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Music Alive! with Joan Tower

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Nov 18th, 2018

From Left: Gitto  Markó, Tomoki Park, Joseph Burke, Joan Tower, Lily Moerschel

Blair McMillen and Joan Tower have been co-directors of the Music Alive! program for years; yet since this was the year of Joan’s eightieth birthday, the program was about her work and the influences on her work. On two pianos they opened with Tableau IV: Shrovetide Fair, an early Stravinsky scene from Petrushka. This Lenten comedy displayed Stravinsky’s sense of harmony, color, and humor, but also his complex irregular rhythms in composition with parallel lyrical lines.

This jolly, energetic, frolicking opening was paired with Tower’s solo violin work, String Force (2010). Bihan Li on violin was forceful, intense with erratic rhythms which were sometimes dissonant and even obliquely repetitive, but always surging forward, exploring new terrain as musical dead ends were shattered, often with a simple lyric motif. Dedicated to the violinist Jaime Laredo, this extraordinary, fierce work continually surprises and shocks the listener. Bihan Li played with hypnotic authority that was exhilarating as the piece was interspersed with droll humor. The influence of early Stravinsky was here in unpredictable rhythms and humor, yet the piece was a delightful exhibit of Joan Tower’s own eccentric, riveting genius.

The first two movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 was next with Gitta Markó on violín, Sarah Ghandhour on cello, and Fyodor Shiryaev on piano. On February 11,1944, Ivan Sollertinksy, died of a heart attack; Sollertinsky had been Dmitiri’s closest friend (separated during the war Sollertinsky had just made plans to move to Moscow) and he had just introduced on February 5th and 6th performances of Dmitri’s Eighth Symphony in Novosibirsk. In December of 1943 Shostakovich had begun this piano trio, but did not complete it until August of 1944, dedicating the work to his most intimate friend’s memory. Although Shostakovich usually wrote quite quickly, he succumbed to lengthy illness, and was distracted by the burden of his teaching load that miserable winter and spring. To commemorate Sollertinksky, Dmitri undertook great political risk: he worked in a tribute motif from a Jewish folk song. Another distinctive risk in this piece is the subdued, melancholy role of the piano in a piano trio, the piano being the personification of the gentle qualities of Dmitri’s friend; the lament is carried by the violin; Markó’s high, poignant lamentations were fierce, as Ghandour on cello leaned in with eloquent gravity.

One of Joan Tower’s pedagogic mantra’s is to encourage student composers to take great risks with music in imaginative ways. One of her students, Jonathan Collazo, illustrated his risk: he took a guitar composition of Joan Tower’s entitled Clocks (1985) and arranged it for marimba, which he played with astonishing dexterity. There were several moments when the eye could not follow the motion of the sticks, yet the ear could clearly follow the dexterity of sound through a maze of abrupt shifts in rhythm and range of sound. With adept finesse Collazo was able to hit with his mallets both strong and soft notes simultaneously.

Gitta Markó’s violin reappeared with Peter Serkin on piano to play the fourth and final movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a lyrical lamentation uniting the crucifixion of the new Dionysos from Nazareth with the extinction of all humankind. In this duo the piano carried the lament with harsh dissonant edges while the violin uttered a slim lyrical line of affecting consolation.  This remarkable juxtaposition was disorientating, magical, imbued with a sorrowful gentleness, yet its simplicity was a wonderful triumph well worth the risk.

The recital concluded with one of Tower’s late masterpieces, White Granite (2010). Repetition is employed as a foil for sudden dramatic solutions. As a quartet, it remains unusual due to mini-duets and small solos that intertwine and propel the piece forward. Each instrument contributes to discovering a solution and when the crescendo and finale arrive, they all rise together with tight, symphonic energy. Gitto Markó’s violin was once again piercing, while Joseph Burke on viola flushed out a fuller, rounded sound as his bow frayed; Lily Moerschel was supportive and excelled with a a small solo as Tomoki Park romped on piano with effusive, contagious joy.

Blair McMillen had emceed the event with impish delight, while Tower spoke briefly about the pieces played, and the players performed with deep affection and accomplished presence. This recital laid bare the creative mentality of Joan Tower with her droll sense of humor, boundaries shattered, and gentle lyricism discovered at great risk amid chaotic and stubborn dissonance. This was one of the most exciting and remarkable performances ever offered by the Bard Conservatory and a fitting tribute to the stature of Joan Tower's work.