makes it genuine, and it makes it real.

GOODMAN: After performances this weekend in Nevada and Pennsylvania, Joan Tower and "Made in America" travel on to Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico and beyond. For NPR News, I'm Vivian Goodman.

(Soundbite of orchestra music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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