Strike Zones*; Still/Rapids; Small; Ivory and Ebony
*Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Blair McMillen (piano); Albany Symphony/David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559902 53:16 mins
Joan Tower (b1938, New York) first rose to prominence as an orchestral composer in 1981 with the mighty Sequoia. Since then her distinctive balancing of muscular energy and repose, conflict and consonance and unusual sonorities within overlapping patterns has won her awards and accolades worldwide. Placing instruments at the heart of her writing – and featuring a tautly responsive Albany Symphony under conductor David Alan Miller – this handsomely recorded album presents a concerto and solo work apiece for percussion and piano.
The title Strike Zones denotes neither military nor baseball connotations but different percussive groups: from lyrical vibraphone and marimba to pounding drums and rackety hi-hat – including improvised cadenzas – soloist Evelyn Glennie expertly dances her way through a wood-metal-skin array, the high point a somewhat sinister castanet trio with two orchestral percussionists. Texture is key – both here and in the solo Small, where instruments ‘able to fit onto a tiny table’ are revealed as capable of wide-ranging expression as they are fine nuances of sound.
Still/Rapids is effectively two piano concertos in one, the first part composed in 2013 as a lyrical introduction to the tumultuous second, composed in 1996. The watery allusions of the twin title manifest in contrasting, sometimes whole-tone material heard in increasingly intense exchanges between brilliant soloist Blair McMillen and orchestra. The dramatic conclusion seems to presage the solo Ivory and Ebony: a dazzling display of rhythmic-scalic ingenuity combining clusters with cascades of notes, as it were colour-coded white and black.