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Bill Bukowski
The WSCL Blog, January 2011

Ever since she was featured in one of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts cartoons, Ellen Taafe Zwilich (pronounced Ellen TAYF ZWILL-ick) wanted to return the favor; she did so in 1996 with Peanuts Gallery, a work for piano and orchestra that featured fantasias on Schroeder, Linus, Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Peppermint Patty and Marcie. And ever since I heard this charming piece on an episode of PBS’ American Masters, I’ve been waiting for a recording. This new disc from Naxos also features Millenium Fantasy from 2000, and Images for two pianos from 1986.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, January 2011

This CD presents what could be dismissed as “lighter” works by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, but she, like expatriate American Nancy Van de Vate, is incapable of writing fluff. I’m absolutely thrilled that Naxos has been generous in issuing so much of Zwilich’s music in its American Classics series, as she is one of my two favorite living composers (the other is Leif Segerstam).

That being said, I was terribly sad to have missed the world premiere of Millennium Fantasy when it was presented in Cincinnati. I was even sadder to read the interview with Zwilich published in our local rag (and I use that term deliberately), City Beat, in which she was asked questions so incredibly inane and pointless that I felt it was only her graciousness that kept the whole piece from becoming a farce. Zwilich claims that the music is based on a folk song that her grandmother sang to her as a child. The song’s title is not given in the liner notes, though it is said that it “only appears in its entirety toward the end of the two-movement work.” It doesn’t matter that I don’t recognize it; more important is the bold and imaginative musical treatment, sparse in orchestration but not in originality or interest. The piano solo, played excellently here by Jeffrey Biegel, is occasionally virtuosic but more often than not sparse, indulging in single-note figures while the orchestra weaves its texture around it. As in much of Zwilich’s mature music, there is—to my ears, anyway—an uncanny Eastern European or even Russian sound to it.

Images (1986) is Zwilich’s version of Pictures at an Exhibition, but in this case it presents, via piano and orchestra, her impressions of works by five different artists, not several paintings by the same artist. They are Self-Portrait by Alice Bailly, La Poupée Abandonnée by Suzanne Valadon, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses by Alma Thomas, Bacchus No. 3 by Elaine DeKooning, and Spiritualist by Helen Frankenthaler. Bailly’s painting serves as the cover art for the CD; the others may be viewed online at I have to admit that I was rather startled by the opening music, bitonal, stark, and quite dramatic, whereas the painting itself, though modern in style, is quite calm, but Zwilich explains it this way: It “made me want to celebrate the opening of a museum dedicated to women artists.” The others reflect the paintings’ moods in a highly original and apropos manner.

The Peanuts Gallery is, undoubtedly, the most “fun” piece she’s ever written, yet it elevates the cartoon characters to a level of personal meaning for the composer, who really identified with them. “Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy,” of course, borrows heavily from the famed composer, yet has a quality all her own. “Lullaby for Linus” is pensive and ruminative, “Snoopy Does the Samba” energetic and inventive, “Charlie Brown’s Lament” not terribly sad but, as Zwilich puts it, an acknowledgement of times when we want to say “good grief.” “Lucy Freaks Out” combines her gentleness with her explosive impatience, while “Peppermint Patty and Marcie Lead the Parade,” a festive conclusion, includes them all. Zwilich was in awe of Charles Schulz for creating cartoon characters that she felt she knew personally.

Alexander Jiménez and the Florida State Symphony, who premiered the Peanuts Gallery, perform all three works here with tremendous sympathy, love, and excitement. If you are, like me, a Zwilich fan, you’ll want this disc in your collection. Now, if only Naxos would recognize that Nancy Van de Vate exists!

