Joan Tower Celebrates an 80-Year Journey with Concert at Jordan Hall

Joan Tower is a big name in America’s classical music world—a Grammy award-winner and one of the most successful woman composers of all time, she celebrated the end of her residency at New England Conservatory with a concert at Jordan Hall, playing standout works from her prolific career. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), and featuring soloists Carol Wincenc and Adrian Morejon and conducted by Gil Rose, performed Tower’s music stunningly and with an evocative sense of the landscapes the music represented.

The concert opened with the world premiere of “Under the Dome” by Tianyi Wang, a student composer and the winner of the annual BMOP/NEC Composition Competition. The piece was inspired by the environmental hazard of smog in his native country, China. The piece is dark and dissonant, with instruments imitating the heavy breathing of the victims of smog. It was a deeply affecting, though unsettling, start to the concert.

“Rising,” a piece for flute and orchestra and featuring soloist Carol Wincenc, was the first of Joan Tower’s music performed. The aptly named piece began with Wincenc playing long notes rising slowly and steadily in pitch. Wincenc played with a lovely, burnished tone, and the lush sound of the strings, featuring beautiful solos by the principal players who carried the solemn, searching mood of the piece. It was an excellent choice to begin Joan Tower’s works with this piece.

The second piece was “Chamber Dance,” originally commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. It had a similar sense of unease, with suppressed, pulsing energy that seemed like the grumblings of the unconscious. The orchestra executed the busy, fluttering notes that seemed to fly by with impressive poise and delicacy. It felt like a companion piece to “Rising” in its similarity.

After a brief intermission, Adrian Morejon, a world-renowned bassoonist, took the stage to perform “Red Maple.” Named for the wood commonly used to make bassoons, the piece highlighted Morejon’s beautiful tone and virtuosic command of complex, swirling passages. Tower’s father was a mineralogist, and his influence on her work is evident in the way her music often draws inspiration from nature. The piece tried to follow a musical pattern but is too convoluted to be fully understood without closer inspection, like the endlessly complex biology of a living organism. Although it was immaculately played, it felt emotionally closed off—colder and more inscrutable than the other pieces.

Wincenc returned to the stage to play Tower’s “Concerto for Flute,” which had the typical Tower mark of restlessness and a natural feel. It conjures up an image of a lonely, wandering journey through hills and woods. Wincenc’s soulful musicality shone through here, perhaps more than in “Rising” because she has had a longer relationship with this piece, as it was originally commissioned for her in 1989.

The concert concluded with a performance of “Made in America,” Tower’s most famous piece, commissioned for 65 orchestras across America by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Motor Company. The recording of the piece, by Leonard Slatkin the conductor of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, won three Grammy awards. The piece is centered around the theme of “America the Beautiful.” The Boston Modern Orchestra Project played it brilliantly, with a tight rhythm and rich sound. Concertmistress Gabriela Diaz especially played with exceptional lucidity and poise. The piece takes the fearless journey that Tower’s music usually does, beginning optimistically but descending into industrial-sounding, distraught passages, with “America the Beautiful” glowing faintly through every once in a while. This evocative, powerful feeling is exactly why Joan Tower deserves to be honored.

—Staff Writer Faith A. Pak can be reached at


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