August 28, 2012
Joan Tower ~ Interview/Preview of Her Birthday Concert at Symphony Space

By Chris McGovern

The Glass

August 27, 2012

Composer Joan Tower had a few minutes to speak with me about her birthday concert on…her birthday of all things! And I don’t care how old she is!

The concert titled “Happy Birthday, Joan Tower” is being thrown on Thursday, September 6th at Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Symphony Space in New York, and it is scheduled to feature such wonderful soloists such as Blair McMillen and Carol Wincenc, as well as violinist Emma Steele and the Escher String Quartet among others.

Joan–well, yes, her too, after all the party is for her!

CM: Did you have anything to do with the selection of the program and/or the musicians for this concert?

Joan: Not initially–eventually, because Elmira Darvarova, this is all her project–she put the whole thing together, she got the players for the first 5 pieces. But then there were too many solo pieces, so we needed to bring in another ensemble piece, and I got Da Capo to do “Petroushskates”. There’s a lot of solos and there’s 2 ensemble pieces. She picked most of the players.

 Petroushskates (excerpt; Ars Nova Dallas, 2009 Dallas Festival of Modern Music; Ryan Ross, conductor)


CM: So she picked Blair McMillen, Carol Wincenc, and The Escher String Quartet?

Joan: Yes!

CM: Blair’s been a busy guy this year! Grand Band, the Rite of Summer Festival, now this…

Joan: Blair is my partner! We run a series up here in Bard together called Musical Live, which is all contemporary 20th century music, and he’s one of my musical partners!

CM: So you are going to be in attendance for this–Are you going to bow after every piece they play?

[both laughing]

Joan: I’ll probably do some speaking!

CM: It should be a great night for you to just listen to a whole program of everybody else playing your works.

Joan: It think it’s very hard to be the sole composer on a whole program. If you have an all-Debussy, or an all-whatever program, it can be very challenging for that composer. I’ve had several of these, and I’ll have a lot more this coming year, and they’re challenging, really challenging, but I’ve got some really good players on this program, so, we shall see!

CM: Can I ask you about your take on the female composers in the symphonic world–A lot of companies will have programs with few female composers per year. Has this changed more recently, or are we still looking at that challenge?

Joan: Well, we’ve gone through some huge changes. I remember in the 70s and 80s there were huge music festivals devoted to women in music, and I tried to go to as many of those as I could, because I learned so much about the history of women in music, and now, those festivals have decreased. There haven’t been that many festivals devoted to women in music. The appearance of women composers on orchestral concerts has increased slightly–Still a long way to go, but that’s within the context of living composers, and that did improve somewhat.

Also, in the chamber music world, it did still somewhat improve. We still have a very long ways to go because the classical music world has turned backwards. It’s going back to Beethoven and Brahms, etc, and it has become a performer’s world. You see Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma–All these names in big letters, but the composer is almost never mentioned! I don’t like to include Yo-Yo in that because he has been the one exception that has done a lot for composers. He’s commissioned a lot of new pieces–at level, he’s kind of an exception, but we still have a long way to go–nothing is as normal as it should be.

CM: Besides the symphonic composers like you, Jennifer Higdon or Victoria Bond, there are many female composers in new music that I know from twitter and facebook like Sarah Kirkland Snider, Dale Trumbore, Jennifer Jolley, Laura Schwendinger, Stacy Garrop, etc, and a lot of those people are in the wings. At some point, does that sort of converge with the symphonic concert stage, and do you think at some point that will change over anyway? There’s talk that the audiences are changing, and some people are interested in letting the new crowd take over.

Joan: Well, the first people you mentioned, they’re doing great! Jennifer [Higdon] is a friend of mine, I discovered her early on before she became well-known. But the thing is, because there’s one or two, you think there are many. Sort of like the Olympics–How many black gymnasts have we seen? Gabby [Douglas] won at the Olympics, but the point is that there aren’t that many.The orchestral world is struggling, and they don’t want to take risks–And new music is a risk. Big risk. You take that number of living composers, which is very small in the orchestral world, and then you make it even smaller and you get the women. So, if you see a flier that has one woman composer on the entire series, that’s a miracle! Last year, the NY Phil didn’t have a woman composer at all. Those are the kind of statistics that bother me, but of course, I’m always fighting for living composers.

The living composer has a lot to fight for, because they’re pretty much shunted aside by the classical music world. You may not even want to be in that world. I’m sure a lot of those groups, like Bang On a Can or Kronos, create their own scenario so that they can make their own kind of music in their own way, and I applaud that whole-heartedly! They don’t need the classical music world to exist. But me and and a few other composers are in the classical tradition–Jennifer Higdon, John Corligiano, Chris Rouse, etc–The women thing is inside of that thing, which is a bigger issue, so there’s still a lot of work to be done for both the living composer and the woman composer.

CM: You talked about this in another clip–There’s also the relationship between soloist and composer, and there are quite a few soloists that do love to work with the composer and make it a point to help finalize the piece.

Joan: Well, there are certain big-name soloists that have discovered the importance of commissioning composers. Yo-Yo is one of them–He’s amazing! He’s definitely in that league, and he’s so curious about everything in spite of his fame, and then there are others in that league who don’t have a clue about how to deal with composers–they don’t think it’s that important, and they’re either afraid of picking the wrong piece or the wrong composer, which takes time to figure out. There are quartets now, coming up, there are more presenters that are interested in commissioning, and they see the value of that, of having a new piece written for their organization. That’s starting to happen little by little. Most of the summer festivals, not all of them, “classical festivals”, have some composer component–there are a few that don’t, but I won’t name names! [laughs]

For the Uncommon Woman (Interlochen Arts Academy Symphony Orchestra, Octavio Mas-Arocas conductor; 2008) 


Click here to purchase tickets for the Happy Birthday, Joan Tower concert at Symphony Space

Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space
2537 Broadway at 95th Street, New York, NY 10025-6990
Phone: 212-864-5400
Fax: 212-932-3228

Joan Tower (page at



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