There aren't that many examples of a "concerto" for orchestra, and in Joan Tower's, it's an electrifying world of rhythm, motion, and even deception! John Banther and Evan Keely explore this concerto by one of the most successful and recorded American composers. 

Show Notes

Joan Tower's Concerto for Orchestra (in 2 parts)

Learn more about Joan Tower in this 2023 interview with NPR

Another work you should listen to by Joan Tower, Sequoia 



John Banther: I'm John Banther and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classicals Evan Keeley, and we're exploring a 20th century Concerto for Orchestra by one of the most successful living American composers today, Joan Tower. But just what is a Concerto for Orchestra and how does Joan Tower approach it? Using her descriptive program notes, we uncover details in the music and show you what to listen for. We look at how she plays with color using percussion and how she creates auditory illusions in the music.

We've done concertos for various instruments before, but now it's time to look at a concerto written for the orchestra itself. And this is an interesting subset of music in part because we don't have that many examples of concertos for orchestra. But before we jump into this, Evan, and why she wrote it and what she wrote about this concerto, tell us a little bit about Joan Tower for those unfamiliar.


Evan: Joan Tower is a living composer, an American composer, and a Grammy Award- winning composer. Born in New Rochelle in 1938, spent several years in her youth living in Bolivia before coming back to the United States and going to college. She ended up getting a doctorate in composition and music composition from Columbia University. She's also one of the founders of the Da Capo Chamber players. She's been the composer in residence with a number of American orchestras over the years and was a Guggenheim fellow in 1976. A very successful and renowned and well- respected composer, her music's being played all over the world and commissioned from various orchestras, especially here in the United States. One of the most successful and recognized composers alive today.


John Banther: Yes, I think so too. So why did she write this and what did she write about this concerto? Well, it was jointly commissioned in 1991 by the St. Louis Symphony, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, and here is what she wrote about this piece. She wrote, " Concerto for Orchestra begins slowly, quietly, and simply on a unison F sharp that emerges from the depths of the orchestra. I had imagined a long and large landscape that had a feeling of space and distance. From the beginning, I wanted to convey this sense to let the listener understand that the proportions of this piece would be spacious and the musical materials would travel a long road. The energy of the piece emerges through the contrast of big alternating chords with little fast motives. These take on bigger and bigger shapes, picking up larger textures as they whirl around in fast repeated figures.

There is a strong sense of direction in this piece as in all my music and a feeling of ascent, which comes not only from the scale motives, but from tempos, rhythms, and dynamics that cooperate to produce the different intensities. Although it had been my intention to write a work in two parts, the content of the musical materials led me to a different form. Instead of coming to a full halt at the climactic midpoint of the composition, I felt the arrival could be answered and connected by a series of unisons traversing the orchestral palette. This reaction calms things down, carries the piece forward toward its slow central section, and provides a seam that harks back toward the unison opening of the work and connects the 30- minute span of the concerto. Unity between the two halves is also provided by the slow fast structure and by several shared motives, particularly the four note motive that appears early in the piece and shapes the final fast section.

In every sense, Concerto for Orchestra is my biggest work to date. Although technically demanding, the virtuoso sections are an integral part of the music resulting from accumulated energy rather than being designed purely as display elements. I thus resisted the title Concerto for Orchestra and named the work only after composing was completed and even then reluctantly." This is a great description, isn't it, Evan? So clear a lot of information here. Don't worry. We're going to get into all of it and especially the end I think is important as we start this. She was resistant to call this a Concerto for Orchestra.


Evan: And it's a term we don't hear very often. There's only a small number of pieces I can think of with this sort of oxymoronic title Concerto for Orchestra.


John Banther: And we can look at the Harvard dictionary of music. There's like six pages defining the concerto, and in the final paragraph it includes this, " A special class of 20th century concerto is the Concerto for Orchestra. These works aren't like baroque concertos with multiple soloists, but rather display pieces in which the orchestra itself is the virtuoso. From soloists to sections to choirs to tutti, examples of this genre best known through Bartok's popular work of 1943, his Concerto for Orchestra include compositions," and then it kind of names a few, but there's not that many. And she is born basically a few years before the best known example we have by Bartok, and it sounds like she's trying to avoid the trope expected way to show off an orchestra. Now listen to this section now, this section, now this section.


