Symphony Review: The South Carolina Philharmonic's Premiere of Joan Tower's "Red Maple"

mw1_tower “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

Jasper Goes to Hopscotch: Day 1


This is Jasper’s 2nd year at Hopscotch, a three-day music festival in Raleigh that features an extraordinarily eclectic lineup of over 170 acts scattered at 14 venues in the downtown area. With a pointed inclusion of everything from folk singers, country bands, and indie pop  to hip-hop, avante garde jazz, and death metal, the festival demonstrates a breadth and depth of selection that is quite simply astonishing. This festival also seamlessly blends a significant amount of North Carolina acts in with a wide-ranging group of national and international acts as well. Starting to see why it’s called hopscotch?

While we covered the festival last year a bit in Vol. 2 No. 002 in the context of Columbia’s festival scene, this time around we just want to give you a taste of what the whirlwind experience of Hopscotch is like. So…here we go!

(Note: I (Kyle Petersen) am using the “I” here, although staff photographer Jonathan Sharpe was along for most of the shenanigans as well. Check out a slide show of some of his photos from the day at the bottom of the post!)

I kicked things off at 8:30pm on Thursday with Nathan Bowles (Black Twig Pickers, Pelt), a plaintive banjo player from Blacksburg, Virginia. (The first day’s line-up doesn’t get going until the evening, giving folks time to get off from work. Friday and Saturday are a different story.) Bowles actually has a stronger background in drums and percussion in indie and progressive rock bands, but picked up the banjo a few years ago and has become quite devoted to it, mixing the traditional clawhammer style with a strong progressive bent. Playing a mix of originals and covers, Bowles created a warm, nuanced sound that meandered easily through the attentive crowd in Fletcher Opera Theater, a 600-seat venue where every seat in the house feels intimate. (Fletcher is part of a larger performing arts triumvirate that includes Memorial Auditorium and the Kennedy Theater, making it one of the hotspots of Hopscotch.)

Next I bumped over to The Kingsbury Manx right next door at Memorial, a cavernous 2,000 seater that allows festival goers to really stretch out and for the bands to get seriously loud. A Chapel Hill indie rock cult favorite, KM mixes neo psych and folk with luxurious power pop, and live their is a laidback joy to their performance, with an assured confidence that gives their intricate, occasionally delicate songs a bit of a swagger. Their set left me feeling like, in another world, KM could be as big and as critically lauded as Wilco.

After KM, I sauntered back over to Fletcher, where the Chicago-based singer/songwriter Angel Olsen was running a bit late. I didn’t mind, though, since as soon as she started playing you probably could have knocked me over with a feather. Olsen rose to prominence (as far as I know) from her role in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Cairo Gang, where she contributed some pretty otherwordly vocals, but I really wasn’t prepared for her vocal presence here. The inadequate comparisons I could come up with are to people like Antony Hegarty or Joanna Newsom, but neither does justice to the aching, sighing swoon that Olsen employs, moving in and away from the microphone so much and so skillfully that her distance from it was almost an integral part of the song. What she sang about was nearly as enchanting, reflecting on the nature of love and relationships with steely, sad-eyed lenses. This was a set to remember.

Sylvan Esso, a surprising collaboration between Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath and Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn, was pulsating next door (this was the first moment where I was really, really glad I brought earplugs), and I was able to catch the last few songs of their set as well. Their music feel like something that shouldn’t work--electronic dance music backing up free-form freak-folk songs in lieu of any other instrumentation--and yet somehow it does. It also seems like odd music to play live, but Meath and Sanborn were giving it their all, uninhibitedly dancing and swaying to the idiosyncratic beats and baffling choruses as if they’ve found their very own pop nirvana. And maybe they have.

After that I made my way over to the Irish bar Tir Na Nog, located a few blocks away from the glamour of those auditorium spaces, where it shares a block with the Pour House Music Hall and is right  around the corner from Slim’s and The Hive @ Busy Bee; these four clubs form the other hotspot of Hopscotching set-hopping. Despite that fact, I was sitting tight at Tir Na Nog, though, for two of my favorite alt. country bands, both of whom happen to be from Raleigh.

The Backsliders were up first, a group that was a big part of the wave of 1990s alt. country acts that made it seem like the genre was going to be a much bigger force in the music world than it is today. Although some would argue that The Backsliders were one of the best of the lot, they didn’t have as much success as Whiskeytown or Old 97’s, and they disbanded in ‘99, and only recently reunited for a few live gigs. Led by Chip Robinson, still full of as much (maybe more?) piss and vinegar and rock and roll energy as ever, The Backsliders blasted through a set of their classics as if it were 1996 instead of 2013. The original lineup all looked pretty stoked to be playing again, as lead guitarist Steve Howell provided effusive, blistering solos and keyboardist Greg Rice favorably channeled Benmont Tench and Garth Hudson.  Special highlight: Robinson invited up BJ Barham (of American Aquarium) to help him out with “Abe Lincoln,” a tune that AA recorded on their last album and that, last year at Hopscotch, Barham invited Robinson to join AA to sing on.

American Aquarium were up next, and clearly were feeding off the energy the Backsliders left on stage. The last couple of times I’ve caught them in Columbia, they’ve felt a little rougher after coming off hard stretches on the road--here, they were polished and poised, and gave the hometown crowd every little bit of awesomeness that their songs have got. Barham’s vocals, which many of the band’s detractors take issue with, were in particularly fine form. I also got front row seat’s to the Whit Wright experience, where the young multi-instrumentalist spent some heavy time on the lap steel before rotating back in the pedal steel guitar.

The last stop of the night was at the Lincoln Theater, a great mid-sized rock club where Kurt Vile & the Violators were a little late getting on stage, allowing me to catch most of their set as well. While I’m a fan of Vile’s work, particularly this year’s Wakin on a Pretty Day, I was hoping for a bit more guitar fireworks than I actually got. Live he pretty much sticks to the unhurried, spacious 70s rock sound filtered through 90s slacker indie rock vibe that he’s always gone for. His acoustic guitar work, just like on record, is what keeps you going here, as he wanders through his laconic songs not unlike J. Mascis does when he straps on an acoustic.

All in all, an excellent first evening, although disturbingly tiring given the onslaught of day parties and outdoor headliners that awaits us over the next two days...