Monday, December 7, 2009

Joan Tower's "Island Prelude" for Oboe and Strings

Joan Tower is one of America's preeminent composers writing music today. She has received many of Classical Music's top honors and has been commissioned to write works for many of our nation's leading ensembles and performers. She has been called, "one of the most successful woman composers of all time" by the New Yorker, and in my personal opinion, has written one of the most exciting pieces for the oboe in the past 50 years.

The work, "Island Prelude," was written in 1988 for Peter Bowman, then principal oboist of the St. Louis Symphony. It was inspired not only by Bowman's beautiful lyrical playing, but also by Samuel Barber's great "Adagio for Strings." In listening to the piece, Barber's influence is quite clear especially in the opening. Barber was quite fond of the oboe, often writing the most beautiful song-like passages in his orchestral works for it. Tower echoes this by writing sustained lyrical lines for the oboe supported by chorale-like staggered entrances in the strings. A clear ebb and flow of sound in waves builds like the tide of the ocean in the "A" section. In keeping with Barber's propensity for Romanticism and easily identifiable tonal sonorities, the piece is harmonically conservative using whole tone scales for a touch of exoticism to paint the picture of a remote dessert island. The "B" section of the piece is dominated by shimmering agitated passages in the strings and especially the oboe perhaps recalling the occurrence of a mirage. The two extended cadenzas in the "C" section of the piece showcases the soloist's virtuosity and is described by Tower as being evocative of a lone bird swooping up and down over the island as seen from a distance. The piece ends as quietly as it began; the sonic depiction of the island vanishes quickly into thin air. The original version is for oboe and string orchestra, however the composer has also set it for oboe and string quartet as well as for woodwind quintet.

My personal association with "Island Prelude" began as far back as 1997, during my undergraduate studies at Cincinnati Conservatory. I checked the piece out of the library and searched out a recording. I found Peter Bowman's premiere recording with the St. Louis Symphony and was struck by his sensitive musicianship, beautiful clear and resonant sound, and solid technique as he seamlessly navigated the difficult terrain of Tower's composition. I fell in love with the recording and the piece, but never really had the energy or patience to put the amount of work into it that was necessary to pull off a convincing performance of such a deceptively difficult work... until now!

Fast forward to 2009: Dan convinced me that I must go with him to Luxembourg to play in a chamber music festival there with him. Once I was accepted, the time came to submit repertoire requests, I immediately thought of "Island Prelude." Now that I wasn't a musician by trade, I could finally focus on repertoire that I loved and not worry so much about failing and staking my reputation and career on the quality of the last note that I produced. I started intensely studying the piece by listening to the recording and following along in the score.

I had so much fun with the mental challenge of trying to wrap my brain around Tower's complex and fascinating musical language. I wanted to have the piece solidly under my fingers and a good understanding of the form so that I could lead rehearsals once it was time to put it together with the other musicians. Once in Luxembourg, rehearsals commenced and I discovered just how tricky making the piece work would be. Our group struggled with the sense of timelessness that Tower creates making it really difficult to feel a pulse as a group. Eventually we decided to perform the piece with our chamber music coach as a conductor simply because of the time limitation of the short festival. We could have rehearsed for at least another week with a conductor and it still would have been a challenge in the concert!

I will perform the piece again with the Arneis Quartet in a few days (without a conductor) and I can't wait to get another swing at it. Arneis has been working very hard on the piece and rehearsals are going well. The most exciting part about working with them has been to see them getting excited about the piece too. Positive energy in chamber music is infectious, and once everyone is on board with a piece, exciting things begin to happen. I have Dan to thank for the opportunity and his support. Arneis has even invited me to attend a festival with them in Utah during the month of July to coach the piece with the Muir Quartet and Joan Tower, herself! What an exciting chance for me to pick the composer's brain about her ideas and compare them to my personal interpretation of the piece.

If you're free on Thursday, December 10 at 6 pm, please stop by the Hunneman Hall in the Brookline Public Library and hear us play this piece. I'm sure that you will enjoy the beauty of the music and the hard work that has gone into preparation for the concert.

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