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Première Performance of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s new
Symphony No. 5

November 17, 2008

Pairing Mahler and Zwilich and Their Fifth Symphonies

Last week on the illuminating blog On an Overgrown Path, Bob Shingleton, a retired recording executive who writes under the screen name Pliable, mused on the subject of fifth symphonies’ capturing what he termed the essence of their composers’ styles. He cited major figures like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, as well as lesser-known worthies like Valentin Silvestrov, whose Symphony No. 5 prompted the post.

“Their fifth symphonies are not necessarily their greatest works, but somehow they capture the unique voices of those composers,” Mr. Shingleton wrote. That statement was put to the test on Monday night at Carnegie Hall, when the Juilliard Orchestra introduced Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s new Symphony No. 5. James Conlon, the conductor, paired the work with a famous Fifth, that of Mahler.

Among the many noteworthy achievements in Ms. Zwilich’s career, her 1983 Pulitzer Prize, the first awarded to a female composer, usually tops the list. But before that, in 1975, she became the first female composer to earn a doctorate from Juilliard. In her program notes for the new symphony, which was commissioned by the school, Ms. Zwilich cites Juilliard as the place where she found her voice as a composer.

Her mature style—a mix of neo-Classical craftsmanship, roiling energy and tonal accessibility—came into focus slightly later, from her Pulitzer-winning Symphony No. 1 onward. Those qualities were also present in the new symphony, a 24-minute work in four movements.

Subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, the symphony demonstrated Ms. Zwilich’s flair for orchestration. Focus restlessly shifted among sections, and from massed groups to isolated soloists. Unorthodox percussion instruments (like the spiral cymbal, a dangling, serpentine coil that offers a distant roar) and techniques (timpani played with a model of wire brush known as dreadlocks) showed that Ms. Zwilich keeps up with recent trends.

A brooding fanfare and crackling martial tattoos in “Prologue” echoed and subtly evolved throughout the work. “Celebration,” which could stand alone as a rousing curtain-raiser, bubbled and bristled with youthful ebullience. “Memorial,” inspired by Mr. Conlon’s championing of composers silenced by politics and war, paid tribute with surprisingly languorous, bluesy figures, redolent of music by Copland and Bernstein. In “Epilogue” elements from the preceding movements resurfaced in a stormy finale.

Determining whether Ms. Zwilich’s Fifth Symphony is among her strongest creations would require more than a single hearing. But the qualities that have long made her music personal and compelling were certainly present, and the Juilliard musicians took up the piece with diligence and vitality.

They also responded admirably to Mr. Conlon’s thoughtful leadership in a thoroughly considered, powerfully rendered account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, music that contains not just the composer’s essence but some measure of his soul as well.

- Steve Smith, The New York Times, 29 October 2008


A Tale of Two Fifths

NEW YORK - Doubtlessly composers who still write numbered symphonies (and there are more left than one might think) approach their fifth with a certain amount of Beethovenian trepidation. No such problem seems to have beset Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose Symphony No. 5 (subtitled "Concerto for Orchestra") received its first performance in Carnegie Hall Oct. 27 by the Juilliard Orchestra under the direction of James Conlon. The score is thoroughly agreeable from first note to last, definitely music with a serious intent but never presuming to shake an angry fist at fate or explore any surprisingly new or difficult musical paths.

Commissioned by Juilliard (where in 1975 Zwilich was the first woman to receive a doctorate in composition), the new work lasts about 25 minutes and is cast in the sturdy tradition of such classic American symphonists as William Schuman, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, David Diamond and Peter Mennin. The four-movement design—Prologue, Celebration, Memorial, and Epilogue—mirrors the essentially neo-classical approach of Zwilich's predecessors, while the musical content is couched in an easily accessible, one might even say neo-romantic, pan-tonal style that could hardly present problems to even the most conservative first-time listener.

As Zwilich tells us in a program note, the new symphony follows a path familiar from most of her large-scale compositions in which the entire work—the thematic, harmonic, structural and developmental character—is generated from a few motives heard right at the beginning. By now she handles this technique with uncommon skill, and not a seam shows. Most of the piece's musical interest is contained in the inner movements: a vigorous celebratory scherzo, possibly designed to show off the instrumental skills of the young Juilliard students to whom the piece is dedicated, and a lyrical "in memoriam" elegy in which Zwilich can indulge her penchant for creating long-breathed unison string phrases that float over jabbing, slightly ominous commentary from winds and brasses.

It's impossible not to admire the piece's concise workmanship and honest sentiment, and surely many other orchestras will find it an attractive novelty. Even so, one can't help wishing that this talented composer would one day give herself a more dangerous challenge and take a few more chances. In the end, the Symphony No. 5, like its predecessors, plays it safe, at times sounding a bit too cozy for its own good.

The performance seemed impeccably played and beautifully shaped by Conlon, who has quietly become one of America's most versatile and important conductors. It is always a joy to hear the Juilliard Orchestra, which, like so many young ensembles, brings a fresh, eager spirit to whatever its members tackle, especially a new work whatever the idiom may be. At the very least, Zwilich's symphony gave them much instrumentally rewarding material to dig into.

After intermission the orchestra played a rather different sort of Fifth Symphony, by Gustav Mahler, but one that could also just as well be called a concerto for orchestra. This huge work has taxed the potential of just about every virtuoso band on the globe by now, and no one would pretend that the Juilliard Orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic. There were rough edges, especially in the brass, and the string tone may not have always ideally bloomed up top, but the overall power and magisterial progress of the 70-minute score—a backward journey it seems, from death to life—registered strongly. Surely Conlon's presence on the podium and keen knowledge of the work (he conducted without a score) accounted for much, as well as his ability to coax these gifted youngsters to enter Mahler's world and play their hearts out.

- Peter G. Davis, MusicalAmerica.com, 30 October 2008


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Biography & Discography










 
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