Composer Portraits: Joan Tower [Curtis 20/21]

String Force
Ivory and Ebony
Angels (String Quartet No.4)
Trio Cavany
Simply Purple
Wild Purple

Curtis 20/21
David Ludwig

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 5 May, 2011
Venue: Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York City

Born in New York in 1938, Joan Tower spent part of her youth in Bolivia, where she developed a love of native rhythms and percussion instruments. After receiving a doctorate from Columbia in 1968, where she studied music with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson and Vladimir Ussachevsky, she formed the Da Capo Chamber Players, for which she wrote several pieces. The music of Olivier Messiaen influenced her later stylistic development. After accepting a position on the faculty at Bard College – where she still teaches – Tower received several awards for her compositions. In 1990, she was honored as the first woman recipient of the coveted Grawemeyer Award. Since then her reputation has skyrocketed and she has served as composer-in-residence to several orchestras and organizations. Tower’s music is quite accessible, basic diatonic linear material in contrasting sections either supercharged or slowly musing in a scintillating impressionistic atmosphere. This program consisted of fairly recent works performed by Curtis 20/21 from the Curtis Institute of Music. Its artistic director is composer David Ludwig.

The first work, Copperwave (2006), is for two trumpets, horn, trombone and bass trombone, and exemplifies many characteristics of Tower’s style. Scraps of musical material echo back and forth over mellifluous chord. A walking rhythm energizes the music as it builds upon increasingly complex polyphonic textures in overlapping waves of progressively faster tempos. These layered speeds generate primary motifs, the fastest of which carries the piece to a climax, after which the music calms down only to re-energize. Solo passages explore the full resources of each instrument. Interesting coloristic effects include combining muted and open timbres and countervailing slides in the trombones. String Force (solo violin) was written last year as a test piece for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Nikki Chooi negotiated its technical complexities with remarkable skill and enthusiasm, and produced gorgeous and fully-secure tones at the highest end of the E string.

Andrew Hsu (he’s only sixteen and also a composer) gave a thrilling performance of Ivory and Ebony (2009). Essentially a toccata, its title relates to the work’s contrasting white-note and black-note chords and phrases. Pulsating rhythms give the music a jazz-like quality. The vitality and dynamic intensity of Hsu’s playing, the ease with which he executed the rigorous passages, and his sensitive handling of softer passages, make him a very promising talent as a pianist. According to Tower, he changed her tempos to suit his conception. It wasn’t clear whether she approved or was amazed at his boldness! The first half concluded with Tower’s Fourth String Quartet, ‘Angels’ (2008). Although the title ostensibly relates to the locale of the summer festival for which the work was composed, Angel Fire, New Mexico, the music could also evoke the flight of angels. As is typical of Tower’s music, energetic figuration combines with serene meandering melodies tinged with a bittersweet quality, instrumental dialogues abound, radiant chords embellish rapid figuration with a evanescent hue, and moments of fiery passion give way to solo passages aglow with luminous beauty and captured in an impressive performance.

The concert’s second half opened with a piano trio, Trio Cavany. Written in 2007, its title “has absolutely nothing to do with the music”. Cavany is a combination of the abbreviations for the states in which the three organizations that commissioned the work are located, California, Virginia and New York. The first three notes played in the upper range of the violin form a principal motif (D-E-F) that can be used as part of a minor or modal scale, which enabled Tower to create tonal shadings with chromatic nuance. Trio Cavany is constructed essentially in segments that contrast serene, dreamy music generated from long-lined melodic phrases with fiery, impulsive material, which explores various countervailing rhythmic figuration with driving force. Andrew Hsu was joined by Rebecca Anderson, who played sensitively and fervently, and Natalie Helm, whose meditative solos were captivating.

New pieces for solo viola are rare. From 1998 to 2008 Tower wrote three such works. “I have always thought of the viola as having this deep kind of rich purple sound.” Simple Purple explores rising scalar figures that are interrupted by more-linear repeating phrases; Wild Purple convokes more aggressive and virtuosic music. Amanda Verner, a student of Tower’s, seemed somewhat unsteady at first, but soon became focused and gave fine performances. As a rousing conclusion Curtis 20/21 performed Tower’s evocative and fascinating DNA (2003). Although basically formed from simple rhythmic patterns, melodic cells, scales and wave form, the work is organized principally as a series of dialogues between two pairs of percussionists, performing on high-hats, castanets, timbales, and snares, a procedure akin to the cellular dyads of DNA. Ted Babcock, Michael Sparhuber, Mari Yoshinaga and Don Liuzzi played their complex parts will extraordinary skill, whether their respective duos or rambunctious pounding. Standing alone or functioning almost as an outsider, Yi Fei Fu played tambourine and congas, among other instruments, with ardor and alacrity.

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