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Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 70th Birthday Season Begins

October 2, 2008

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, a composer whose music is among the most-performed of that of any of her American colleagues, marks the beginning of her 70th birthday season—featuring two major premieres, recordings, and performances of her work across the country—with the world premiere of her Symphony No. 5.  The work, commissioned by the Juilliard School, will be performed by the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by James Conlon at Carnegie Hall on Monday, October 27, 2008, at 8:00 PM.  The orchestra will also perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Zwilich’s Symphony No. 5 (Concerto for Orchestra) is a piece in four movements:  “Prologue,” “Celebration,” “Memorial,” and “Epilogue.”  The through-line of the work grows from material in the opening movement.  Zwilich says, and “the entire work treats the orchestra like a huge chamber ensemble, in which each player or section can be a brilliant soloist one moment and a sensitive partner the next.” She adds, “Two very personal reflections affected the nature of this piece – for one, the special importance of Juilliard in my life.  I not only received my doctorate at Juilliard, I found my voice as a composer while there.  And I loved writing for the Juilliard Orchestra knowing the dedication, skill, and artistry of these performers.

“Also, I have been moved by James Conlon’s dedication to the music of composers who were politically silenced during World War II.  It was a special pleasure to write knowing that he would be the conductor to bring my work to life.”  The third movement, “Memorial,” is a tribute to those composers.  Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Symphony No. 5 was commissioned by The Juilliard School in honor of Bruce Kovner with the generous support of the Trust of Francis Goelet.

A Banner Season

The new symphony’s premiere launches a season that also concludes with the world premiere of another major work, the Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet, performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami String Quartet—this is the third work that she has written for the K-L-R Trio – at the 92nd Street Y on April 28 and 29, 2009.  Zwilich will celebrate her 70th birthday on April 30, 2009.  The 92nd Street Y is one member of a consortium of 11 co-commissioners from across the country, each of which will subsequently present a performance of the work.

In addition, a disc of three of Zwilich’s works performed by artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is slated for release by Koch Records later this season.  The Claremont Trio is releasing a new disc this winter titled American Trios which will include Zwilich’s Piano Trio.  And a half-hour television program of her work Peanuts Gallery, which has been broadcast over local PBS stations nationwide almost 700 times, earlier this year received an award from the National Educational Telecommunications Association.

And in between those two premieres, Zwilich’s music will be presented throughout the country in events that include a confluence of performances of her work in the spring in the city of Detroit:  the Chamber Music Society of Detroit will present a Zwilich festival [INSERT NAME/DESCRIPTION] featuring performance of her Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet by the Pacifica Quartet and Erik Ronmark, alto saxophone, on April 18, 2009; and will present the new Septet on May 16.  And on May 21, 22, and 23, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will perform the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (“Double”) with soloists Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson, conducted by Hans Graf.

In Boston this fall, there are three concerts featuring Zwilich’s music in the space of three weeks:  the Concerto Grosso (1985) will be performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Boston conducted by David Feltner on September 26, 2008; the Chamber Symphony (1979) will be performed by Boston Musica Viva on October 3, 2008; and her Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (1991) is performed by the Boston Conservatory Orchestra on October 12, 2008.  Her Piano Trio (1987) by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York on February 5, 2009. Her most recently-premiered work, the Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet (premiered February 2008), will be given a repeat performance by the commissioning presenter, the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, on March 10, 2009.  And immediately following its premiere, the new Septet will be performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on May 5, 2009, and at the Virginia Festival of the Arts on May 6, 2009.

In addition, on April 2 and 3, 2009, the Florida State University Symphony, conducted by Alexander Jiminez, performs an all-Zwilich program of Images for two pianos and orchestra, Millennium Fantasy for piano and orchestra, and Peanuts Gallery for piano and orchestra, with piano soloists Jeffrey Biegel, Read Gainsford, and Heidi Williams.  The concerts will be recorded and released by Naxos in the 2009-2010 season, heralding another active year for Zwilich.

And those are just some of the performances she knows about.  “If there is such a thing as an ‘American’ musical spirit, Zwilich seems to embody it,” said the esteemed Shirley Fleming in the American Record Guide, a sentiment which has been borne out by, along with the critical acclaim that has been afforded Zwilich’s music, an undeniable popularity of it among performers, presenters and audiences – as evidenced by the literally hundreds of performances that some of them have been given.  Zwilich is nothing but grateful.  "There is so much going on in the contemporary music world and in this country alone there are so many unique voices—we each come to writing music so differently—that it is an exciting time and place to be a composer.  I particularly treasure the support that performers have given to my music.  For me the real prize is the fine performance and the circle of communication that flows from composer to the musicians and the public.  I feel that I've been incredibly fortunate to have this happen so often."

With 56 works written since 1971 (almost half of which have been recorded); Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has received more than 35 awards and distinctions, including a Pulitzer Prize, the first Carnegie Hall Composer’s Chair, and Musical America’s 1999 Composer of the Year; and who has been commissioned by artists and ensembles including the New York Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago and Boston symphony orchestras and Itzhak Perlman.

