Joan Tower: Violin Concerto


Joan Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1938. When Tower was nine, her family moved to Bolivia, which she describes as an integral part of her compositional style. Upon her father’s insistence, she learnt the piano and had consistent musical training. Her father was a mineralogist, and you can see parts of their relationship in works such as Black Topaz, Copperwave and Silver Ladders. In the early 1960s, she moved back to the USA to study music at Bennington College, Vermont and then at Columbia University, where she studied composition under Jack Beeson, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. She was awarded her doctorate in composition in 1968.

A year later Tower, alongside Joel Lester and Patricia Spencer, founded the New York-based chamber group ‘Da Capo Chamber Players’, where Tower was the pianist. Whilst working in this group, Tower wrote a number of successful works including Platinum Spirals and my particular favourite, Wings. She left the group in 1984 after the immediate success of her first large orchestral work, Sequoia (1981). Tower was also offered a place at Bard College in composition, a post she holds to this day.

In 1990, Tower became the first woman to win the Grawemeyer Award for Music for her composition, Silver Ladders. She became composer in residence for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, where she later won the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer. Tower has gone on to win a wealth of awards for her services within composition.

Tower has worked with a wide range of different ensembles, from large orchestras to percussion quintets. In 2008, her composition Made in America won three Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Album and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Today, Tower still holds her Professor of Music chair at Bard College.


The Music

Tower composed her Violin Concerto in 1992 as part of a commission from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition and the Snowbird Institute. The concerto was performed by violinist Elmar Oliveira, to whom the work is dedicated,  and the Utah Symphony Orchestra in April 1992. Composed in one continuous movement, the concerto times in between 17-20 minutes in length. Tower writes this in the programme notes:


“It is really a fantasy for violin and orchestra exploring different kinds of feelings that range from a robust Romantic tune for orchestra to sharply etched rhythmic punctuations to a very soft passage that descends from the highest celestial reaches of the violin. There are two violin duets for soloist and concertmaster that were written as a tribute to Elmar’s brother (also a violinist and one of Elmar’s teachers), who passed away in the fall of 1991. The last section is fast, and takes as its thematic basis a motive from Bartók’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano, an idea that has frequently appeared in other of my works.”


The bold and jolting opening starts the fast and intricate movement of the orchestra off. The technical rhythmic patterns begin to layer to create a chaotic atmosphere. The violin plays a lot with the orchestra, creating conversations, with the passages being thrown to one another so quickly at the start you might not even notice it. There are some sudden changes in the music that really shape the peaks and troughs of the concerto. From the dramatic swells of music to the sonorous and almost peaceful middle section, the concerto throws the soloist through some loops. 

Silence breaks are really used in this piece, so even the calmer passages are always moving forward and creating its own space. The direction of the piece can always be felt and this underlying movement is utilised by Tower throughout. The concerto is both lyrical and highly virtuosic for the soloist, with some magical tender moment shining through in the central section of the piece. The fast and devilishly technical outer parts aim to showcase a virtuoso’s showmanship, technical ability and stamina. 

Tower often writes in one movement, rather than a collection. Her way of thinking is more one big piece of art that tells a story, instead of a collection of smaller pieces put together. This of course adds continuity, but also stamina to this concerto, as the soloist never rests properly for the entire duration. The fast Bartok-inspired final few minutes are full of excitement and energy as the orchestra build up speed and sound for the soloist to work against. The concerto ends with a swell on dissonant chords from both the orchestra and the soloist as a unit. 


Final Thoughts

Joan Tower’s Violin Concerto takes off from the very beginning and offers excitement, atmosphere and technical prowess. The concerto is tough on the soloist and the orchestra, however when the balance is struck right, it is a stand-out concerto.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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