The career of Joan Tower is great news for all those who didn't achieve the status of star at 25. "Sequoia", which propelled her into the contemporary composers' limelight in 1981 (a commission of the American Composers Orchestra), was her first orchestral composition, at the not so youthful age of 43. Until then, she had been a slow developper, active mainly as the pianist of the contemporary music Da Capo Chamber Players, and composing solo and chamber pieces for the ensemble and its members. Many orchestras programmed Sequoia, including the Saint Louis Symphony and Leonard Slatkin, who recorded it for Nonesuch in 1984 (it was originally paired on LP with Christopher Rouse's "The Infernal Machine" and "Ogoun Badagris" and Donald Erb's "Prismatic Variation"», Nonesuch 79118 - none reissued on CD as far as I know, even though Slatkin went on to record a full CD of music of Erb, Works By Donald Erb). The following year he invited Tower to be composer-in-residence with the orchestra and two more works featured on the CD, "Silver Ladders" from 1986 and "Island Prelude" from 1988, resulted. On the concert in which Silver Ladders was premiered, Lynn Harrell played Dvorak's Concerto. He liked the music of Tower enough to ask to see the Cello Concerto (titled only "Music for Cello and Orchestra", but Tower is being coy here) which she had composed shortly after "Sequoia" for the cellist of the Da Capo Chamber Players (1984), and he is the soloist here.
All those compositions, performed by the Saint Louis Orchestra under Slatkin, were originally issued on CD by Elektra / Nonesuch, Tower: Sequoia; Island Prelude; Silver Ladders; Music for Cello & Orchestra, with an already very generous timing of 67 minutes and still selling very cheap at the time of writing. To which the Santa Fe Music Group, having now obviously licensed that original CD, has added the odd-piece out, the 7-minute "Island Rhythms", a 1985 commission from the Florida Orchestra and a recording by the Louisville Orchestra, originally released on CD in 1991 on Louisville's short-lived First Edition Recordings series (see my review of Joan Tower Island Rhythms, Otto Luening Kentucky Concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina Pro Et Contra - Louisville Orchestra).
So the CD is a fine compendium of Tower's early orchestral pieces and an important documentation of her compositional development. No wonder she was successful. The music is written in a style that may not be entirely original and distinctive, partaking in a trend that seems to be a kind of mainstream contemporary style since the early 1980s (Rouse, Tower's companion on the original LP issue of "Sequoia", writes very much in the same style), but which is effective, powerful and dramatic, violently pounding even at times in "Silver Ladders", contemporary without being intractable, neither neo-romantic/backward-looking nor serial avant-garde, with a good grasp on architecture and the alternation of outburts and stasis, orchestral tutti and delicate gossamer of solo instruments, and a great sense of orchestral colors (just try the last 45 seconds of "Silver Ladders"). And Tower doesn't shy away from melody either, as in the middle movement of the Cello Concerto, or in "Sequoia", with the trumpets at 5:00 followed by clarinet then flutes over delicate and dreamy touches of orchestra, or the horn at 10:35 followed by plangent solo violin at 11:11. There are other such moments in "Silver Ladders", and "Island Prelude" is just that, a long, wistful melody for oboe and strings, becoming more agitated about mid-way through before returning to the appeased and contemplative mood of the begining. "Island Rhythms" is a fine, 7-minute orchestral showpiece, dramatic and agitated, with a short and haunting slow middle section with strings rising to their most luminous upper reaches, evoking "an underwater swimmer gradually rising to the water's surface from a very deep place in the ocean".
The Cello Concerto is couched in the traditional fast-slow-fast layout (the movements follow without break and are not cued, slow movement starts at 5:09, with an extended cadenza between 7:07 and 9:04, and the finale at 10:34), it is propulsive and angry in its outer movements, mournful almost in the middle one. It may not be entirely original, but it can take pride of place among the noteworthy American cello concertos written in the 2nd half of the 20th Century (since Barber's and Thomson's are from the 1940s, I'll have that start with Peter Mennin's 1956 Concerto, Peter Mennin: Syms 5 & 6 / Cello Cto).
TT is a generous 74 minutes and, needless to say, the interpretations are authoritative.