WorldView Episode 05: Joan Tower

Joan Tower’s Purple Rhapsody premiered in 2005 by the Omaha Symphony Orchestra with violist Paul Neubauer, to whom the work is dedicated. The piece is roughly twenty minutes long and consists of one continuous composition; unlike a concerto, Rhapsody does not have individual movements. It is one of Tower’s more recent works, though it was published more than three decades after her career as a composer began. 

Joan Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1938. When she was nine her family moved to Bolivia, where her father encouraged her talent through consistent music training. The South American influence made rhythm a crucial part of her work, and many of her earlier compositions include traditional melodic elements. Tower returned to the U.S. to study music at Bennington and Columbia University, and published her first formal compositions in 1972. Early in her career, she shifted towards a more atonal, modern style which draws on dissonance and unorthodox instrumentation to create unique and energetic pieces. In the past fifty years, she was written works for orchestra, chamber, ballet, and more, as well as solo compositions. 

A defining feature of Tower’s career is her emphasis on choosing particular ensembles or performers and composing works specifically designed for these groups. A recording of her 2008 commission Made in America, performed by the Nashville Symphony, won three Grammy Awards—including Best Classical Contemporary Composition.  Tower’s most well-known work is the six-part Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, which is often considered a response to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The piece is described by the author to as tribute to “women who are adventurous and take risks”, and to serve as a celebration of women in music composition and performance. 

Joan Tower was lauded by the New Yorker as “One of the most successful woman composers of all time”, and is often thought to be one of the most important living American classical composers. Currently, Tower teaches music at Bard College. Her most recent composition is A New Day for cello and orchestra, written in 2021. In this episode of WorldView, violist Paul Neubauer performs Tower’s Purple Rhapsody with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Russell. 

WorldView Episode Five Playlist:

Percy GRAINGER, “Colonial Song”, {Martin Jones} – Nimbus Records 

Heitor VILLA-LOBOS, “String Trio for Violin, Viola, and Violincello”, {Deutsches Streichtrio} – cpo

Sofia GUBAIDULINA, “Serenade”, {David Tannenbaum} – Naxos

Joan TOWER, “Purple Rhapsody”, {ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, Timothy Russell, Paul Neubauer} – Summit Records

WorldView is a classical music radio show featuring composers from everywhere in the world – except Western Europe. Tune in to hear works by lesser-known artists such as Gabriela Montero  and Bright Sheng, and widen your knowledge of classical music. Hinke Younger hosts each week’s episode of WorldView on Mondays at 9AM and again at 6PM on Charlottesvilleclassical.org.

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