James Manheim, December 2010

Much-honored American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has managed to satisfy both specialist audiences and general concertgoers over her career, often writing works that develop accessible material in a rigorous way. This disc collects three Zwilich works for piano and orchestra, and the interest begins with the fact that none of them can really be described as a piano concerto. Instead, the piano-orchestra dialogue is mapped onto other content, programmatic in two cases. The nonprogrammatic piece is the Millennium Fantasy, based on an unidentified folk song that Zwilich learned from a family member; it appears fragmentarily throughout and is assembled at the end of the two-movement work. Images (1986) consists of short movements depicting paintings in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, along with one expressing Zwilich’s reaction to the museum as a whole; many listeners will be hard pressed to catch the representational language here. Not so with the final work, Peanuts Gallery, composed in 1996 and apparently part of a mutual homage with cartoonist Charles Schulz, who mentioned Zwilich in several strips. Each movement depicts one of the strip’s familiar characters, and U.S. listeners, at least, will have no trouble picking these out. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier,” is quoted in the opening movement, “Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy,” and recurs later in the work. This work would be ideal for programs aimed at young listeners (who still remember Peanuts, long after Schulz’s death), and it’s both light and very artfully done. The album benefits from the presence of pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who has a lot of experience with Zwilich’s works, and the enthusiastic Florida State University Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Jiménez. Some might criticize Naxos for using presumably low-cost university orchestras, but the fact is that young musicians who become involved in worthwhile projects of lasting value will go on to create prosperous musical economies of their own. A good place to start with Naxos’ American Classics series.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, November 2010

Back in 1983 Floridian Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939) became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music with her first symphony, also known as Three Movements for Orchestra. Since then she has become one of America’s most honored and frequently performed contemporary composers. The three concertante works for one and two pianos on this new release from Naxos show why.

The concert begins with her Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra of 2000. It’s in two movements, and according to the composer based on a folk tune her grandmother used to sing her as a child. A virtuoso undertaking, the work opens with a nostalgic, pizzicato-accented fragment (NP) of the song. The piano becomes infected with NP, and encouraged by the orchestra begins a jazzy St. Vitus’ dance based on it. The frenzy eventually abates, and the movement then ends introspectively. Some listener’s may detect a similarity between NP and the theme that opens Samuel Barber’s (1910–1981) first symphony (1936, revised 1942).

With staggered hyperactive and restrained episodes, the second movement is full of pyrotechnics for both the soloist and tutti. The folk song is fully elaborated towards the end [track-2, beginning at 09:25], and the work closes with some thrilling bravura passages.

The next piece, Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra from 1986, was commissioned by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each of its five movements was inspired by a painting in their collection.

The opening selection after Swiss Cubist Alice Bailly’s (1872–1938) “Self-Portrait” (1917) is intensely dramatic with rushing strings assaulted by stabbing chords and runs on the pianos. By contrast there’s a bit of angst in “The Abandon Doll” (1921) by French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938), where female innocence turns to vanity. Incidentally, some may remember her for that outstanding 1893 portrait she did of her one-time lover Erik Satie (1866–1925).

The next three movements are based on pictures by American Abstract Expressionists. Alma Thomas’ (1891–1978) “Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses” (1969) is notable for a rapidly repeated note hammered out on the pianos as avian utterances from the winds waft by. There’s a neoclassicism à la Stravinsky (1882–1971) about the music for Elaine de Kooning’s (1920–1988) “Bacchus #3” (1978), which also has an extended tuba passage Tubby would have loved. The meditative, brilliantly orchestrated finale depicting Helen Frankenthaler’s (b. 1928) “Spiritualist” (1973) ends this exhibition much as it began.

The closing work, Peanuts® Gallery for Piano and Orchestra (1996), is dedicated to Charles Schulz (1922–2000), who created the beloved Peanuts cartoons. In six movements honoring the strip’s main personalities, it begins with “Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy,” where Zwilich with comic abandon tosses around motifs from the opening of Ludwig’s Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29, 1818) and the scherzo in his Choral Symphony (No. 9, 1822–24).

The dreamlike “Lullaby for Linus” finds him napping with his beloved security blanket. But not for long as “Snoopy Does the Samba” to a percussively punctuated, rhythmically infectious number that would wake the dead.

