JOAN TOWER: Violin Concerto; Stroke; Chamber Dance—Cho-Liang Lin, v./ Nashville Sym./Giancarlo Guerrero—Naxos 8.559775, 57:30 ****:

In a 1987 interview, composer Joan Tower made a statement that is one of the reasons I love new music, “I think Beethoven needs someone next to him that reminds you the music is vulnerable rather than it’s just a masterpiece and so therefore why should we even bother to think about it. The wonderful thing about new music is the reaction it provokes.  “Do I like this or don’t I like it?”  The audience is reacting to the music itself.  With Beethoven, they don’t do that.”

Today Joan Tower’s music is played often by orchestras and chamber groups. In 2005 her 15-minute composition Made in America was played by 65 orchestras in all 50 American states in a period of 18 months. She started playing the piano at age six and the move to Bolivia at age nine is responsible for her flair in using percussion in her orchestral scores. She quickly left her serial works behind and has many musical influences although she claims she is a self-taught composer. Tower founded the Da Capo Players in 1969, which gave her opportunities to write and play her own music. She has held numerous orchestral residencies, teaches at Bard College and deserves the accolade as one of the “most successful women composers of all time.”

Stroke (2010) is dedicated to Tower’s brother who suffered a stroke just before she started writing the commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony. It begins with barely audible percussive murmurs that lead to thumping rhythmic chords that represent the shock of a stroke. “Crying, anger, anxiety and depression” are musically depicted, as well as “the welcome rests of peace and deep love that become more pronounced as the stroke victim adjusts to his new reality,” the composer writes. Tower’s colorful and dramatic orchestral palette is demonstrated in this work of many emotions, ending hopefully in wide, quiet string glissandos.

The Violin Concerto (1991) was written for Elmar Oliveira, emphasizing his strengths as a virtuoso performer who “can sing – really make any note sing.” It was selected for the final round of the Pulitzer Prize in music. The one movement work alternates between dramatic orchestral and lyrical violin passages punctuated by moments of virtuosity. Most memorable are sections of duets between soloist and the concertmaster. They represent the many emotions between Oliveira and his brother (a violinist) who was dying of cancer at the time of the commission. Especially moving are the tenderness and humor of these passages. Tower’s proficiency with using solo instruments, the full orchestra and the violin creates a tapestry that is engaging and exciting. Cho-Liang Lin negotiates the difficult violin parts with ease and the Nashville Symphony play with passion.

Chamber Dance (2006) follows a similar pattern of alternating blocks of sound with intimate solos and duets. It was written for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the interaction of instrumental solos (oboe, flute and violin) with groups (violin and clarinet, cello and bassoon, two trumpets and unison horns) requires the same type of coordination that chamber groups require. “I always thought of Orpheus as a large chamber group, interacting and ‘dancing’ with one another the way chamber groups do,” Tower said. With vibrant and complex rhythmic energy and a dizzying array of virtuosic solos and pairings, this is a very exciting orchestral work. The recording is ideal—close enough to identify the solo and group passages but reverberant enough to experience the full orchestral presence.

—Robert Moon