UC Berkeley News


John Thow

21 March 2007

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


Thow, who joined the 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 L'Orchestra della RAI in Rome, Speculum Musicae, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

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 2004.

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 Southern California's Chumash Indian tribe; Summer Solstice (2005) is based on contemporary Greek poetry; Three Echoes (2001) was written for the five-hole Lakota Sioux flute, Six Duets for baroque flutes, and Musica d'amore (1996) is a trio for oboe d'amore, viola d'amore, and harp.

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. As a child, he studied flute and piano. Later he studied composition with composer Adolph Weiss - a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg - and conductor Frank Salazar. "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, earning his Ph.D. in composition there 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 Berkeley faculty, Thow served as department chair (1991-92), was involved with the Berkeley Contemporary Music Players from 1997-2001, and mentored a generation of young composers.

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

Thow is survived by his ex-wife, Peggy, of Berkeley; two daughters, Diana Thow of Iowa City, Iowa, and Caroline Thow of Davis; and a brother, George Thow, of Santa Rosa.

The Department of Music is planning a memorial service tentatively scheduled for October. 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, CA 94720-1200.

- Kathleen Maclay