In a field dominated by men, Joan Tower is among the women who have built significant careers in classical music composition. After earning her doctorate in 1968, she has gone on to have her works performed by top artists and ensembles around the world. Musical America named Tower as its 2020 Composer of the Year, and the League of American Orchestras gave her its highest honor, the Gold Baton, in 2019.

“I was kind of on the cutting edge for women composers,” she said from her Hudson River Valley home. “When I was growing up in New York, there weren’t that many women composers being played, especially in the traditional classical-music world. It got better and better as time wore on, but the history is not a very good one for us. We came in very late among the arts.”

Among her most famous works is Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, a series of six short compositions that she wrote separately from 1986 through 2016. Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the first and most frequently programmed 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.

After graduating from Bennington College, Tower did her doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York City. “So I wound up with the uptown crowd, and those were mostly 12-tone composers,” she said. “They were all very smart and nice people.” But she never felt comfortable playing works by serialist composers like Milton Babbitt, Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Wuorinen and never fully understood what they were trying to say.

After 10 years, Tower elected to go in a different direction. “I decided, ‘I’m wasting my time here. I’ve got to step away from this 12-tone stuff,’” she said. Propelling the change was her exposure to two highly influential works: George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale (1971), and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which the composer wrote while in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. “That just blew me away,” she said. “I never heard anything like that. I remember that it was so colorful and powerful and consonant at times.”

Some of Tower’s earliest compositions arose from her membership in the Da Capo Chamber Players, which focuses on contemporary music and has commissioned more than 100 works. She co-founded the ensemble in 1970 and served as its first pianist for 15 years. “That was my schooling,” she said. “I learned more from that experience than getting a Ph.D.”

Her big breakthrough came in 1981, when Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra presented the premiere of Sequoia in New York’s Alice Tully Hall. The work went on to be performed by the New York Philharmonic and  the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, where Leonard Slatkin had been music director since 1979.

Tower credits much of her success to Slatkin, who built much of his distinguished conducting career as a champion of American music and took up her cause. Through his intercession, she became the St. Louis Symphony’s composer-in-residence from 1985 through 1988. Because she had written mostly chamber music to that point, she was “flabbergasted” to receive the appointment.

Indeed, she even wrote the conductor a letter, admitting that she was something of a “beginner” when it came to orchestral music. But he didn’t care. She recalls Slatkin telling her that she had written one “really interesting piece,” and he was going to take a risk and help her write some more. “That was pretty adventuresome and courageous of him,” she said. He then went on to feature her music both with the St. Louis Symphony and during some of his guest-conducting appearances. “I owe him for that,” she said. “He really changed my life.”

Slatkin prompted one of the largest and most important works of Tower’s career, her Concerto for Orchestra (1991). It was co-commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic, with Slatkin leading the debut performances with each of the ensembles. Conductor Marin Alsop later recorded it with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Denver, and she has performed it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The piece received mixed reviews, including one from Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein, who was less impressed by the concerto than he had been of Tower’s earlier efforts like Silver Ladders (1986), which eventually received the
1990 Grawemeyer Award. “Tower’s talent for flinging bold, dramatic sounds over a large orchestral palette is much on display in her concerto — at 30 minutes her longest work to date,” he wrote on the positive side. “Unlike previous essays in the form by Bartok, Carter and McCabe, it is not intended to show off the orchestra in any virtuosic sense. Rather, it is more about the sometimes cataclysmic energies that are released when sound and rhythmic structures meet head on.”

Though Tower is 82, she has not slowed down in the least. She has taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., since 1972, has no plans to retire and continues to compose. Not long after Peter Oundjian was named music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival in January 2019, he reached out to Tower about the possibility of a commission. He asked her what kind of work she might want to write, and Tower had a ready answer. “I said, wow, that’s a wonderful invitation,” she recalls. “So I said, cello concerto.” Oundjian immediately agreed and recruited well-regarded soloist Alisa Weilerstein for the project, which the composer is working on at present.

“I’m never going to stop composing, I don’t think,” Tower said. She acknowledged that declining energy can be an issue for some people her age, but she has not faced that challenge. “Not right now,” she said with a laugh. “Knock on wood.”

TOP: Joan Tower has no plans to retire: “I’m never going to stop composing.” | Photo: Bernie Mindich/BMI