Music Review: Joan Tower, Muir Quartet at Kennedy Center CrossCurrents Festival

CrossCurrents featured Tower's music.
CrossCurrents featured Tower's music. (By Noah Sheldon)
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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The CrossCurrents festival, the Kennedy Center's contemporary music week, continued on Monday night with Joan Tower in the spotlight. The American composer, who turned 70 last year and has been teaching at Bard College for more than half her life, narrated the program of pieces she has composed in the last 15 years. In a way, Tower's music, written exclusively for instruments and in relatively conventional ways, is like her speaking manner: reserved, self-effacing and pragmatic.

Arnold Schönberg, in founding his Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, Austria, insisted on a high standard of performance to ensure new works their best possible reception. Unfortunately, the Muir Quartet did not provide a high standard for two of Tower's string quartets or her "Dumbarton Quintet," with the composer at the piano. The group's former luster has dimmed after a distinguished 30-year career. Squeakiness of tone and infelicities of intonation, especially in the first violin and cello, did not help these rather austere works. In her comments, Tower joked that "Night Fields," her first attempt at a string quartet, was so difficult to compose that she wanted to call it "Nightmare." None of her works for the combination seemed a great contribution to the string quartet's illustrious history.

In the first half, Tower replaced a later piano trio with "Très Lent (Hommage à Messiaen)," a work for cello and piano from 1994 that showed a welcome borrowing of some of Messiaen's more interesting harmonic palette. The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio provided the best listening with "For Daniel," a 2004 elegy on the death of Tower's nephew, either because of a stronger performance or greater compositional interest, from the eerie violin harmonics to the exciting, pulsating final section.

-- Charles T. Downey

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