Evan: Right, right. I mean the Bartok, of course, is a great masterpiece, but Joan Tower's Concerto for Orchestra is markedly different in terms of how it's structured and in terms of the way the orchestra is used.


John Banther: Yeah. So let's just jump into this. It opens, as she said, on a unison F sharp, and this is a droning sound. It sounds desolate. First, it's just the viola and the cello, but then instruments slowly add in like the horn in the following measure, and then you can listen for how the sound and the color shifts and morphs as she combines different instruments and she can really change the whole tone of the music by just dropping a note in octave.


Evan: To me, this has a kind of magnetic power. There's this F sharp that just kind of won't let you go. It goes on. There's somebody playing an F sharp for the entire piece for the first minute and a half. There's always an F sharp somewhere and it's both anchoring, but also you feel trapped in a way, and yet you're also very eager to go along with where this journey is taking us.


John Banther: And she says it right in the program notes. When we read, " I had imagined a long and large landscape that had a feeling of space and distance," and that's especially what we get here. It sounds very existential like we're just maybe waking up in a new terrifying landscape and we're the only person that you can see for miles and miles and miles.

And there's this wonderful moment between horn, timpani, and strings. There's something I love about this, how it's deeply inward looking. You feel small. I feel like I'm the last person on earth, the last person in the world, in a barren landscape, and there's no before. You just woke up.


Evan: And it's like the horn is that last person and it starts off significantly with an F sharp. So there's again that sense we're sort of trapped, but we're also sort of being brought along on this journey. Somebody made us get in the train and it's just taking us somewhere and it's maybe desolate, but it's also beautiful. So there's a sense of wanting to go along even if we're a little scared.


John Banther: A little scared. Don't be scared. Well, actually feel scared. I feel scared when I listen to this, but it's a wonderful emotion she's bringing out here. And we get a cadenza as well. We'll get a few of them. And this is for the horn.

You'll also notice a lot of this is ascending. She mentioned in the program notes there's this feeling of ascent. Part of that is literally the notes are going up, but then they also go back down like an octave and then go again and it kind of repeats. This reminds me of a sound phenomenon or illusion, and you see it on TikTok and social media sometimes called the Shepard tone. It sounds like the twilight zone like the notes are always going up even though they're actually not. It's kind of like the barber pole effect.


Evan: Yeah, I hadn't known about this until you and I were talking about this piece, John, to prepare for this episode. And I found this Shepard tone on some social media site. Yeah, it's this audio, this oral illusion where you feel like things are sort of endlessly ascending and we can maybe put one of these on the show notes page. But yeah, there's a sense of you're sort of trapped in this endless loop of ascension, and I think Joan Tower really does evoke that same kind of feeling.


John Banther: And then she brings us to a point where it feels like we are in a sprint for our lives. It feels almost Stanley Kubrick horror esque. These scale and very fast passages, these fast motives she mentioned in the program notes, they're intense and they just pass through all of the sections seemingly without any change in timbre sometimes. Sometimes it's the exact same sound being spread throughout. Sometimes it changes as it's being spread throughout.


Evan: It's something that's very conspicuous in this section, John, as something she talked about in that description, and we'll hear it a lot in this piece where you have this simultaneity of these long slow notes in one part of the orchestra and very fast notes in some other part of the orchestra, kind of they go very well together, but there's also a sense of conflict and tension that really builds excitement.

This is what she writes, " The energy of the piece emerges through the contrast of big alternating chords with little fast motives. These take on bigger and bigger shapes, picking up larger textures as they whirl around in fast repeated figures. There's a strong sense of direction in this piece as in all my music and a feeling of ascent, which comes not only from the scale motives, but from tempos, rhythms, and dynamics that cooperate to produce the different intensities." I think she's really giving us a very clear roadmap here. I mean, this really describes the piece very well. If I'd never read this description, I would still have that sense. But you read this and it's like, " Yes, of course, of course." So there's a lot of clarity in her thinking around how she structured this piece and it really brings your imagination on board.


John Banther: I agree. And that last part where she talks about not just the scale but it's the tempos, the rhythms, the dynamics, this all cooperates together. That really puts a nice point on this. I had not really, I guess, analyzed or look at a piece from this kind of perspective, but it really is everything coming together to create these different intensities and how they react to each other. And these alternating chords, it feels like we're presented, Evan, with a choice. So you have A or B, and it's constantly back and forth and they're bad choices. It's a choice, it's almost an impossible choice I guess, but it's being forced upon you. It's almost part of the nightmare here. We're constantly being reminded of it like you're going to have to choose.


