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Published: Friday, 3/30/2001

Toledo Symphony, pianist Cowell to revisit Tatum tribute


Composers have always searched the globe for new sounds and to give new meanings to old ones.

Beethoven, for instance, dabbled with Turkish percussion. The Impressionists had a penchant for things Far Eastern.

The 20th century could hardly have been more eclectic. Yet, the 21st will be more so.

The future is now for the Toledo Symphony as the orchestra performs jazz and popular culture-influenced music tonight and tomorrow in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Featured will be Stanley Cowell's Piano Concerto No. 1 A Tribute to Art Tatum and Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony, a five-movement paean to DC Comics' “Man of Steel.”

A Toledo native and 1958 Scott High School graduate, Cowell also will be the evening's piano soloist. Equally at home in jazz and classical music, the artist has collaborated with Miles Davis and Billy Taylor, and studied at the Mozarteum Akademie in Salzburg, Austria. As a 6-year-old, Cowell played for Tatum in Cowell's family home when the jazz master was passing through Toledo.

And like Tatum, Cowell has nurtured interests in both classical music and jazz.

“I think of myself first as a musician. I was interested in learning how to play jazz since about age 14, when I discovered the music. But I have always continued my classical studies and have always been interested in both composing and electronic music,” the Rutgers University professor said by phone from his New Jersey home.

Commissioned by the Toledo Symphony and premiered in 1992, Cowell's concerto has evolved and has been streamlined since then. Musical events have been grouped together more concisely. The

original first movement exposition, for example, has been shortened in order to focus immediately on the piano.

One might expect the piece to have been conceived in jazz forms, but instead, Cowell looked to the classical tradition.

The first movement is in sonata form, a model often used by Mozart. This, says Cowell, “is a bow to Tatum's appreciation of classical fine art music.”

Yet, the movement also is written in a rhythmic and harmonic style that you would associate with the songbooks of Art Tatum's time. A quote from Gershwin's song “Someone to Watch Over Me” is used to build the cadenza which Cowell, as would have Mozart, will improvise.

As for the rest of the composition, while Cowell likes to give the impression of newness that one associates with improvisation, and expects to “take some liberties,” the music will basically be performed as written.

Cowell says he has “gone to great efforts to impart a sense of swing” in the music. “I just want the musicians to read the parts as I have written them. The inherent swing inflections should be there.” For a pianist, the concerto is “sprinkled with devices Tatum used in the types of melodic runs and the left-hand stride-piano style.”

“The second movement was written in a modal polymetric style, as if Tatum had lived on a little past his actual 1956 death date,” says Cowell. The third movement is a set of blues choruses, or, classically speaking, what Cowell terms “a set of variations in the 12-bar format.”

Pianist and composer Stanley Cowell will join conductor Andrew Massey and the Toledo Symphony in a program of music by Cowell, Bernstein, and Michael Daugherty at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets range from $12 to $39. Information: 246-8000.

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