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Pro Arte puts its stamp on 'Made in America'

CAMBRIDGE -- Joan Tower's ''Made in America" is a piece jointly commissioned by and for smaller American orchestras, with substantial support from such blue-chip operations as the American Symphony Orchestra League, Meet the Composer, and the Ford Motor Company Fund.

One of the the germinators of the project was the former executive director of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, Ryan Fleur, and the idea certainly grew and flowered. The hope was for one orchestra in each state to program the work; ultimately 65 signed up, including two in Massachusetts in addition to the Pro Arte, the Plymouth Philharmonic and the New Philharmonia in Newton.

The piece came home to the Pro Arte Sunday, and it is terrific. Tower uses the opening of ''America the Beautiful" as her basic thematic material, and in a way the piece is allegory -- the tune meets many hostilities and challenges but never gives in; instead it assimilates everything it encounters. The style lies somewhere between Copland and Stravinsky, and the music is written by a master orchestrator who knows how to make an ensemble sound good. And while the design may appear schematic as one describes it, Tower is too experienced, gifted, and cagy to fall into that trap: It functions according to a purely musical logic as well.

The Pro Arte performance under Isaiah Jackson did not sound entirely secure, but brass, winds, and percussion certainly delivered the goods.

Jackson paved the way for ''Made in America" with complementary American works -- George Gershwin's gently syncopated ''Lullaby" for string orchestra, Charles Ives's ''Three Places in New England," John Williams's ''Theme From 'Schindler's List,' " and Victor Herbert's ''Serenade for Strings." It was particularly interesting to hear the early string serenade by the man who became America's master of operetta. The serenade is an elegant, tuneful, rhythmically beguiling piece that deserves to be programmed more often. Jackson contributed some nice touches of rubato, but the playing was pallid and not invariably in tune. The Ives pieces brought more robust playing, and concertmaster Kristina Nilsson didn't slobber all over Williams's piece, investing it instead with understated but intense emotion.

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