Make no mistake. The title of Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman is hardly a coincidence. The composer intended it as a feminist retort to Aaron Copland’s iconic Fanfare for the Common Man.
“I’m a great admirer of Copland, and he influenced me in many ways,” said Tower, the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music. “So it was a tribute to him, but at the same time, the title of his [fanfare] bothered me, so I turned it around. It’s dedicated to women who are adventurous, take risks and are visionaries in some sense.”
This year marks the 33rd anniversary of Tower’s Fanfare, which became a series of six short compositions with different instrumentations written separately over time, with the final one in 2016.
Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the first and most frequently heard of the six fanfares as part of the Dec. 3 installment of CSO Sessions, the weekly series of small-ensemble concerts streamed on the CSOtv video portal.
“When I wrote the first one, I was just entering the brass world, which was late in my life,” Tower said from her home in the Hudson River Valley. “I had been around strings and winds a lot in chamber music, but I hadn’t been around a lot of brass. So that was my first step into pure brass. I had written for orchestra brass, but I still felt very uncomfortable.”
Each of the six fanfares is dedicated to a different woman, with the first one honoring Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “She’s a pioneer,” Tower said. “She broke through a lot of glass ceilings. She’s definitely an uncommon woman.”
Hans Vonk and the Houston Symphony premiered the first fanfare in 1987. It features the same instrumental configuration as Copland’s fanfare: 12 brass players and one percussionist who doubles on bass drum and tam-tam.
The work has since been performed by scores of other orchestras worldwide. Because it runs just a little over 2½ minutes long, it can be used as a concert opener or tucked into nearly any position on a program. “People can put it anywhere they want, and then they can say, ‘See, we do contemporary women composers,’” Tower said with a knowing laugh.
In recent years, according to the composer, larger and more prominent orchestras have taken up the first fanfare. The Boston Symphony, for example, performed it two summers ago at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass. Tower, who is part of Tanglewood’s composition faculty, was in attendance.
“I hadn’t heard the piece live recently. I was actually impressed with the whole thing, and I’m not easily impressed with my own music,” she said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘That’s not bad for a “beginner” of brass.’”