As an old poem once said, “A shade of sadness, a blush of shame, Over the face of the leader came…” in the subdued “Charlie Brown’s Lament .” Then what would at first appear to be a follow-on movement of consolation for Charlie, lives up to its name of “Lucy Freaks Out ,“ in one of Zwillich’s most colorfully unpredictable offerings.

The grand finale, “Peppermint Patty and Marcie Lead the Parade,” brings to mind the conclusion of Saint-Saëns’ (1835–1921) Carnival of the Animals (1886), where all the thematic characters go marching by in a symphonic comic strip.

Pianist Jeffrey Biegel is no stranger to these pages…and once again distinguishes himself with technically accomplished performances of Millenium and Peanuts® that are both rhythmically and dynamically animated. Heidi Louise Williams and Read Gainsford are equally impressive as duo pianists in Images. Their precision team work assures a carefully judged, sensitive reading of the most progressive and emotionally invested score here.

The Florida State University Symphony Orchestra is featured on this release, which seems appropriate considering the composer graduated from and is currently on the faculty of that institution. Under their conductor Alexander Jiménez, these Sunshine Musicians light up Zwillich’s vivacious music.

The recordings of the first two selections are good with well rounded piano tone, and the soloists ideally balanced against the orchestra. The instrumental timbre is natural sounding across a wide soundstage in a favorable acoustic.

As for Peanuts® , although all three works were recorded over a two day period in the same venue, the piano seems a bit recessed and the soundstage compressed in the first movement. However, the sonics seem to open up somewhat for the remaining five, suggesting a miking or mixing incongruity.

Gapplegate Music Review, November 2010

I was exiting a concert by a prominent orchestra a few years ago when I overheard an elderly woman remark to her companion, “Shostakovich is all well and good, but he’s no Beethoven.” I was momentarily taken aback. These things are going on in that listener’s mind despite the years that separate the two composers, and now despite the years that separate us from either of their worlds. How can you come to appreciate any modern composer if you have to filter their music through one of the masters of a much different era and style? One answer might be found in the music of Zwilich.

Right, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. She belongs to that rather rare category of modern composers who have gained acceptance and even popularity for a pretty large group of otherwise possibly indisposed concert music listeners. And yet there is nothing condescendingly ingratiating to be found in her music. What there is about her music, though, can be seen pretty clearly in her Millennium Fantasy (Naxos 8.559656), which features three substantial works for piano and orchestra, one each from the last three preceding decades.

The music, as in the cases of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (and of course George Gershwin), has a genuinely “American” feel to it. And it’s a shade on the populist side of things. The “Millennium Fantasy,” for example, is based on a folk song Ellen’s grandmother sang to her, “Wayfaring Stranger” if I am not mistaken. Zwilich interweaves the folk theme in the dialog between piano and orchestra like a recurring memory intrudes at various points when, say, one is drifting off to sleep. It testifies to her fertile inventiveness and total mastery of the compositional mode that the folk melody fits right in with other more modern sounding motifs.

Another example is the “Peanuts® Gallery for Piano and Orchestra” from 1996. Each movement portrays a particular character from the popular comic series, in a lighthearted but musically enriched way.

Even her most “serious” work on the program, “Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra” (1986), devotes each movement to a particular painting, in each case by a woman artist. So there is a literal program to reassure a sometimes wary audience that all these modern sounds “mean” something.

Regardless of all that, it is Zwilich’s music that wins the day. There is a fluency and ease of expression to her music that encourages acceptance of the modern idiom in which she works. So as I listen to this very enjoyable Naxos release, I am thinking that this music should find an even larger audience. The Naxos budget price, the fine performances by the Florida State University Orchestra and the three piano soloists, the substantial yet accessible Zwilich scores, all this should be well-received out there in musicland. And for me, someone who can ride with pleasure to the nether worlds of the most modern utterances that could be conceived, I do not find her populistic tendencies in the least off-putting. That is in part because she is such a gifted composer. The music wins out, no matter where you stand on modernism. It’s too good to be subjected to factionalism. And this recording is a delight to hear. Repeatedly without a doubt.