Evan: It's a choose your adventure sense in this kind of experience where if you make the wrong choice, you're doomed. And there's that sense of ... I mean this piece, how does it express emotion? How does any music express emotion? There's a sense of dread, there's a sense of drama, but there's also a sense of excitement and possibility, and there's a heroic quality to this music as well. So it's not just this very dark negative energy. It's also something that's really powerful and exciting.


John Banther: Part of the excitement is also a challenge that modern musicians and orchestras have, and that is ... Well, here we can hear Joan Tower throwing these very fast passages to all of the instruments without a care of the difficulty. We've talked before about how a composer will try to write idiomatically write in a way that the line really works on that instrument. It sings in the right register, and even the fingerings are very natural. For Tower, that's almost irrelevant in some of this where it's " No, you have to play this exactly with this precision, almost clinical sound, and then it has to go here, then it has to go there," and that's part of the challenge where you have to play anything and everything as black and white or any style that you have to.


Evan: All composers are writing for performers and Joan Tower understands that, but she's also perfectly willing to challenge the performers to really stretch the limits of what's possible.


John Banther: And listen for the subtle changes in color when she introduces various percussion instruments. There's a lot of them in here. We hear the ones you expect like a triangle, a timpani, bass drum, but we also hear sleigh bells, which you normally hear in pieces in December around holidays, but she includes it here as well.q And it's a slightly different sound than the tambourine, which is also used in a similar way or even the symbol rolled on with drumsticks, which comes in a little bit later. Subtle changes in how she uses the percussion and this builds and then coalesces together and then dissipates almost like water circling the drain. And then we get to another more individual soloistic section.


Evan: It's a cello. In fact, this solo cello begins this very different section of the piece. This is one of my favorite parts of the whole piece, John. This is just incredible lyricism and this really beautiful writing, and it's all cellos. I think it's eight part cellos, the set of choir of cellos beginning with this solo. It's very pensive and it kind of invites us into this whole other world, and it really sounds like it's the whole string orchestra, but it's just the cello section.


John Banther: Yeah. They're turning themselves into a choir with those eight different parts, and you hear it mostly in the right channel or to the right in your headphones or your speaker, because that's where cellos tend to sit with the orchestra. And this is also a sound you don't get that often. I think the most direct comparison is you think of the opening to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture where all the strings have more divided parts. It adds a whole different sound to it when it's a cello choir. And then we are suddenly thrust back into fast rhythms and ideas from earlier sections, and it is almost a reminder, hey, that choice A or B, you're going to have to make it.


Evan: So we've had this sort of more relaxed section with the cello choir and then suddenly back to the fast rhythms of earlier sections, and then things really seem to be getting serious here. Where are we going? Like you said, John, we have to make a choice. We're going somewhere important it feels like, and yet where we're now is already there's a sense of importance, there's a sense of something urgent happening.


John Banther: Then we get the most different sound in the concerto, I think that we hear up to this point, and it's really interesting to me how it sounds like the Matrix for a moment. I forget when the Matrix came out. I think it's maybe five years after this piece, I think, something like that.


Evan: Early mid '90s, kind of in that era. One thing I love about this piece, you definitely feel like it's from the '90s, and yet it also doesn't have a dated feel to it.


John Banther: That's true. And so far we've talked about a lot of small details, things that happen very quickly in the music, things that kind of come in and out. Well, very fast. I highly recommend, listen to this with headphones. It will bring out so many more of those details and listen multiple times even if you think this sound isn't quite what I'm looking for right now, really just listen to it a couple of times because I think this type of music is also like poetry where you want to read it several times. You want to read it aloud, you want to read it a month later.


Evan: There's a lot going on and yeah, I totally agree with you, John. Headphones are a great idea. Listening carefully, there's a lot of detail in this piece. And one listening, you'll catch quite a lot of it, but multiple listenings, multiple thoughtful listenings, you'll keep discovering new layers.


John Banther: And she combines low brass again with strings in a way that is like cantus firmus quality. It feels sacred, maybe not sacred, but it feels important in a way maybe like you were talking about earlier.


Evan: Yeah. There's a kind of a corral prelude style of writing a lot of these long, slow notes like a Bach choral prelude for the organ. That whole tradition of the cantus firmus, the long slow melody with a lot of fast notes going on around it to embellish it. It feels like she's evoking that tradition here.


