Joan Tower’s Flute Concerto
Notes by TŌN clarinetist Mackenzie Austin
Universally regarded as one of the most successful living composers of our time, Joan Tower’s music is performed in concert halls around the world. The immediate impressions made by her music—bold contrasts, surprising subtleties, honesty of expression, imagination, sensitivity—derive from those same qualities in the composer herself. Tower is a Grammy-winning, contemporary American composer, pianist, and conductor. She spent her childhood years in Bolivia, an experience which she credits for making rhythm an integral part of her work. As a young adult, she returned to the U.S. and began studying music, first at Bennington College and then at Columbia University, from which she earned both M.A. and D.M.A. degrees.
Tower’s Flute Concerto was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra. It was composed in 1989 and premiered in 1990 at Carnegie Hall with the flutist Carol Wincenc, to whom the piece is dedicated. Tower briefly described the piece in the score program notes: “The first thing you’ll hear is the low register of the flute alone before the orchestra enters. As the flute gets more active, the orchestra provides competitive tension which is matched phrase by phrase as the piece heads relentlessly towards a finale where the ‘music blows wide open’ (Wincenc) in a virtuosic display of flute scales and arpeggios.”
The slow-growing intensity of the music is reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero, however, this piece contains much higher virtuosic and rhythmic demand. Tower sets the atmosphere of the opening with a lyrical passage for solo flute to highlight the instrument’s low register, which isn’t often heard much in the orchestra due to its lack of projection. The rest of the concerto explores the speed of the flute, which she considers to be the “fastest” instrument in the orchestra. Tower expressed delight at the opportunity to conduct her own composition in her hometown, but jokingly questioned why her younger self would write such a difficult piece to conduct!
All in all, Joan Tower prefers to let her music speak for itself. Articulate about music in general and accustomed to exploring her students’ compositions at Bard College, she nevertheless resists explaining her own music; writing program notes “is torture for me,” she says. What, after all, can words say that music can’t express much better itself?