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Joan Tower

Publisher: AMP

Concerto for Orchestra (1991)
Commissioned jointly by the Saint Louis Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Programme Note
Joan Tower Concerto for Orchestra (1991)
Composer note:

Concerto for Orchestra begins slowly, quietly, and simply, on a unison F-sharp that emerges from the depths of the orchestra. I had imagined a long and large landscape that had a feeling of space and distance. From the beginning I wanted to convey this sense to let the listener understand that the proportions of the piece would be spacious and that the musical materials would travel a long road.

The energy of the piece emerges through the contrast of big alternating chords with little fast motives. These take on bigger and bigger shapes, picking up larger textures as they whirl around in fast repeated figures. There is a strong sense of direction in this piece, as in all my music, and a feeling of ascent, which comes not only from the scale motives, but from tempos, rhythms, and dynamics that cooperate to produce the different intensities.

Although it had been my intention to write a work in two parts, the content of the musical materials led me to a different form. Instead of coming to a full halt at the climactic midpoint of the composition, I felt the arrival could be answered and connected by a series of unisons (on the note B) traversing the orchestral palette. This reaction calms things down, carries the piece forward towards its slow central section, and provides a seam that harks back toward the unison opening of the work and connects the 30-minute span of the concerto. Unity between the two halves is also provided by the slow-fast structure and by several shared motives, particularly the four-note motive that appears early in the piece and shapes the final fast section.

In every sense, Concerto for Orchestra is my biggest work to date. It's the first piece purely for orchestra I've written since Silver Ladders in 1986, but it follows three solo concertos — for clarinet, flute, and violin — and reflects that experience, enabling me to take more risks between soloists and orchestra. Whereas Silver Ladders highlighted four solo instruments, here not only solos, but duos, trios, and other combinations of instruments form structural, timbral, and emotive elements of the piece. As in all my music, I am working here on motivating the structure, trying to be sensitive to how an idea reacts to or results from the previous ideas in the strongest and most natural way — a lesson I've learned from studying the music of Beethoven. Although technically demanding, the virtuoso sections are an integral part of the music, resulting from accumulated energy, rather than being designed purely as display elements. I thus resisted the title Concerto for Orchestra (with its connotations of Bartók, Lutoslawski, and Husa), and named the work only after the composing was completed, and even then reluctantly.

—Joan Tower

  • Ensemble
    Nashville Symphony
    Leonard Slatkin
  • Ensemble
    Colorado Symphony Orchestra
    Marin Alsop
    Koch Intl. Classics:
This is dark music, and the ominous feel of its slow introduction is sustained through all the subsequent material. The two main sections each begin with prolonged reflections from the strings; as the tempos quicken, as more and more instruments enter the mix, there are changes of intensity but not of basic emotional tone.

In another context, the brass and percussion sonorities might be said to seem 'brilliant'; here they suggest a hard surface, even a weightiness, for the rapid-fire passages they overlay always seem pressed against one another and pressured by a manic kind of energy. For all the virtuosity demanded of the orchestra, Tower's Concerto does not have the effect of a showing-off piece. It is a serious statement on the composer's part, very well-crafted, very powerful.

James Wierzbicki, St. Louis Post-Dispatch,01/01/0001
...Tower's Concerto for Orchestra, (is) a colorful and engaging piece that will surely take its place beside the composer's much-played Sequoia and Silver Ladders.

...a half-hour trip through a large landscape in which constantly changing musical shapes and gestures suggest a time span spent traversing great spaces and long distances.

Tower has devised interesting and grateful musical challenges for every player

Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine,01/01/0001
The an action-packed piece. There are episodes of propulsive urgency, like the storm music Siegmund battles, and passages of plaintive beauty, tonally grounded, but twinged with dissonance.
Anthony Tommasini, Boston Globe,01/01/0001
Tower's talent for flinging bold, dramatic sounds over a large orchestral palette is much on display in her is not intended to show off the orchestra in any virtuosic sense. Rather, it is more about the sometimes cataclysmic energies that are released when sound and rhythmic structures meet head-on.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune,01/01/0001
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