About this Recording
8.559268 - ZWILICH: Violin Concerto / Rituals
English  German 

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)
Violin Concerto • Rituals

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who is represented here by two widely divergent compositions, has earned an international reputation for producing music that is at the same time recognisable, yet different. Like the great masters of bygone times, she creates works “with fingerprints”, pieces that are peculiarly American and that combine craft and inspiration in reflecting the composer’s optimistic and humanistic spirit. Encyclopedia entries do not often make judgements or assessments, but the Eighth Edition of Nicolas Slonimisky’s Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians effectively describes Zwilich’s position among contemporary composers: “There are not many composers in the modern world who possess the lucky combination of writing music of substance and at the same time exercising an immediate appeal to mixed audiences. Ravel was one, and so in a quite different way, were Bartók and Prokofiev. Zwilich offers this happy combination of purely technical excellence and a distinct power of communication, while a poetic element pervades the melody, harmony, and counterpoint of her creations.”

Born in Miami, Florida, Zwilich studied at the Florida State University and the Juilliard School where her major teachers were Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter. Before turning exclusively to composition, she was a professional violinist and for seven years a member of the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. She is the recipient of numerous prizes and honours, including the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Music (the first woman ever to receive this coveted award), the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, the Ernst von Dohnányi Citation, the Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award, and many others including four Grammy nominations. She has been elected to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1995 she was named to the first Composer’s Chair in the history of Carnegie Hall, and she was designated Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 1999. She holds the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professorship at Florida State University.

A prolific composer in virtually all media, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s works have been performed by most of the leading American orchestras and by major ensembles abroad. Writing in The New York Times, critic Tim Page commented that “she has created a handful of exquisitely honed works in a variety of mediums from string trio to symphony. She writes in an idiosyncratic style that, without ostentation or gimmickry, is always recognizably hers.” Although her output to date includes four symphonies, the medium that has most preoccupied her in recent years has been a concerto or concerto-like structure pitting one or more solo instruments against a full ensemble or orchestra, and instruments thus featured have been one and two pianos, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, and even a double (violin and cello) and triple (piano trio) concerto. Among the more exotic instrumentations is her 2003 Rituals for 5 percussionists and orchestra, commissioned by the IRIS Chamber Orchestra, Michael Stern, music director; the percussion ensemble NEXUS; the Pearl Corporation; Kathleen Holt; Stephen Lurie; and Adams Musical Instruments.

About this piece, the composer has written: “One of my greatest pleasures in writing a concerto is exploring the new world that opens for me each time I enter the sometimes alien, but always fascinating, world of a solo instrument or instruments. For me, the challenge is to discover the deepest nature of the solo instrument (its ‘karma,’ if you will) and to allow that essential character to guide the shape and form of the work and the nature of the interaction between soloists and orchestra.

“In recent years, many of us have become more aware of the musical world outside the Western tradition — of musics that follow different procedures and spring from other aesthetics. And contemporary percussionists have opened many of these worlds to us, as they have ventured around the globe, participating in Brazilian Samba schools, studying Gamelan and African drumming with local experts, collecting instruments from Asia and Africa and South America and the South Pacific, widening our horizons in the process. …

“After long consideration, I decided that it would not only be impossible, but even undesirable for this Western-tradition-steeped composer to attempt to use [Nexus’s exotic array of] instruments in a culturally ‘authentic’ way. My goal was an existential kind of authenticity: searching instead for universal ideas that would be true to both myself and the performers while acknowledging the traditional uses of the instruments.”

Rituals is in four movements, each issuing from a ritual associated with percussion, but with the orchestral interaction providing an essential element in the musical form. I. Invocation alludes to the traditions of invoking the spirit of the instruments, or the gods, or the ancestors before performing. II. Ambulation moves from a processional through march and dance to fantasy based on all three. III. Remembrances alludes to traditions of memorializing. IV. Contests progresses from friendly competition — games, contests — to a suggestion of a battle of “big band” drummers, to warlike exchanges.

How different a work is the 1998 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra! Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, it was first heard there with soloist Pamela Frank and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Hugh Wolff. Zwilich writes in a programme note: “For me, the soul of the violin shines through in the repertoire it has inspired, revealing a nature both sensuous and intellectual. While the tremendous athleticism of the violin can sometimes overshadow its deeper nature, the violin has shown itself capable of expressing the most profound aspects of music. And this is what drew me, as a young composer, to play the violin.” For Zwilich, it is “important that the orchestra play a crucial rôle in the dialogue, but I also want the violin to be free to be expressive in its mezzo piano range. So, achieving good balances in a rich musical setting is a major challenge in writing a violin concerto.” That she succeeded in this challenge is evidenced by the critical reaction to the work’s première, the headline of The New York Times reading “With Warmth and Lyricism, A Love Song to the Violin”. And the late Shirley Fleming, reviewing in The New York Post (“Straight-from-the-heart strings solo”) called it “a wonderfully engaging work … Zwilich’s tour de force is the second movement, taking Bach’s great solo violin Chaconne as its point of departure and transforming Bach’s opening notes into a motif 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 the mind long afterward.”

George Sturm,
Music Associates of America


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