By Jonathan Blumhofer
For Joan Tower fans, this record is a must see; for those curious about the Tower, it offers an excellent introduction to the composer’s larger work, all convincingly played.
Few conductor and orchestral couples have done more to champion the concert music of contemporary American composers than David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra (ASO). Now entering their thirtieth season together, Miller and his friends show no signs of fatigue in their incisive new study of Joan Tower’s concertos and chamber music.
The two concertos – Strike zones (for percussion and orchestra) and Fixed / Fast (for piano and orchestra) – are, in typical Tower fashion, admirably concentrated and spontaneously conducted.
The first, created in 2001, offers a breathtaking play of colors throughout its twenty-minute duration. Of course, it helps that Tower’s percussion sensibilities are always fresh and assured; Strike zones certainly plays to its strengths. Despite this, she relishes with remarkable success the subtleties that arise from the doubling and the echo of the soloist within the orchestra.
Direction of the tower for the structure in Strike zones is extremely well judged and her writing is motivated. There are timely changes in timbre as well as moments of welcome surprise (like the groovy jazz intimations and improvised cadences of the score).
In addition, his tonal mouth is decidedly on point: Strike zone mixture of solo mallets, drums, cymbals, gongs, and so on just works – idiomatically, expressively, technically.
Again, how could he not, with Evelyn Glennie in the solo spotlight? The Scottish percussionist navigates here with confidence and aplomb in the writing of Tower. The same goes for Miller and ASO, although some of the spatial dialogue in the music doesn’t quite come out of the mix.
Fixed / Fast combines two distinct pieces for piano and orchestra that Tower wrote in 1995 and 2013. The first (and most recent), “Still”, is lush, sultry and rather jazzy to begin with, with sweet little lyrical surges emerging as it goes. to measure. “Rapids”, on the other hand, is stormy and motor, full of muscular and athletic writing for soloist and orchestra.
Played here by pianist Blair McMillan and the ASO, it turns out to be a nifty little piano concerto, well sculpted and full of surprises (like the orchestral solos that emerge just before the first piano cadenza in “Rapids”). Pianist and orchestra navigate the rhythmic minefields of Tower’s writing with confidence, color and panache.
McMillan does more of the same in his crossing of Ivory and ebony, Tower’s 2009 study in sonority written for that year’s San Antonio International Piano Competition. The wide range of tempos, textures, characters and gestures of music may or may not correspond to the sum of its parts. Either way, it’s captivating to hear McMillan’s account of these rhythmically tense and colorful pages.
Likewise invigorating is Glennie’s performance of Small, a short essay from 2018 for percussion instruments that can be “stored in a small carrying case and fit on a small table”.
For Tower fans, this Naxos record is a must see; for those curious about the Tower, it offers an excellent introduction to his larger work, all convincingly played.
Jonathan blumhofer is a composer and violist active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and has been performed by various ensembles including the American Composers Orchestra, the Kiev Philharmonic, the Camerata Chicago, the Xanthos Ensemble and the Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his PhD 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 reviews for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.