David Hurwitz, October 2010

When Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s music first appeared on disc she had a couple of things going for her: first, she was a woman, which was very politically correct and afforded her more attention than she might otherwise have aroused at the time; and second, her last name begins with the letters “Zw”, which makes her discs easy to find in large collections since they fall near the end of the alphabet. Neither of these facts does her justice, obviously, and now that she’s exactly as old as my mother it’s a pleasure to report that she has maintained and even enhanced her reputation as a major American composer for no other reason than that she’s a major American composer.

The earliest work here, Images for two pianos and orchestra (1986), is a moody suite of five movements inspired by paintings created by, you guessed it, female artists. Next up is Peanuts Gallery (as in the comic strip), a delicious piece for piano and orchestra somewhat in the tradition of Carnival of the Animals. Schroeder leads off with a tribute to Beethoven, followed by Linus asleep, Snoopy dancing the samba, Charlie Brown’s lament, Lucy “freaking out”, and a final parade similar to that in Peter and the Wolf, led by Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Unfortunately Pigpen doesn’t participate, and neither does Woodstock, but the music is wholly delightful, all the more so for being so sincere and not a bit cartoonish.

Millennium Fantasy is a two-movement piano concerto based on a lovely folksong that Zwilich first heard from her grandmother. It’s a terrific piece, beautifully constructed, and sounding at times like modern-day Gershwin. In the second movement, dance rhythms keep on breaking out, and if you listen to all three pieces in order you begin to realize that Zwilich really does have her own distinctive voice. Her handling of certain instruments—suspended cymbals, for example—and her use of sustained notes in the violins as a background for music in quicker rhythms, features prominently in all three works. Just as noticeably, she handles form in a smart and shapely manner, pacing each movement and grouping them together to create unfailingly satisfying larger structures.

The performances here sound uniformly excellent. Jeffrey Biegel, for whom the Fantasy was written, plays both that work and the solo part in Peanuts Gallery with aptly proprietary confidence. Read Gainsford and Heidi Louise Williams team up most effectively in Images, and the Florida State University Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Jiménez leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. The sonics are also excellent: bright, clean, and well-balanced. A splendid disc, then, in all respects, and a mandatory acquisition if you’re interested in good contemporary music.

Cinemusical, October 2010

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music back in 1983. Her first symphony was among one of my own favorite LPs. It is hard to believe that she celebrated her 70th birthday last year. She continues to have a fairly active composing life and her works continue to be featured on symphony programs. She has been on the faculty of Florida State University the past few years which explains the appearance of their orchestra on this recording. The present release features three works for piano and orchestra spanning a fourteen year period.

The Millennium Fantasy is the newest of the works recorded here. It was composed in 2000 under a commission by Jeffrey Biegel, who performs it here, and a consortium of 27 orchestras. The work is cast in two movements. The opening slow movement features a sort of bluesy-jazz melody (evidently a folk song the composer recalls as being sung by her grandmother) and the evocative music recalls Leonard Bernstein’s sound while still maintaining Zwilich’s own unique stamp. The second movement involves more interplay with the piano and orchestra. There is some unisonal/octave writing spread across the orchestra in its opening segment that are managed brilliantly here. Jazz plays an important part in this movement with some outright jamming styles in the first few bars. But the work plays out more episodically as the piano explores the theme and leads the way often with some bright chordal statements and florid virtuoso lines. There are some deliciously rich blues harmonies and wonderful slides in the orchestra that give the work a real popular music feel at times. In short, the Millennium Fantasy is a work that is immediately accessible, evocative, and dramatic while running across more Americana and jazz sounds. It receives what may be its finest performance.

