Tower: a first among women

Hearing her music played is rewarding

June 17, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Joan Tower has run into a string of bad luck recently, which is unusual for her. She's the remarkably successful composer whose distinctions include the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award in Composition in 1990 (the first woman to receive that honor), and a Grammy this year for Best Classical Contemporary Composition - Made in America, on a Naxos recording that also took Grammys for Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance.

But Tower, due in town this week for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance of her Concerto for Orchestra, has been battling the flu, a knee injury and even tick-borne Lyme disease.

"I'm trying to figure out where I went wrong," she says with a laugh from her home in New York's Hudson Valley.

Tomorrow, Tower will take part in the BSO's Composers in Conversation series, talking with music director Marin Alsop. The BSO's season finale later this week and weekend is devoted to Tower's Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

"He's one composer I don't like sharing space with," Tower says. "He's one of my biggest influences." Whatever reservations she might have about being placed alongside the iconic German, Tower's music, with its trademark sinew and rhythmic vitality, can hold its own.

As she approaches her 70th birthday in September, Tower is one of the deans of American composers. "Would that be dean-ess?" she says, laughing again. "I feel great to get to this age and have my music being played. I like the fact that my career has been one of slow growth. I feel sorry for composers who get major attention when they're in their early 20s. It's hard to go up from that."

During her college years, Tower quickly discovered that women who wanted to compose faced obstacles. "Sexism is much subtler in music than in politics," she says.

"When I was earning my doctorate at Columbia University, very few women were mentioned in any of the books we had. Feminist musicologists had to unearth all of this and, little by little, the past started to emerge. Learning this history gave me the confidence to look at where I was in this path."

Tower has seen some improvement in the field. "A lot more women composers are being played, but it's still a small fraction," she says. "There's a long way to go yet."

Indicative of Tower's own ability to gain a foothold in the music world is the fact that the Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned in 1991 by three top-rank ensembles - the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and St. Louis Symphony. It's not just a showpiece for different sections of an orchestra and specific instruments within those sections ("I'm most proud of the tuba solo," Tower says), but a two-movement drama of remarkable color, texture and eventfulness. It's also very accessible.

When Tower started studying music as a pianist and composer, she was a part of the atonal school that dominated American (and European) style for so much of the 20th century.

"I was heavily involved in the whole serial thing," she says. "But I didn't understand half of the music I was playing. I learned how to count very well, though. [More laughter.] Two pieces really pulled me away from that world. One was Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, which had a profound effect on me - how utterly courageous and straightforward and beautiful that piece is. The other was George Crumb's Voice of the Whale."

Tower, as busy as ever, just finished writing a work that will be played by contestants in a piano competition, and she'll soon start on one for a violin competition. Meanwhile, she's looking forward to the BSO/Alsop account of the Concerto for Orchestra.

"Marin has unbelievable rhythmic chops," she says. "I've had conductors who couldn't count their way out of a bean bag. That can be nerve-wracking."

Several contemporary composers featured during Alsop's inaugural BSO season were engaged as conductors as well. "Marin told me the [orchestra's] artistic committee turned me down," Tower says. "At first I was disappointed, but then I thought, whew!"

Dausgaard, Douglas

An out-of-town conference kept me from hearing the penultimate BSO program of the season until Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It proved a great cure for jet lag.

Thomas Dausgaard, the elegant Danish conductor, led deeply absorbing, incisively molded accounts of two great Sibelius scores - Symphony No. 7 and En Saga.

Both found the orchestra responding with considerable richness of tone and phrasing. Notably atmospheric solo contributions in En Saga included those from violist Richard Field, clarinetist Steven Barta and oboist Joseph Turner (about to retire after 43 seasons).

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 comes around a lot more often than those Sibelius pieces, but not always with as much digital firepower and fresh rhythmic drive as Barry Douglas delivered here.

The Irish pianist managed to bring out the heated romanticism of the score without turning gushy and, especially in the finale, added some subtle, affecting touches that made the music sing with extra lyrical power.

Dausgaard had the BSO pouring out a visceral sound that reminded me of some sonic and emotional peaks during Yuri Temirkanov's tenure on the podium.

If you go

Joan Tower discusses her music at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $10. The BSO performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at Music Center at Strathmore; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Limited ticket availability. Call 410-783-8000 or go to

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