Joan TOWER (b.1938) Stroke (2010) [19:45]
Violin Concerto (1991) [21:26]
Chamber Dance (2006) [16:19]
Cho-Liang Lin (violin)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. 2013, Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee. DDD NAXOS 8.559775 [57:30]
This is the second CD devoted to Joan Tower’s music in the Naxos American Classics series. I reviewed the earlier one consisting of Made in America, Tambor, and Concerto for Orchestra, which won three Grammy awards. I was quite enthusiastic about the music on the first disc and I am again here for the most part. Tower’s music has more in common with the mainstream of the last century than with minimalism or post-minimalism. Not conventionally tonal or atonal, it contains elements of both and at the same time has a sound wholly Tower’s own.
The disc begins with the most recent of the compositions offered here. Stroke, commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony and dedicated to Tower’s younger brother who had suffered a stroke, is a very well constructed piece that grips one throughout its nearly 20-minute length. It starts with a long crescendo on percussion, barely audible and leading to loud unison chords in G then joined my a minor second that erupt into violence. A note of calm ensues before the onslaught with rhythmic pulsations and octaves in the brass return, as Tower depicts the emotions experienced by the stroke victim. Contrasting with this is a quieter section, Debussy-like in its use of whole tones. As with the other works here, the orchestration is vivid with such instruments as clarinet, horn, trumpet and violin getting memorable solo turns. There is a passage early on for two bassoons that reminds me of Ravel and shortly after the piano introduces a rhythmic section with a pulse like a heart beating. The work continues with much variety and interest until the big unison chords and seconds similar to those near the beginning come back. Stroke ends quietly, though, with a string glissando leading to a quiet E major chord with pulsing heartbeat underneath. I am quite impressed with this work and think it deserves a place on any contemporary programme, especially if it were performed as well as it is here.
Tower founded a chamber group, Da Capo Players, in 1969, consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano that exists to this day. She was the group’s pianist until 1983 and composed works for each of the musicians. The Violin Concerto, which she composed for Elmar Oliveira, is one of those, although I don’t think the violinist was ever a member of the Da Capo Players. Cast in a single movement, the concerto has three more-or-less traditional sections in fast-slow-fast order. Like Stroke it is well constructed and colorfully orchestrated. The work starts boldly with the solo violin playing whole-step descending chords followed by some whole-tone passages that reminded me of Janáček’s use of that feature. Often the violin part is quite rhythmic with repeated sixteenth-note sequences. There are two cadenzas, both unusual in employing two violins with the second violin played by the orchestra’s concertmaster. Tower did this in memory of Oliveira’s brother, also a violinist who had recently died. I found the concerto convincing overall, though the violin’s fast, repetitive solos became a bit tiresome after a while. That said, I cannot imagine a better performance than the stunning one Cho-Liang Lin accomplishes. It is always heartening when a star soloist takes on a work that might otherwise have gone unnoticed after its premiere recording. The Violin Concerto clearly deserves the kind of exposure it gets here.
The third work on the CD, Chamber Dance, impressed me less than the others. It was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and premiered by them at Carnegie Hall. Again, I have only praise for the performance and the full, resonant, yet clear recorded sound. The work is scored for a large chamber orchestra like Orpheus, but also features the oboe, flute, and violin as solos and violin and clarinet, cello and bassoon, and trumpets and horns as duets. I imagine that Orpheus had great fun in performing the work, but I didn’t find it as clearly structured as Stroke or the Violin Concerto. As in her other pieces, Tower alternates rhythmic, energetic passages with quieter, ruminative ones. It may take more auditions than the several I have devoted to this work to fully appreciate it. Even though it is the shortest piece on the programme, I found my mind wandering while this didn’t happen in the other works.
For someone coming to Tower’s music for the first time, I would recommend the earlier disc — especially Made in America and the Concerto for Orchestra—and then try to hear Stroke before moving on to the other works. As usual, Naxos’ presentation is fine with informative notes on the works by Frank K. DeWald and biographical sketches of the artists.