Above all, Joan Tower’s music doesn’t waste your time.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Birthdays and anniversaries can be the death of orchestral programs, especially when done the usual way. But there’s little that’s commonplace about the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) or their recent celebrations of notable composers’ eightieth birthdays. Last year brought a much-welcome (and excellently-programmed and -played) fete for Philip Glass. This past Friday night at Jordan Hall, BMOP paid a similar honor to Joan Tower. It, too, was well-deserved and timely.
One of the most significant women composers of the post-World War 2 era, Friday’s program covered music Tower wrote between 2004 and 2013, with one score that hailed from 1989. As such, it provided a pretty healthy overview of her style.
Tower is a composer who knows her craft. Her music is tightly motivic and full of color. It is usually abstract, yes, and demands a certain level of concentration from its hearers. But it constantly engages the mind and ear and, even for the musically uninitiated, offers a number of ways in, especially through its lucid textures: like in Mozart, nearly everything Tower does in a piece can be clearly heard and followed.
Above all, Tower’s music doesn’t waste your time. Take her titles. Sure, they can be evocative, but they’re also direct. Rising, her 2009 score for flute and string quartet (heard on Friday in its flute and string orchestra version), is about just that: a melodic line that goes up. It also goes down and stands still – in order to provide contrast and build tension – and alternates different types of scales (for the same purpose).
Friday’s performance, with flautist Carol Wincenc as the soloist, was excellent, played with warmth and vigor. While this expanded version of the piece robs it of some of the immediacy of the original chamber setting, Wincenc, BMOP, and conductor Gil Rose largely kept up the music’s tension and energy, drawing out the score’s rich harmonic colors in the process.
Wincenc and BMOP were equally in their element in Tower’s hyper-virtuosic Concerto for Flute. From the lush, opening flute solo, to the captivating moments in which the orchestral flute “shadowed” the soloist, to the wild exchanges between Wincenc and the orchestra, this was a reading – and piece – that exuded vitality.
Equally impressive was the night’s other soloist, Adrian Morejon, who took the spotlight for Tower’s Red Maple. A 2013 score for bassoon and string orchestra, Maple offered its share of striking features: pseudo-Minimalistic gestures and episodes of the strings cushioning the bassoon in its middle- and upper registers, among them.
Morejon owned the solo part, which ranges from passages of sweet lyricism to a pair of vigorous cadenzas and wild, swirling exchanges between bassoon and strings. His playing on Friday was marked by a ruddy tone, solid intonation, and staggering technical control.
Two purely orchestral works filled out the evening’s Tower sampling.
The first was Chamber Dance, a fifteen-minute-long piece written in 2006 for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. It involves a fair number of orchestral solos – particularly among the woodwinds – but also plenty of muscular outbursts, in which BMOP’s winds and brass, in particular, reveled.
Last up was Made in America. Written in 2004, it quotes a snatch of “America the Beautiful” and, if anything, has taken on an added political resonance in recent months. Perhaps taking Tower’s note about “the challenge of how do we keep America beautiful” literally, Rose led BMOP in a forceful, sometimes breathless, reading of the piece, one in which the music’s dark undercurrents glowed ominously.
Opening Friday’s concert was Tianyi Wang’s Under the Dome, the winner of this year’s BMOP/NEC Composition Competition. Wang’s score packs its own political and ecological message. “An elegy to the victims of smog,” as the music’s prefaced, Under the Dome also draws on a variety of extended techniques, including rhythmic breathing by the orchestra.
In it, Wang demonstrates a terrific command of orchestral color – the music’s fluctuating sonorities never failed to impress – and a strong sense of how to craft powerful transitions (the shift from breathing to playing at the beginning was brilliant and subtle). If a couple of its busiest spots sounded a bit generic, well, those were few, and the score’s best moments (capped by the string quartet chorale of harmonics just before the end) suggest a young composer with something to say that rightly demands to be heard.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.