Joan Tower’s individual music stands tall at BMOP tribute

February 10, 2018 at 1:43 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Composer Joan Tower and conductor Gil Rose receive applause at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's Tower tribute concert Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert KIrzinger

Composer Joan Tower and conductor Gil Rose receive applause at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s tribute concert Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Kirzinger

For Joan Tower, the orchestra has long been the vehicle of choice for her rich musical imagination. 

The composer, who turns 80 this September, scored her first big success with the orchestral work Sequoia in 1981 and has followed suit with many a blazing score. Her famous Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman have become popular concert items, and much of her music has been performed and recorded by orchestras all over the United States. Listening to her music, it’s easy to hear why—she is, without doubt, an American master.

Friday night at Jordan Hall, Tower was the center of attention as Gil Rose led the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in several of her lesser-known works in celebration of her 80th birthday. The composer was in attendance and received warm applause after each performance.

Most of the music heard on the program is recent, having been written over the past fourteen years, and each reflected Tower’s sharp musical mind. Her technique is formidable, and her musical fabrics are intricate, often woven from short calls or wispy phrases.

In Made In America, the most popular of her scores heard Friday night, Tower spins a rich tapestry from quotations of “America the Beautiful.” Falling intervals are abstracted into driving rhythms and bristly dissonances. But the familiar theme returns frequently, haunting the music like a memory.

Gil Rose drew playing of rapt intensity to bring Tower’s score to vivid life. The orchestra sounded bright and buoyant, and the trumpets gleamed in the work’s gnarly passagework.

Similarly, Tower’s Chamber Dance from 2006 pulses with energy. Like a concerto for orchestra in miniature, the score sets pairs of woodwinds and brasses against the strings in intimate textures.

Rhythm is a prominent feature of Tower’s music, and Chamber Dance sets the air spinning with figures that propel the music ever forward. Like the other works heard Friday, Chamber Dance is broadly tonal, yet Tower’s harmonies shift in delightfully unexpected ways. There’s also a keen sense of the musical line, particularly in the many duets. Bassoon and cello traded chant-like phrases while a silvery solo violin floated over dusky string chords. Rose and the orchestra delivered a fluent and sensitive reading.

Tower has written a number of concertante works over her long career, and three of the evening’s performances featured stellar soloists.

In Red Maple, a concerto-like work for bassoon and orchestra, tender melody and dark tone are the frames through which Tower sets her musical dialogue. But there’s also fire, and the soloist’s cadenzas spark with running sixteenth and thirty-second notes as the work progresses.

Bassoonist Adrian Morejon played with a deep, mahogany tone in the music’s searching passages. His technique was mesmerizing as he put across Tower’s dexterous figures with aplomb. The BMOP strings answered with verve.

Both works for flute and orchestra heard Friday were dedicated to flutist Carol Wincenc, who performed Friday night. Rising, which was completed in 2009, and the single-movement Concerto for Flute (1989), develop material from short melodic statements, and Wincenc’s skills were obviously the inspiration for these works. Velvety phrases evolve into bracing pointillisms that took the flutist all over her instrument. In the concerto, Wincenc’s solos were echoed by an orchestral flute, the passages, at times, seeming to be mirror images of each other.

One couldn’t have asked for better advocacy of these works Friday night as Wincenc tossed off Tower’s nimble, athletic lines with precision. Rose wove a beaming accompaniment from the work’s thorny harmonies and grinding mixed meters.

The evening led off with the world premiere of Tianyi Wang’s Under the Dome, which won the BMOP/ New England Conservatory Composition Competition.

Wang’s work of late draws inspiration from his experiences growing up in China, and Under the Dome, a work of arresting beauty, points to the country’s problems with smog. Without being preachy or resorting to gimmicks, Under the Dome relays a troubling environmental message through the simplest of musical gestures. At work’s opening, the musicians are called upon to breathe in rhythm, at first softly, then more aggressively, to create a soft sheen of sound. These breaths grow into chords that have the slightest pierce of dissonance. Woodwind lines wind through the texture like a serpent, and the work erupts into churning rhythms before dying away to glassy harmonics. The breathing returns at the end like a problem left unresolved.

Rose’s reading mined the searching mystery from the score. Wang, one hopes, will have a bright future career ahead of him.

The next concert of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will feature music by Chang, Liang, Ruo, and De Ritis 8 p.m. April 21 at Jordan Hall. bmop.org

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