“I don’t do movements.” This blunt statement by Joan Tower belies the expansive seventeen minutes of Red Maple, her most recent work. Scored for solo bassoon and orchestral strings, the piece eschews splashy colors, heavy-handed percussion, and fanfarish settings, and comes across as an understated, even restrained, work. Allowing the bassoon to “shine,” as Tower puts it, is her primary concern. Commissioned by the South Carolina Philharmonic and the virtuoso bassoonist Peter Kolkay, Red Maple premiered on October 4, 2013, at the Koger Center for the Arts in Columbia, SC. Also on the program were a few war-horses – Tchaikovsky 4 and the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida that certainly offset the general quiet and initial nigh-solemnity of Red Maple.
Peter Kolkay is one of the few among bassoon superstars (let that phrase reverberate for a minute) able to fill a concert hall while maintaining a luscious, mellifluous sound. In this respect, Red Maple succeeds wildly. The work opens with a descending three-note chromatic motif and an extended, languorous, almost-plaintive solo in a fairly high register – perhaps a reach back in time to the inner movement of Gordon Jacob’s bassoon concerto or the slower passages of Taafe Zwilich’s concerto. Kolkay’s robust, confident, and energetic performance carried the work – and if there was any doubt about Kolkay’s aptness for luminosity in lyricism, let it be laid to rest here and now.
The string orchestra accompaniment in Red Maple was alternately stately and buoyant, and well-played under Nakahara’s baton – yet, simultaneously, the scoring of the work seemed almost risk-averse. There were very few moments of percussiveness or novelty in timbre; retrospectively, the accompaniment plays it safer than what Tower normally brings listeners in large-form works. Very rare indeed is a string harmonic in Red Maple, and very rarely is the full potential of color between the strings, or between bassoon and strings, realized and exploited. Technical moments favored the soloist, of course, but even some of the flashier writing for the bassoon seemed restrained, delicate: in essence, everyone performed purely idiomatically, and this instilled in some listeners the idea that, perhaps, Tower had some tentativeness about the ensemble or the work in general. The strings remain in safe and comfortable ranges; other special effects are totally absent, from both soloist and strings. Granted, concerns of orchestration are paramount when composing for a bassoon and an ensemble, but the approach here is conservative at the peril of potentiality.
This is not to say, however, that the work was lacking: rather, Red Maple has a slow burn that gently draws listeners in and engages imaginations as it unfurls. The formal scope of the work, is an interesting conceit and clever play on the concerto form: just as autumn rushes in and sets forth a sense of urgency, so too does Red Maple, with an acceleration of contrasting ideas. The extended solo gives way to stilled string writing; from this slowness emerges faster sections, and these temporal variations alternate, each alternating section appearing to shorten in duration as the work moves toward its terminus. Tower works in three separate cadenzas and touches upon classical expositional ideas, and along the way there is a great deal of vivacity, with multiple gigue-like sections and rhythmically propulsive passages. An urgency-at-the-coda, last-breaths-of-Fall idea permeates the bassoon solo, as well: as the work progresses, the level of technical skill in the bassoon increases, departing with a flurry of smoldering flourishes that summarily test the mettle of the soloist. Kolkay blazes through these sections with vigor and aplomb.
Rare is the orchestra and the music director that takes a chance on a new premiere – let alone for a bassoon concerto. The South Carolina Philharmonic, music director Morihiko Nakahara, and bassoonist Peter Kolkay should be celebrated for employing Tower to create a new work, along with a consortium of other ensembles. Tower, likewise, should be thanked and saluted for taking up the challenge, especially for a premiere in a sleepy (yet culturally alive) town in the Deep and Dirty South. Red Maple will surely go into leaf as time wears on as Kolkay reprises his stellar performance beyond Columbia, SC. - Tom Dempster