ZWILICH: Violin Concerto / Rituals (IRIS Chamber Orchestra/ Michael Stern/ NEXUS/ Pamela Frank/ Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559268)
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Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)
Violin Concerto Rituals
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who is represented here by twowidely divergent compositions, has earned aninternational reputation for producing music that is atthe same time recognisable, yet different. Like the greatmasters of bygone times, she creates works \withfingerprints", pieces that are peculiarly American andthat combine craft and inspiration in reflecting thecomposer's optimistic and humanistic spirit.
Encyclopedia entries do not often make judgements orassessments, but the Eighth Edition of NicolasSlonimisky's Baker's Biographical Dictionary ofMusicians effectively describes Zwilich's positionamong contemporary composers: "There are not manycomposers in the modern world who possess the luckycombination of writing music of substance and at thesame time exercising an immediate appeal to mixedaudiences. Ravel was one, and so in a quite differentway, were Bartok and Prokofiev. Zwilich offers thishappy combination of purely technical excellence and adistinct power of communication, while a poetic elementpervades the melody, harmony, and counterpoint of hercreations."Born in Miami, Florida, Zwilich studied at theFlorida State University and the Juilliard School whereher major teachers were Roger Sessions and ElliottCarter. Before turning exclusively to composition, shewas a professional violinist and for seven years amember of the American Symphony Orchestra underLeopold Stokowski. She is the recipient of numerousprizes and honours, including the 1983 Pulitzer Prize inMusic (the first woman ever to receive this covetedaward), the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber MusicPrize, the Ernst von Dohnanyi Citation, the ArturoToscanini Music Critics Award, and many othersincluding four Grammy nominations. She has beenelected to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Letters, and the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Sciences. In 1995 she was namedto the first Composer's Chair in the history of CarnegieHall, and she was designated Musical America'sComposer of the Year for 1999. She holds the FrancisEppes Distinguished Professorship at Florida StateUniversity.
A prolific composer in virtually all media, EllenTaaffe Zwilich's works have been performed by most ofthe leading American orchestras and by majorensembles abroad. Writing in The New York Times,critic Tim Page commented that "she has created ahandful of exquisitely honed works in a variety ofmediums from string trio to symphony. She writes in anidiosyncratic style that, without ostentation orgimmickry, is always recognizably hers." Although heroutput to date includes four symphonies, the mediumthat has most preoccupied her in recent years has been aconcerto or concerto-like structure pitting one or moresolo instruments against a full ensemble or orchestra,and instruments thus featured have been one and twopianos, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet,trombone, violin, and even a double (violin and cello)and triple (piano trio) concerto. Among the more exoticinstrumentations is her 2003 Rituals for 5 percussionistsand orchestra, commissioned by the IRIS ChamberOrchestra, Michael Stern, music director; the percussionensemble NEXUS; the Pearl Corporation; KathleenHolt; Stephen Lurie; and Adams Musical Instruments.
About this piece, the composer has written: "One ofmy greatest pleasures in writing a concerto is exploringthe new world that opens for me each time I enter thesometimes alien, but always fascinating, world of a soloinstrument or instruments. For me, the challenge is todiscover the deepest nature of the solo instrument (its'karma,' if you will) and to allow that essential characterto guide the shape and form of the work and the natureof the interaction between soloists and orchestra.
"In recent years, many of us have become moreaware of the musical world outside the Western tradition-- of musics that follow different procedures and springfrom other aesthetics. And contemporary percussionistshave opened many of these worlds to us, as they haveventured around the globe, participating in BrazilianSamba schools, studying Gamelan and Africandrumming with local experts, collecting instrumentsfrom Asia and Africa and South America and the SouthPacific, widening our horizons in the process. ...
"After long consideration, I decided that it wouldnot only be impossible, but even undesirable for thisWestern-tradition-steeped composer to attempt to use[Nexus's exotic array of] instruments in a culturally'authentic' way. My goal was an existential kind ofauthenticity: searching instead for universal ideas thatwould be true to both myself and the performers whileacknowledging the traditional uses of the instruments."Rituals is in four movements, each issuing from aritual associated with percussion, but with the orchestralinteraction providing an essential element in the musicalform. I. Invocation alludes to the traditions of invokingthe spirit of the instruments, or the gods, or the ancestorsbefore performing. II. Ambulation moves from aprocessional through march and dance to fantasy basedon all three. III. Remembrances alludes to traditions ofmemorializing. IV. Contests progresses from friendlycompetition -- games, contests -- to a suggestion of abattle of "big band" drummers, to warlike exchanges.
How different a work is the 1998 Concerto forViolin and Orchestra! Commissioned by Carnegie Hall,it was first heard there with soloist Pamela Frank and theOrchestra of St. Luke's conducted by Hugh Wolff.
Zwilich writes in a programme note: "For me, the soulof the violin shines through in the repertoire it hasinspired, revealing a nature both sensuous andintellectual. While the tremendous athleticism of theviolin can sometimes overshadow its deeper nature, theviolin has shown itself capable of expressing the mostprofound aspects of music. And this is what drew me, asa young composer, to play the violin." For Zwilich, it is"important that the orchestra play a crucial r??le in thedialogue, but I also want the violin to be free to beexpressive in its mezzo piano range. So, achieving goodbalances in a rich musical setting is a major challenge inwriting a violin concerto." That she succeeded in thischallenge is evidenced by the critical reaction to thework's premi?¿re, the headline of The New York Timesreading "With Warmth and Lyricism, A Love Song tothe Violin". And the late Shirley Fleming, reviewingin The New York Post ("Straight-from-the-heart stringssolo") called it "a wonderfully engaging work ...
Zwilich's tour de force is the second movement, takingBach's great solo violin Chaconne as its point ofdeparture and transforming Bach's opening notes into amotif that grows almost menacing -- a theme of fate --towards the end. The movement's emotional tension,building slowly, takes one by surprise and lingers in themind long afterward."George Sturm,
Music Associates of America