John Banther: And a new sound also brought in. I think it's like something like an anvil in the percussion. Again, that's just a really brilliant, bright, sharp sound. And we get these massive chords, which are I think really an interval of like an E and a B. We've mentioned before about how fifths in a lower register can really make this sound kind of rip or have this, I don't know, existential quality.


Evan: There's a kind of bareness to those open fifths that's really striking. They're like pillars.


John Banther: And that is the conclusion to part one of two of the concerto. So let's pause for just a moment to look at her description again from the beginning. " I wanted to convey this sense to let the listener understand that the proportions of the piece would be spacious and that the musical materials would travel a long road." I think we've definitely seen that so far.


Evan: Definitely.


John Banther: She continues, " There is a strong sense of direction in this piece as in all my music and a feeling of ascent, which comes not only from the scale motives, but from tempos, rhythms, and dynamics that cooperate to produce the different intensities." I think that's all come across here and especially almost in a linear way from that first F sharp up to this moment, the height of it.


Evan: Absolutely.


John Banther: And we'll jump into part two of Joan Tower's Concerto for Orchestra right after this.

So before we get into the second part of the concerto, let's remind ourselves about what she wrote about this. " Although it had been my intention to write a work in two parts, the content of the musical materials led me to a different form. Instead of coming to a full halt at the climactic midpoint of the composition," where we are right now, " I felt the arrival could be answered and connected by a series of unisons on the note B traversing the orchestral palette." She doesn't elaborate further on that, but I really think it's noteworthy, Evan, she mentions the notes F sharp and B in the description. These moments are separated by 15 minutes, but if you isolate them and put them together, you hear this progression or release going into this slow section.


Evan: I mean, if you want to get into music theory nerd dom, it's a dominant and a tonic kind of situation. There's a sense of resolution. And even though she doesn't want a clear demarcation like movement one ends, there's a pause and then movement two, they're continuous, they're contiguous, and yet there is a sense that we're in a new world here with part two.


John Banther: It's definitely a new world. And towards the beginning of this, we get a solo for the violin and it's kind of like the cello section earlier, a second violin joins in and then others join in with divided parts. It turns into a violin choir.


Evan: Right, exactly. Using this one string section as a whole orchestral effect.


John Banther: A moment after this we hear the English horn, it goes to horn, and then we get this wonderful moment for the tuba.


Evan: Great tuba solo.


John Banther: And this is another great demonstration of how she simply creates tension with an ascending line. It starts low, it goes higher, it goes up to the C sharp and she's, the dynamic is fortissimo, so it's really being accented or it's soaring out over, and then she drops the octave and it's soft again, and then we build again. So it's not really resolving anything, but puts us back into a position to move forward again. And it's just, I love it.


Evan: And again, that sense of we keep ascending even though it does drop back down again, there's a sense it continues to ascend again, that Shepard tone kind of illusion of an endless ascent.


John Banther: Then we're getting little ideas and the flute and also the clarinet, and it feels like the first several minutes of this has been focusing on the winds and brass. She's avoiding that display aspect. I think we heard in the program notes, but she's really done, not necessarily a feature, but she's focused on them right here.


Evan: Definitely.


John Banther: And we can see from her program notes, again, this reaction calms things down, carries the piece forward toward its slow central section and provides a seam that harks back toward the unison opening of the work and connects the 30- minute span of the concerto.


Evan: But then we have this section with this sort of jerky rhythm, and that's something new. We've had a lot of this very steady, and then you have this weird disjointed rhythm and there's a sense we might escape from this fast note kind of you mentioned going down the drain earlier kind of a feeling, and yet this jerky rhythm pulls us back in.


John Banther: I love the low brass here. It's just I've not really seen or played something quite like this. It sounds disjointed, like if Picasso was drawing this section.

We get some incredible colors in the orchestra. One of my favorite things about composers today, all the new and interesting colors they're creating. There's a moment where it sounds like a bucket of insects and snakes, just the most unsettling thing that I can think of.


Evan: Yeah.


