An 80th birthday tribute to Joan Tower involved a wide-ranging group of musicians at New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall. From the NEC Trombone Quartet to the NEC Percussion Ensemble to Borromeo String Quartet, all helped celebrate Tower’s chamber music, with the added dollop of a premiere of a new percussion solo. Borromeo Quartet also performed a piece from NEC resident composer Kati Agócs, who helped plan this performance and Joan Tower’s recent NEC residency. Before each of her works, Tower gave a brief explanation as to what sound world the audience would expect.
A recent arrangement of Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 5 by NEC doctoral student Charles Tarver got things underway. Originally scored for four trumpets, the transition to four trombones came easily. The NEC Trombone Quartet (David Kidd, Robyn Smith, and Michael Shayte on tenor trombones, and Cameron Owen on bass trombone) played with uncommon fire and zeal in a piece that deserved such fervor. The music somehow both referenced the triadic while managing to escape its trappings into freer, more dissonant harmony. The players kept the energy forward throughout, but not overwhelming, as the activity dove lower and climbed higher to an apex at a difficult and constant double-tonguing section.
Second String Force showcased the inherent virtuosity of the violin. Marked by a dichotomy of a slow, vibrato and glissando heavy lyrical section and a heavily motoric, pulsating counter, Tower exploited the passion of the violin. Soovin Kim, who put everything he had behind it as he rocked and threw himself around on the stage to work with Force of character. Tower used the range of the instrument to its fullest potential; at several points we thought that the highest note had been reached before Kim dove back down to the G and D strings and then ascended even higher than before—past the end of the fingerboard nearing the bridge—to two octaves above middle C (E6). Its technicality and expression make the Second String Force one to be reckoned with.
Quartet for Strings No. 4 “Angels” felt like a natural extension of the violin work preceding it. Written shortly after Tower’s brother George survived a major stroke and dedicated those who helped him through his illness, the quartet continues the dichotomy of motoric energy and suspension, taking the opportunity to exploit a wide variety of harmonies and colors the string quartet affords. Borromeo String Quartet (Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong on violin, Yeesun Kim on cello, and guest artist Luther Warren on viola to allow Mai Motobuchi to recover from an injury) executed the dichotomies flawlessly, their faces showing deep connections. Much like the violin solo, the quartet tenses and relaxes its energy in quick succession, giving it a sectional vibe. If it sometimes powers through transitions to allow tension and relaxation, that complaint is minor.
Borromeo continued after intermission (and a brief moment to sing “Happy Birthday”) with Kati Agócs’s Tantric Variations, a Boston premiere. Far different from Tower, Agócs spent time developing melodic fragments and turning them into a wash of colors throughout the ensemble (Agócs described the central idea as a set of variations around a theme of a single turn that weaves over and through the neighboring variations). Agócs exploited more of the timbres, freely changing from bowed passages to pizzicato ones and even opening with an extended technique section filled with scratch tone on which the theme built. As much as Variations supported a theme resembling something akin to Beethoven in organization, it also diffused material across the foursome equitably. Warren solo viola licks took on powerful throatiness that fit the character of the odd child that is the viola quite nicely. Given Tower’s works motoric tendencies, hearing something more melodic like the Tantric Variations cleansed the palate.
The premiere of Small for solo percussion required a long set-up time. Tower sought to compose a solo that used percussion items a player could hold in a bag so they “can go to the reception afterwards” instead of lugging heavy equipment away. In the event, the requirement of a stand for hanging several tuned chimes, required quite a capacious bag. NEC student Alexander Garde, once again built upon the dichotomy of activity and stasis, but this time on a much smaller scale (pun intended). Set in ternary form, colors of bell-like percussion contrasted the drive of other instruments like small woodblocks. The A section, laced with colors, felt much more satisfying after the active B section, making its return more impactful than its initial statement.
Under the baton of Frank Epstein, Yiming Yao, Sabrina Peterson, John Thomas Minor, Nathan Vendel, and Parker Olson of the NEC Percussion Ensemble played DNA which Epstein had commissioned back in 2003. Focused on the slight timbral differences among percussion instruments, Tower picked a series of cymbals, castanets, timbales, and snare drums in pairs to create double helixes of instruments that sounded very slightly different, creating depth to the palette. The sectional structure helped a lot here, since it allowed the audience to appreciate the subtle changes in the pairings. Minor also had a chance to solo on both a pair of congas and a tambourine, both of which showed the significant timbral possibilities in one instrument. It was a lovely way to finish the night.
Happy Birthday Joan Tower. Please don’t ever stop composing.