And the Winners Are…

My apologies, this entry is more than a bit late, but I thought after the death of Stockhausen, J. Wiley-Hitchcock, and Andrew Imbrie, I should wait before posting something about the GRAMMY nominations.

Last Wednesday morning the nominations for the 50th Annual GRAMMY® Awards were announced in Los Angeles.

In the past, these awards have been of marginal interest to classical music enthusiasts. With the recent changes in the classical music business, however, they’ve have gotten a bit more interesting. When composer William Bolcom took home three GRAMMY Awards in 2006 for his Songs of Innocence and of Experience (Naxos 8559216-18), I started to feel a renewed sense of hope that perhaps one day, these awards might include a broader range of classical and new music titles. Many first-rate recordings were nominated in the classical categories for all labels this year. And it should come as no surprise to anyone that Naxos recording artists took home 11 nominations. Artists from three Naxos-distributed labels also took home nominations.

I was particularly heartened by the entries in this year’s Best Contemporary Classical Composition category, which includes Peter Lieberson’s exquisite Neruda Songs (which just won the coveted Grawemeyer Award), and Joan Tower’s Made in America.

Made in America (Naxos 8559328), which features conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony, and was produced by Tim Handley, earned three nominations: Best Classical Album (award to Artists and Producer), Best Orchestral Performance (award to Conductor and Orchestra) and Best Classical Contemporary Composition (Award to Composer). Other nominated works in this category are Jennifer Higdon’s Zaka on Cedille (Hidgon also has a recent disc of chamber music on Naxos, Piano Trio, Voices, Impressions, 8559298); Spanish composer Joan Albert AmargósNorthern Concerto on the Naxos–distributed OUR music label; and David Chesky’s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra on Chesky Records.

Made in America began as an attempt by 65 small orchestras from around the United States to pool their resources to commission a new work by a major American composer. With the help of the American Symphony Orchestra League, Meet The Composer, and Ford the Motor Company Fund, this project became the phenomenon known as Ford Made in America, which gave Tower’s piece national exposure.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who recently became Music Advisor to the Nashville Symphony, has had a long association with Joan Tower, which began in 1985 when he invited her to serve as composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he was then Music Director (1979–1996). Silver Ladders (1986), which was written for that ensemble, was Tower’s first score for large-scale orchestra; it earned her the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for music composition in 1990. The fifth recipient, Tower also was the first woman and the first American born composer to receive the Award.

Tower was born in 1938 and spent her childhood in South America, where her father was a mining engineer. In the late 1950s, she returned to the U.S. to study at Bennington College and Columbia University, after which she founded the Da Capo Chamber Players as a vehicle for performing her music, as well as the music of her contemporaries. Tower’s works from the 1960s were serial and exhibited the influence of composers such as Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen. But beginning with Black Topaz (1976), she moved towards a style more consistent with the music of Messiaen and Crumb. Tower also credits Beethoven as an important influence: “I think of a piece as having a motivated architecture, something I got from Beethoven actually; and so it has to have its goals, reaching points, and sections. I hope that it has a feeling of strong form.” She often speaks of her music in terms of architecture: “being composer who notates their music is like being an architect, the blueprint is very finite … You’re putting basically your musical soul into an architectural blueprint, a very finite blueprint.”

Music critic and composer Greg Sandow characterizes Tower’s music as often starting slowly, “with soft, long notes, as if they needed to establish something simple before they can assert themselves more strongly … Later on, they’ll often gather energy, growing forceful and decisive. These are the two sides of Tower’s music. It can be quiet and emotional, and also strong.” Another aspect of Tower’s music is her rhythmic sense—something that she developed as a child living in South America. In her music you can feel a rhythmic drive almost reminiscent of the small rhythmic cells Stravinsky employed in Le sacre du printemps. These tight rhythmic patterns and ever-shifting meters give her music both propulsion and great vitality.

In 1972 Tower was appointed to the faculty of Bard College and went on to win a Guggenheim Fellowship (1977), and commissions from the Koussevitzky, Fromm, Jerome, and Naumburg foundations. She was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998, and into the Academy of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in 2004. She currently is serving as Season Composer for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Tower currently has two recordings on Naxos: Joan Tower: Instrumental Music: Tokyo String Quartet; Chee-Yun, violin; André Emelianoff, cello; Joan Tower, piano; Paul Neubauer, viola; Ursula Oppens, piano; Melvin Chen, piano; Richard Woodhams, oboe; Naxos 8559215 (636943921524); and, of course, Joan Tower: Made in America; Tambor; Concerto for Orchestra; Nashville Symphony, Leonard Slatkin Naxos 8559328 (636943932827). There also are also a number of other wonderful recordings featuring Tower’s music on Cedille, New World/ CRI, and Delos labels.