John Banther: So we've mentioned some of the percussion, like the sleigh bells and the tambourine. We heard those specifically earlier and they're back. And they're back in an interesting way, and this is what I mean when I say listen for how colors change when instruments or ideas are introduced because here we have the bells and then the tambourine joins while the bells fade out. Then the tambourine has this really nice accent on the concluding downbeat. Then a moment later from under the percussion, a percussionist is rolling using drumsticks on a symbol, and it actually sounds more like some kind of noise maker, and that swells into the next section. This is only a few seconds in which all of this happens, but it's these colors and shifting things that really, I think just elevate it. This is also a very forward moving rhythm, like a horse galloping. And in fact, a movement like this in centuries past might be called something like a galop.


Evan: Galop. Yeah, of course. That was a dance, a very fast dance. There's a kind of dance like quality in this section too, but maybe we're going to fall over as we're dancing. If there's a sense of imbalance too, which is part of the excitement of it.


John Banther: And getting towards the end, we look at the program notes again. " Unity between the two halves is also provided by the slow fast structure and by several shared motives, particularly the four note motive that appears early in the piece and shapes the final section." What that four note motive is exactly, I have to say, I've not totally nailed that down. There's some general shapes and ideas that I see brought back, but that one is a little bit enigmatic for me.


Evan: Yeah, I found that a little confusing too. And again, multiple listenings I think are going to be called for. But I love the rhythmic language too here, especially. I have this contrast between duple and triple multiples of three versus multiples of two. And this of course, you go through the history of music for all the way back to the Middle Ages. This is something musicians and composers play with, but 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. Those contrasting sets of rhythms, the slower triplets kind of give us a sense of coming home, bringing the thing to a conclusion. She does wonderful things with rhythm and especially toward this final section that are really compelling.


John Banther: Yeah, the percussion has their own moment here. I mean, they've been working the entire concerto, but then they have to play really loud and very evenly. And this is a moment where it could go either way because you see some composers who aren't quite up to the task, they take it to maybe a more trite conclusion versus what Joan Tower does.

This works here because of what comes before and after, and I think that is because of something she also wrote in the program notes, something I've not read yet, and that is, " As in all my music, I am working here on motivating the structure, trying to be sensitive to how an idea reacts to or results from the previous ideas in the strongest and most natural way, a lesson I've learned from studying the music of Beethoven." I think that's what makes Tower's work here really pay off. She's really honestly, with herself, looking at the music and how it could react.


Evan: This is one of the great things about Beethoven, this kind of thematic economy. You think about a piece like the opening movement of the pastoral symphony. We have dum, dum, dum, dum, these very small musical snippets that become the basis for an entire movement, and you really see that in this piece. Joan Tower really understands this as a concept, these very small musical little snippets, maybe it's a couple of notes, and somehow they get used over and over again in a way that continues to be exciting and imaginative. Her mastery of orchestration is certainly a huge part of that. The different colors, but also the different rhythms, the different dynamics, the different speeds, tempo changes. All of this is there's a very Beethoven ian economy to this work that I really find quite thrilling,


John Banther: And hearing you describe that, Evan, makes me think that she's also taking care of us in a way. The piece doesn't just end with us anxious and afraid to go outside based off the sounds we just heard, but she really takes care of us and makes everything not okay, but complete and resolved in the end.


Evan: Yes, yes. I really feel a sense of finality, a sense of resolution as this piece ends.


John Banther: Yes, exactly. Now, this has been an interesting Concerto for Orchestra, even though the title itself was something she resisted, and I'm almost resisting myself, Evan, to call it a Concerto for Orchestra. I mean, in the end, what do we think? Is it a concerto because the orchestra survived it? Was it the individual moments here and there? I totally understand why she was, I don't know if I want to call it that.


Evan: Why a concerto and not a symphony or a symphonia or an overture or an etude? What does the title really invite us to think about as we listen to this piece?


John Banther: And we'll put a few more examples of her concertos on the show notes page. But now it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. What do we have, Evan?


Evan: We have a review of our episode you and I did one about John Sebelius, John, and this reviewer wrote " Very good summary of the composer's life. I enjoyed the show and would like to hear an analysis of the symphonies, especially this second symphony." Well, wouldn't that be a fun episode for Classical Breakdown?


John Banther: I think it would be too. I don't think we can get to it by the end of this season, but it is definitely going on the list and we will get to it. And thank you for the five stars and thank you, Evan, for joining me for all things for this Concerto for Orchestra.


Evan: Thank you, John. I didn't know this piece before you invited me into this conversation, so I'm still at the beginnings of learning about it and really want to get into it more and more.


John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at You can send me comments and episode ideas to classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review on your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.