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Joan Tower

Publisher: AMP

Stroke (2010)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Year Composed
21 Minutes
Programme Note
Joan Tower Stroke (2010)
May 13 2011
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Pittsburgh, PA

Composer Note:

Stroke was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and is dedicated to my younger brother George, who suffered a major stroke in 2008 at the age of sixty that left his body paralyzed on his entire left side.

The horrific journey of the aftermath of a serious stroke consists of many different emotional stages: crying, anger, anxiety and depression. The huge adjustment of the mind and the DNA of the body requires a strong resilience of emotion and a large amount of mental discipline to adapt to a body that can no longer do the things it did before. The positive side of this experience (and alternate meaning of the word "stroke") is one of occasional but welcomed rests of peace and deep love that become more pronounced as the stroke victim adjusts to his new reality.

I tried to depict these extreme emotions through the musical journey of my 17-minute piece. Inside a dramatic and often loud steady beat (of the heart) surrounded by waves of fast notes (which veer between "anxious" and "joyful"), there are five slower (and "softer") solos for horn, bassoon, violin, clarinet and trumpet where more "peaceful" surroundings come forward.

Stroke is a piece concerned with many emotions, one that hopefully offers a quiet "hope" at the end. With a stroke, it is hard to tell which way it will go.

—Joan Tower

  • Ensemble
    Nashville Symphony
    Giancarlo Guerrero
  • Ensemble
    Nashville Symphony Orchestra
    Giancarlo Guerrero
The most poignant piece is the most recent. Tower wrote Stroke in 2010 as a tribute to her younger brother, whose experiences of being stricken and working his way through recovery are depicted in a series of vivid sonic episodes. The music alternates between violent spasms and moments of touching lyricism, with the full resources o the orchestra used to prismatic and penetrating effect.
Donald Rosenberg, Gramophone,01/09/2015
Tower wrote the symphonic equivalent of the five stages of grief, reflected in number in five quiet instrumental solos, but more so when the entire orchestra participated. With a retrospective of her output on display this year (she is the PSO's composer-of-the-year), Stroke stands out as perhaps Ms. Tower's most personal work yet.

PSO music director Manfred Honeck brought out the terrifying experience by emphasizing the driving force of the stroke symbolized in percussion hits, string thrusts and excruciating dissonance.

Solos by bassoonist Nancy Goeres, clarinetist Michael Rusinek, horn player Stephen Kostyniak, trumpeter Charles Lirette and guest concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley moved from lamenting to peaceful to anxious as the afflicted slowly realizes that life will never be the same again. Ms. Tower ended the work with a tutti glissando that led to a warm, major chord, but it arrived too late and too short to counterbalance the pain and suffering already heard, tempting me to view it as false hope. Many don't survive a major stroke, and none are the same after it.
Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,14/05/2011
The piece opens with an evocation of the onset of a stroke, with increasing pressure during a sustained percussion crescendo, a big crash, and then a slow, heavy heartbeat. The heartbeat changes pace during the tumultuous score, with five wind and brass solos providing contrasting moments of calm. The ending is particularly well judged, with the final harmony in E major having the E and the major third, G sharp, but missing the fifth, B. The statement is of hope, not hope fulfilled.
Mark Kanny, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,14/05/2011
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