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Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Intimate Music from Joan Tower
Instrumental Music
Joan Tower
Tokyo String Quartet
Richard Woodhams, oboe
Paul Neubauer, viola
Chee-Yun, violin
Ursula Oppens, piano
Melvin Chen, piano
André Emelianoff, cello
Joan Tower, piano
Naxos 8.559215

Joan Tower’s seventieth birthday approaches, yet she shows no signs of curtailing her considerable activities. Her work Made in America premiered in October and will be played by 65 orchestras this year, at least one in each state. This recent release from Naxos, a cross-section of Tower’s music for smaller ensembles and soloists, highlights her knack for writing idiomatically for each instrument. The five works included on this disc were performed in January 2004 as part of Carnegie Hall’s Making Music series and later recorded.

In Memory for string quartet was intended as a memorial for a close friend of the composer who had passed away during the summer of 2001. After September 11th, it evolved into a double tribute, also dedicated to victims of the terrorist attacks. Commissioned by the Tokyo String Quartet, who give an appropriately poignant reading, the piece delves into complex emotional territory. Like many of Tower’s compositions, it begins slowly, with the plaintive wailing of a solo violin. The ensuing music alternates between expressing extremes of mournful grieving and ferocious anger. As in her earlier quartet, Night Fields, the influence of Shostakovich is unmistakable.

Big Sky, a piano trio in one movement, describes the wide open spaces of Midwestern America. Tower, who is the pianist on this recording, uses her instrument as the ensemble’s driving force. The piano is often the impetus for shifts in the musical architecture, signaling changes from freely cascading gestures to thornily dissonant chords.

Wild Purple for solo viola exploits the instrument’s dark sound quality as well as its frequently ignored virtuosic possibilities. The piece, which includes an extended pizzicato section reminiscent of Bartók, is played with great aplomb by Paul Neubauer. Apparently the words “wild” and “viola” can be used successfully in the same sentence.

The four piano pieces that comprise the set No Longer Very Clear take their titles from the lines of a poem by John Ashbery. Although originally composed separately, their scores have recently been published as a set. Here the first two are performed by Ursula Oppens, the remaining pair by Melvin Chen. Or Like a…an Engine, a toccata-like piece propelled forward by motoric rhythms, has already found its way into the standard recital repertoire. Here Oppens once again displays the impeccable, fiery technique that is her trademark. As Chen’s playing is more reserved, the cycle seems to lose steam slightly during its second half.

The final work, Island Prelude, appears here in its version for oboe and string quartet. Written as a token of love for the composer’s husband, its lush textures evoke an exotic tropical island setting.

This disc is an excellent introduction to a selection of Joan Tower’s most accessible music. Her extremely varied vocabulary, running the gamut from prismatic clarity to raw brutality and from mechanistic repetition to sensuous warmth, ensures surprises even for those already familiar with her work.


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