Two New Recordings, and Peanuts Gallery Program Receives Award

A new all-Zwilich recording, featuring three works performed by artists of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is slated for release by Koch Records later this season.  The disc features the Clarinet Concerto performed by David Shifrin and members of the Society; the String Quartet No. 2 performed by the Orion String Quartet; and the String Trio performed by Ani Kavafian, violin; Paul Neubauer, viola; and Fred Sherry, cello.

The Claremont Trio—Emily Bruskin, violin; Julia Bruskin, cello; and Donna Kwong, piano—is releasing a new disc this winter on its own Tria Records label.  Titled American Trios, it will include Zwilich’s Piano Trio (1987) as well as works by Mason Bates, Leon Kirchner, and Paul Schoenfeld.

A half-hour television program showcasing Zwilich’s work Peanuts Gallery, a suite devoted to the Charles Schulz cartoon strip that was written in 1996 while Zwilich held the Carnegie Hall Composer’s Chair, and was premiered at the Hall, was named the best performance program from a large market broadcaster by the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) in January 2008, the award going to WFSU Television of Tallahassee.  The program has received almost 700 telecasts over PBS stations to date.

Recent Works and Praise

Among the works that Zwilich has written and had premiered since 2002 are her Clarinet Concerto, commissioned for and premiered in 2002 by soloist David Shifrin, with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (chamber version) and the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta, a work partly written in response to 9/11 that Peter G. Davis in New York magazine called “a score truly inspired by a tragic event and one that is likely to transcend it,” and Josef Woodard in the Santa Barbara News Press described as “a fascinating example of a sophisticated and audience-friendly contemporary composition that owes to no particular school …a forceful work.”

Of her Quartet for Oboe and Strings commissioned for and premiered in 2004 by oboist Richard Woodhams and the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival, Joseph Dalton said in the Albany Times Union, “the handsome two-movement piece did something rare among contemporary works.  It left one wanting more.  It’s obvious why musicians are drawn to Zwilich’s scores—they are modern and abstract yet cogent and expressive.”

Episodes, a work for violin and piano, was commissioned for and premiered by Itzhak Perlman in 2003, and Kurt Loft of the Tampa Tribune observed in 2005 that “Episodes is working its way into the standard chamber repertory—and deservedly so…. Episodes creates a personal and compelling musical world.”

And Rituals, for five percussionists and orchestra, commissioned for and premiered by the IRIS Chamber Orchestra and the percussion ensemble NEXUS in 2003, was recorded by the same forces on a Naxos release, which Paul Horsley described in the Kansas City Star as “vigorously entertaining…. Zwilich’s language here is complex yet approachable.”  Frank J. Oteri in New Music Box called it “one of the most melodious and harmonious of percussion concertos and one of Zwilich’s most exciting compositions to date.  Wherever you are, demand that your local orchestra programs this blockbuster piece!” – and Brian Wise observed in The Juilliard Journal that Zwilich is “one of today’s most versatile composers at the peak of her game.”

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

At a time when the musical offerings of the world are more varied than ever before, few composers have emerged with the unique personality of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Her music is widely known because it is performed, recorded, broadcast, and—above all—listened to and liked by all sorts of audiences the world over. Like the great masters of bygone times, Zwilich produces music "with fingerprints," music that is immediately recognized as her own. In her compositions, Zwilich combines craft and inspiration, reflecting an optimistic and humanistic spirit that gives her a unique musical voice.

Ellen Zwilich is the recipient of numerous prizes and honors, including the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Music (the first woman ever to receive this coveted award), the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, the Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, 4 Grammy nominations, and the NPR and WNYC Gotham Award for her contributions to the musical life of New York City. Among other distinctions, Zwilich has been elected to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 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. Zwilich, who holds a doctorate from The Juilliard School, has received honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, Manhattanville College, Marymount Manhattan College, Mannes College/The New School, Converse College, and Michigan State University. She currently 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. Her music first came to public attention when Pierre Boulez conducted her Symposium for Orchestra at Juilliard (1975), but it was the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for the Symphony No. 1 that brought her instantly into international focus. Commissions, major performances and recordings soon followed: the Symphony No. 2 (Cello Symphony), premiered by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony; Symphony No. 3, written for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary; and Symphony No. 4 "The Gardens" (with chorus), commissioned by Michigan State University and the subject of a PBS documentary seen nationally; the string of concertos commissioned and performed over the past two decades by the nation’s top orchestras.

Zwilich’s orchestral essay Symbolon was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic expressly to receive its world premiere in what was then Leningrad. Conductor Zubin Mehta subsequently performed it in Europe, Asia and America and recorded it on the New World label. Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, a commission by a consortium of 27 orchestras, was premiered in September, 2000, by Jeffrey Biegel and the Cincinnati Symphony under Jesús López-Cobos. At the premiere, the mayor of Cincinnati issued a proclamation naming September 23, 2000 "Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Day", and presented Zwilich with the Keys to the City.

Many of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s works have been issued on recordings, and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians [8th edition] states: "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. Zwilich offers this happy combination of purely technical excellence and a distinct power of communication."

For more information, including a full list of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s works and recordings, visit the Theodore Presser Company web site:

Monday, October 27, 2008, at 8:00 PM
Carnegie Hall
James Conlon, Conductor
ZWILICH Symphony No. 5 (World Premiere)
MAHLER Symphony No. 5


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