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Joan Tower Birthday Bash at Bard

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Sep 17th, 2018

Joan Tower on left, Dawn Upshaw in center, Graduate Vocal Arts students

Bard College’s Sosnoff Theater provided a program of composer Joan Tower’s work to celebrate her 80th birthday. She has lived in nearby Red Hook for the past 48 years. The program showcased an eclectic selection of her work that highlighted Tower’s varied musical talent.

The program opened with “Big Sky” (2000), a piano trio with Blair McMillen on piano, Raman Ramakrishnan on cello, and Laurie Smuckler on violin. Piano dominated the first of the three movements, while violin and especially cello dominated the second movement; both movements being rather slow The third movement was the most exciting as all three instruments arrived at a unified crescendo and ultimately a thrilling finale. The program of this piece was the evocation of Tower’s childhood in Bolivia when she raced horses. The trio then performed a three-minute related work on the theme of horse-racing, “And …They’re  Off” (1997). This fast-paced jeu d’esprit conjured the excitement of a horse race, which was commissioned by the Nova Scotia Museum.

“Wing” (1981) was a solo clarinet work performed by Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. This work was written for Tower’s Bard colleague Laura Flax, who recently passed away. This high-flying and looping work with jazzy edges was the highlight thrill of the concert, not only because of its consummate composition—McGill’s performance pushed the work into memorable eloquence. The enthralled audience of a few hundred demanded a rapturous second bow from McGill.

“Small Plus” (2018) was written for Sō Percussion. Four players performed on about sixty small percussion instruments. The structure of the work was circular: it ended in the same manner as it began—with the ringing of small meditative bells.

“Up High” (2010) was performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw with Kayo Iwama on piano. This offered variations of the tune “Over the Rainbow” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.”

“Looking Back” (2018) was performed by the Da Capo Chamber Players. Joan Tower had played piano for that chamber group for 13 years. Steven Beck on piano was an energetic replacement and Patricia Spencer excelled on flute, while Chris Gross on cello also delivered a superior performance.

“Steps” (2011, rev. 2017) was a complicated tribute to both Debussy and Tower’s former mentor Milton Babbitt, who despised Debussy, whom Tower admired. The piece employs the 12-tone rows favored by Babbitt, yet the style of the work exhibits the liquid fluidity of Debussy’s signature; the 12-tone rows endow the work with an edgy, near-dissonant quality that translates Debussy’s aesthetic into the 21st century. Benjamin Hochman played with seemingly effortless aplomb as he ran the keys into the bliss of contemporary relevance.

Town Supervisor of Red Hook, Robert McKeon appeared to make a special news announcement: he presented a certificate to Joan Tower proclaiming her birthday, September 16, to be perpetual Joan Tower Music Appreciation Day to be celebrated by the town. This was evidently a surprise announcement.

A flock of singers from Bard’s Graduate Vocal Arts program appeared on stage to conclude the concert. They sang “Descending” (2012), a lament for the death of Tower’s older sister Ellen who had passed away. “Thank You” (2018) provided a superb example of Tower’s playful, somewhat whacky, humor was written for those students who reveled in the humor and accompanying stage antics. The audience then sang “Happy Birthday” to Joan Tower.