Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1992

Length: c. 19 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, 2 percussion, strings, and solo violin

Tonight's second piece is by another composer greatly concerned with rhythm. Joan Tower was born in New York and spent her childhood in South America, where she developed interests in rhythm and percussion. Both Tower and Ticheli write bold, vigorous music. Neither one spends a lot of time on pre-compositional processes. In an interview from 1987, Tower said, "Some composers know in advance just where they're going. I don't. In the beginning I have to spend a lot of time on where I am and where I've just been." Her musical material is generated primarily by itself. In a recent telephone conversation, Tower explained further, saying, "You can have all kinds of pre-compositional ideas and extramusical things, but all of that pales in terms of reality, of what's in front of you. The good composers, no matter how they compose, have to imagine the reality through notation." Both Tower and Ticheli glean inspiration from the work itself, from the process of composing. Both believe their best work is written for specific people, not just instruments.

Tower's Violin Concerto occupies a taut and assertive 19 minutes. Tower thinks in terms of one shape, a tapestry rather than several throw rugs, and always writes one-movement pieces. Commissioned by the violinist Elmar Oliveira, whom Tower had previously heard play on several tours, she knew from the outset that she wanted to make the Violin Concerto both virtuosic and lyrical. It is definitely both. After a jolting opening, the piece darts around and through rapid changes and highly rhythmic passages. Shortly after the beginning, the back-and-forth becomes so quick that it sounds like a game of pinball in which the ball, first floating freely, suddenly hits a bumper and plunges through a narrow lane, propelling it at warp speed with no hope of choosing how or which way to move. The only constants in the Concerto are the sudden changes, swells, and ebbs that occur throughout. Even in the calmer moments the piece seems to move; there are few silences, but occasionally they sneak up on us full of impending motion, and moments of respite are short-lived.

Oliveira recorded the work, and he explains in the CD liner notes that Tower included sections of duet for the soloist and the concertmaster, as a reference to Oliveira's relationship with his brother, who was a violinist, and was dying of cancer at the time Tower was writing the Concerto. These duet sections are highlights of the piece; the two violins banter about, winding down and then back up in register, tempo, and dynamics. Tender, yet with a strong sense of humor, the duets really seem to show what the brothers' relationship was like. By the time the orchestra eagerly bursts in again, the two violins have gained speed and rhythmic intensity, and from this point until the end of the Concerto, the solo violin and the orchestra alternate a web of dazzling runs with huge, majestic chords and drumrolls. The piece builds until its abruptly precise ending on two successive chords.

- Jessie Rothwell is the Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also writes music, plays oboe, and sings Bulgarian folk music.