GLENS FALLS — Three years ago, the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra initiated Musicbridge, a multi-year plan to connect the old with the new. In the first year, with substantial sponsorship from Ford Motor Co.’s Made in America program, 82 U.S. orchestras put up money and hired composer Joan Tower to write a piece, which she called “Made in America.” Glens Falls did the world premiere.
The hoopla that created is still being felt even as the symphony opens its season Sunday afternoon at Glens Falls High School in a celebration of a renewed Musicbridge and Tower’s 70th birthday.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Tower said from Annandale-on-Hudson, where she’s professor in the arts at Bard College. “I went to 20 of the performances and conducted eight of them.”
Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra
WHO: Soloist Paul Neubauer, viola
WHERE: Glens Falls High School, 10 Quade Street, Glens Falls
WHEN: 4 p.m. Oct. 5
HOW MUCH: $20, $10
MORE INFO: 793-1348 or www.gfso.org
On Sunday, Tower, who will be in the audience, will hear her piece yet again, as the symphony performs it for the first time since the world premiere. Even with all the premieres, which took almost a year to do, the work has had legs. It was one of the works on an all-Tower CD, which the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under conductor Leonard Slatkin made, that recently won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. The CD also received a Grammy for Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance.
What has made Musicbridge so special is that it’s geared to communities such as Reno, Santa Barbara, Las Cruces and Glens Falls that can maintain an orchestra with good players, Tower said.
“It’s been incredible. I’ve always dealt with the majors. But I got to know another level of the orchestra world. It’s very inspiring — the real dedication on the part of the communities, the orchestra and the musicians,” she said.
Sunday’s concert will feature another Tower work: “Purple Rhapsody” with violist Paul Neubauer in his debut with the orchestra. This piece, too, began with a multiple co-commissioning of eight orchestras in 2005 and Neubauer has been the soloist in all of them.
“It’s a fabulous, exciting piece,” Neubauer said. “It has a rhapsodic feel with big sweeping orchestral sections and fast passage work for me. It’s very dramatic — there’s arresting tension.”
This is the third work Tower has written for him, the other two being solos, and all have purple in the title.
“Purple is her favorite color and the one that she connects to the viola,” Neubauer said.
Neubauer has played more solos with orchestras than he can count, he said, considering that he began his career at 21 as the principal violist with the New York Philharmonic and in 1989 became the first violist to win the Avery Fisher Career Grant. These days, he’s a frequent guest with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, has been featured on television in four countries and records extensively. In fact, he’s recording “Purple Rhapsody” in November with an orchestra in Ohio, he said.
But playing a solo with an orchestra is still a tricky thing for a violist, he said. Unlike a violin, which can soar above an orchestra, or a cello, which can cut through the tutti sections, a violist’s range is in the middle of the orchestra’s voice.
“So it’s a concern for me to be heard,” Neubauer said.
Fortunately, when Tower was preparing to write the piece, she listened to several viola concertos and determined that a light orchestration would help. And, as she heard the performances of the work, she’d alter this and that to make it better, he said.
Conductor Charles Peltz still marvels at how Musicbridge changed the orchestra and the community. It put the name of the symphony and community on the map, he said. The world premiere got national media coverage from newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and radio broadcasts that lasted for a year. Locally, WMHT wanted to broadcast just the world premiere, but when they heard the quality of the orchestra, they decided to record all of the orchestra’s concerts and rebroadcast them periodically at 6 p.m. on various Sundays, Peltz said. And those are unedited archival recordings, he said.
“The aftermath of that year brought pianist Jeff Biegel in Lowell Liebermann’s concerto. That got huge crowds,” Peltz said.
This season, orchestra principal clarinet Christopher Bush commissioned Boston composer Yumi Cawkwell to write him a piece that he and pianist Carol Minor will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the 1st Presbyterian Church of Glens Falls along with Tower’s “Or Like a . . . an Engine” and “Fantasy . . . “Those Harbor Lights”. Also on the program are works by Schumann and Bach.
To continue Musicbridge’s philosophy of programming pieces that share common elements, the season will continue on Nov. 16 with a celebration of the life of turn-of-the-century Metropolitan Opera soprano Marcella Sembrich in works she would have sung during her career by composers she knew personally. Mezzo-soprano Justyna DiBiaggio will sing.
The holiday concert on Dec. 7 will feature Laurel Masse, formerly of the Manhattan Transfer.