Images (1986) comes at the height of Zwilich’s fame and is representative of her solid orchestral style. The work, for two pianos and orchestra, takes its inspiration from a series of paintings in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. (Naxos provides a web link in the liner notes for listeners to see the paintings referred to in the music—a real masterstroke.) After the clarity of the opening work, this piece is a reminder of where orchestral music stood in the mid-1980s for those not using atonal technique. The music has the sort of flourishes of compact musical motives and semi-tonal ostinato passages and feels like an expansion of Stravinsky with a lot more dissonance. This is the sort of big orchestral sound that worked to create dramatic music through orchestration and some referential attachment to identifiable thematic ideas. Even here, Zwilich’s music draws the listener in with its intensity in the opening movement. The second movement explores some of that constant chordal pulsing but this is not minimalistic and can be heard more as ostinato with the short motives floating in and around the texture. Each of the five movements are fairly brief and are fairly dark dramatically. The fourth movement, based on Elaine DeKooning’s Bacchus No. 3, is a bit more interesting in its inclusion of a tuba solo and little more brass and dissonance than the other movements. The piano soloists here (Read Gainsford and Heidi Louise Williams) give committed performances as does the orchestra.

The final work was written ten years after Images and has another “historic” connection. Peanuts Gallery was composed after Charles Schultz’s characters from his beloved comic strip. Zwilich’s name appeared in one of the Peanuts cartoons where Marcie takes note that the next work on the program “just happens to be by a woman” to which Peppermint Patty responds by standing on her chair and saying, “Good going, Ellen!” It might be the only time a living composer made their way into the funny pages! And even this piece was commented on in the comic strip which included a quote of one of Zilich’s melodies. This delightful little piece has appeared as part of a PBS documentary featuring the current performers. Each of the six movements is a character piece. The opening movement is quotation music and focuses on “Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy”. A beautiful “Lullaby for Linus” follows. “Snoopy Does the Samba” is a perfect little dance movement that could easily find its way to any of the animated incarnations with its infectious rhythm and brilliant orchestral writing. A slow-moving waltz allows for fine musical contrast in this work while depicting “Charlie Brown’s Lament.” A beautifully innocent melody begins “Lucy Freaks Out” before the music shifts into Herrmann-like Psycho string writing. “Marcie and Peppermint Patty Lead the Parade” provides for a march-like finale that recalls the opening of the work. Overall, this is a delightful piece perfect for pops concerts that allows for some great fun and a chance for people to hear contemporary music in an engaging setting.

If there was anything to be disappointed in from this new release it is that one wishes there were more of it (the disc plays out to about 53 minutes)! The FSU Symphony Orchestra as recorded here could give any professional ensemble. We can be appreciative that Naxos has seen fit to give them such a great forum to demonstrate their musicianship in three fine post 20th century works by one of our countries great composers.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Recorded last year in celebration of the 70th birthday of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, one of today’s most interesting American composer. The winner of numerous awards, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1983, she was the first person to hold the Composer’s Chair in the long history New York’s Carnegie Hall. Often writing to specific commissions, her works have been premiered by many of the top soloists and orchestras in the States. The Millennium Fantasy for piano and orchestra was for the soloist on this new release, Jeffrey Biegel, and a consortium of 27 orchestras. In two movements, the first being volatile and the second a jazzy whirlwind. Fourteen years earlier, in 1986, Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra, contains five movements each with a descriptive title. Finally a work from 1996 that apparently takes its name from an American cartoon strip and the characters it uses. It is a fun piece that will surely amuse the younger generation. Zwilich, like many other present American composers, is wedded to the idea that there is still a long way to go in developing tonality. She orchestrates with a sure hand to create many interesting sound colours, the two pianos generating plenty of excitement in the Images. Yes, some edgy intonation tells you it is a college orchestra, but under their conductor, Alexander Jimenez, they tackle very demanding music with a mix of impact and subtle colours. One of the most highly regarded American pianists for many years, Biegel is the admirable soloist in the first and third works, the New Zealand pianist, Read Gainsford, joined by North American-born Heidi Louise Williams in Images. The piano(s) are quite forward, but the sound quality is admirable.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group