About this Recording
8.559775 - TOWER, J.: Violin Concerto / Stroke / Chamber Dance (Cho-Liang Lin, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

Joan Tower (b. 1938)
Stroke • Violin Concerto • Chamber Dance


Like all good composers, Joan Tower brings to her writing desk life and musical experiences that inform her music in unique ways. These include her childhood in South America, her formal education and her work as a professional chamber-music player. A member of the generation that broke the glass ceiling for female composers (or at least opened a wider hole in it), Tower creates music that is bold, colourful and emotional. The list of her commissions, awards and residencies bears witness to her ability to engage performers and audiences alike.

Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York, but her family moved to La Paz, Bolivia, when she was nine years old. There she continued the piano lessons her father, an amateur violinist, had encouraged her to start at the age of six. During the seven formative years she spent in South America—travelling extensively with her father in his role as a supervisor of mines—she absorbed much of the native flair for percussion which has become such an important element of her style. The family returned to the States for her last two years of high school, and in 1957 she enrolled at Bennington College to study piano and composition. She went on to earn her Master of Arts and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. Her teachers included Chou Wen-Chung, Jack Beeson, Darius Milhaud and Wallingford Riegger, but she professes to be a self-taught composer. Her earliest pieces were composed in the serial system, but her style slowly developed a more flexible, even tonal, aspect, allowing her to absorb influences from such diverse composers as Beethoven, Debussy, Copland, Messiaen and Stravinsky.

She founded the Da Capo Players in 1969 to both promote contemporary music and provide herself with more opportunities to compose. The award-winning chamber group (still in residence at Bard College—where Tower is currently Asher Edelman Professor of Music) consists of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Performing as pianist with the group until 1983, Tower composed works for her fellow musicians and developed her instinctive feeling for instrumental techniques and capabilities. Her first concerto, Music for Cello and Orchestra, was written for the group’s cellist, and she has since composed concerti for the other four instruments in the ensemble. She has held orchestral residencies with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra (1985–88), the Orchestra of St Luke’s (1997–2007) and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (2010–11).


Stroke was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony, which premiered the work under Manfred Honeck in 2011. The composer dedicated the piece to her younger brother, George, who had suffered a stroke that left him paralysed on his left side just before she began work on the commission. For that reason, she describes it as “a pretty emotional piece.”

From a whisper of percussion, a brutal unison G bursts forth with unsuspecting fury—soon made even more aggressive by the addition of a minor second. The pulse established by this opening onslaught continues unabated until a passage for two bassoons introduces a note of calm. The inexorable rhythmic pulsations return, however, as if in imitation of a beating heart that cannot be quelled. Thereafter the composer alternates between passages of strong (almost pounding) rhythm and reflective solos for clarinet, horn and violin. The final solo is for trumpet, preceded and followed by a solemn brass chorale. Tower intended these contrasts to reflect not only the many different emotional stages experienced by a stroke victim (“crying, anger, anxiety and depression”) but also “the welcome rests of peace and deep love that become more pronounced as the stroke victim adjusts to his new reality.” The tension builds after the trumpet solo to a fierce reprise of the opening unison (although the G is now an E), but the piece ends on a note of “quiet hope,” with a heart-wrenchingly slow and wide string glissando leading to a radiant E-major resolution.

Violin Concerto

The composer first met violinist Elmar Oliveira while she was working as composer-in-residence for the St. Louis Symphony. “The first time he heard my music, he really liked it,” she says. Eventually he told her, “You know, I just love your music, and I would like you to write a piece for me.” Tower set out to compose a work that would highlight traits she greatly admired in Oliveira’s technique. “He’s just an incredible virtuoso player, and also he can sing—really make any note sing. He has a double talent, so I decided, even before I started the piece, that I was going to try to do those two things in the piece…and I think I did actually.” Nine months later she delivered her new concerto. Oliveira premiered the piece in Salt Lake City on April 24, 1992. Critic William S. Goodfellow declared the concerto “prime Tower, typically bold and colourful yet with a pronounced lyrical streak and an unexpectedly strong formal design.” He had particular praise for her orchestration: “The orchestral writing…runs the gamut, from the forcefulness of the brass, at times jazzily inflected, to the almost Impressionistic central section, with its shimmering percussion and strings.”

Tower has described her compositional process as “organic.” She always starts at the beginning and allows the material to develop according to its own logic and rules. In the Violin Concerto, this idea is demonstrated by the way in which many of the melodic contours in the work are generated within the first measures. The soloist begins with a quick, descending whole step (echoed by the orchestra), which then contracts to a semitone. This is quickly followed by a sixteenth-note figure in which a repeated note alternates with pitches that move away from and/or return to it—a “wedge” idea that, along with the whole-step/half-step idea, permeates the entire piece. Although organized in a single movement, the concerto features three clearly delineated sections in the traditional fast-slow-fast order. There are two cadenza passages with an unusual twist: because Oliveira’s brother—who was also a violinist—had recently died, Tower provided a second part in the cadenzas for the orchestra’s concertmaster as a way of personalizing and memorializing Oliveira’s love for his sibling. The middle section, with its Ravel-like woodwind murmurings, opens with the opening whole-step idea given particular poignancy by octave displacement. It reaches great heights of emotional intensity before segueing effortlessly into the “finale,” the beginning of which is marked by a descending whole step from pizzicato strings.

Chamber Dance

Listeners approaching Chamber Dance expecting something small-scale may be surprised. The work was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and premiered by that ensemble at Carnegie Hall on May 6, 2006. It features a constant shifting of colours that alternate between huge blocks of sound and intimate solos and duets. Tower, who has extensive, firsthand knowledge of chamber music—both as a composer and a performer—was very mindful of the particular qualities of the Orpheus players and their “democratic” approach to music-making. “It is chamber music in the sense that I always thought of Orpheus as a large chamber group, interacting and ‘dancing’ with one another the way smaller chamber groups do,” she says. “Like dancers, the members of this large group have to be very much in touch with what everyone else is doing, and allow for changing leadership to guide the smaller and bigger ensembles. Chamber Dance weaves through a tapestry of solos, duets and ensembles where the oboe, flute and violin are featured as solos, and the violin and clarinet, cello and bassoon, two trumpets and unison horns step out of the texture as duets. The ensemble writing is fairly vertical and rhythmic in its profile, thereby creating an ensemble that has to ‘dance’ well together.”

Chamber Dance opens with a short, rising figure that is the generating motif—along with a corresponding descending idea—for much of the piece. Its stepwise character is maintained throughout passages of irrepressible rhythmic energy. (Tower clearly did not worry that her complex rhythms—with constantly changing meter signatures—would be any challenge for the conductor-less Orpheus ensemble.) The few passages featuring wide melodic leaps (such as the first violin solo and a central episode that grows increasingly slower) are thus set off from the main musical argument and given particular poignancy. By the end of the piece, the rising figure has expanded to a whole-tone scale, emphatically stated by the full orchestra, which concludes with a questioning tritone.

Tower’s scoring in Chamber Dance is notably lucid. She makes each instrumental timbre count in an ever-evolving riot of colours. Instrumental families (especially brass) are often treated as independent groups. Virtuosic passages for the players appear often—it would not be surprising if the piece were as much fun to play as it is to listen to.

Frank K. DeWald

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