UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

John Thow, internationally acclaimed composer, dies at age 57

– John Holland Thow, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of music and an internationally acclaimed composer, died on Sunday, March 4, at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley. He was 57.

John Thow
John Thow (Courtesy UC Berkeley Department of Music)

Thow, who joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1981, produced an extensive and diverse repertoire of solo, chamber, vocal, choral, operatic and orchestral music. He received commissions from the San Francisco Symphony, Berkeley Opera, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Boston Musica Viva, Alea III, Earplay Ensemble, Ventura Chamber Music Festival and Detroit Chamber Winds, among others.

His compositions were performed at the Tanglewood and Edinburgh festivals and by the L'Orchestra della RAI in Rome, by Speculum Musicae and by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. His lyrical and richly colored music has been consistently championed by the finest contemporary performers.

Thow's relationship with the San Francisco Symphony began with a 1986 performance of his composition "Resonance." The symphony subsequently commissioned the three-movement "Into the Twilight" from Thow in 1988, and "Bellini Sky," a concerto for English horn inspired by the paintings of the 15th-century artist Giovanni Bellini, in 2005.

A master of orchestration with a passion for literature and indigenous musical traditions, Thow produced a series of works featuring unusual instrumental combinations and vivid texts.

His "Chumash Songs" for clarinet, violin, percussion and piano (2000), commissioned by the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, incorporated melodic and rhythmic elements of the Southern California Chumash Indian tribe. His "Musica d'amore" is a trio for oboe d'amore, viola d'amore and harp, and his "Summer Solstice" (2005) is based on contemporary Greek poetry. "Three Echoes" (2001) was written for the five-hole Lakota Sioux flute, "Three Pieces for Carillon" was performed at the International Carillon Festival at UC Berkeley's Campanile in 1998, and "Six Duets" for baroque flutes, which premiered last year in London.

Thow's opera "Serpentina" premiered at the Berkeley Opera Company in 1999, and his music for "Much Ado About Nothing" was performed at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival in 1990.

Born in Los Angeles in 1949, Thow grew up in Ventura, Calif., and as a child, he studied flute and piano. Later, he studied composition with composer Adolph Weiss, a pupil of composer Arnold Schoenberg's, and with conductor Frank Salazar - both gave Thow important early encouragement. "He found his voice early on in music, and was studying composition at a young age," said his daughter, Diana Thow.

He received a fellowship to attend the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor's degree in music in 1971, having studied composition with Ingolf Dahl. He continued his studies at Harvard University with composers Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner, and received his Ph.D. in composition at Harvard in 1977.

As a graduate student, Thow received a Fulbright fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Rome in 1973 to study composition with Luciano Berio, who would become an important mentor and influence. Thow later returned to Italy as a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize. During that time, he also studied with Luigi Dallapiccola and Franco Donatoni. Thow found a deep affinity for Italian culture, becoming a superb cook and learning to speak Italian fluently.

During his 26 years on the UC Berkeley faculty, Thow was department chair from 1991-1992, was involved with the Berkeley Contemporary Music Players from 1997-2001, and mentored a generation of young composers.

Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, a former graduate student, remembered him as "a tremendous teacher" with an "amazing sense of humor" and an extensive knowledge of European culture, poetry, literature and art. Vassilandonakis, who will handle the remainder of Thow's courses in orchestration this semester and coordinate Thow's graduate composition seminar, continued: "He was a man of the world and knew about all music - he had it under his fingers."

"He was so knowledgeable about so many kinds of music, music of different cultures and repertoires," said Bonnie Wade, chair of UC Berkeley's music department. "The depth of his knowledge was just incredible."

Thow's many awards included grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Music Center, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was artist-in-residence at the Yaddo, Djerassi, Temecula Arts, and Wurlitzer foundations, among others.

Thow, who died of complications from a chronic illness, is survived by his ex-wife, Peggy, of Berkeley; two daughters, Diana Thow of Iowa City, Iowa, and Caroline Thow of Davis, Calif.; and a brother, George Thow, of Santa Rosa, Calif.

The UC Berkeley Music Department has scheduled a memorial service for Thow at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 15, in Hertz Hall. The family requests that any contributions on Thow's behalf be sent to the UC Berkeley Music Department, c/o Department Chair Bonnie Wade, 104 Morrison Hall, #1200, Berkeley, Calif. 94720-1200.