Season of Celebration: Zwilich At 70
Performing organizations throughout the nation chimed in to celebrate composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich who turned 70 in April. Among the many performances, including the 2008 Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet in Detroit (where the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra ["Double"] was also heard), were the world premieres of two major compositions, the Symphony No. 5 (Concerto for Orchestra) and the Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet.
Zwilich's Fifth Symphony was commissioned by The Juilliard School and premiered in Carnegie Hall by the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by James Conlon. The four-movement composition (I. Prologue, II. Celebration, III. Memorial, IV. Epilogue) earned enthusiastic critical and public acclaim, The New York Times reporting that "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." The New Criterion's Jay Nordlinger wrote: "I bow to Zwilich for having the courage, in mid-career, to write with tonality, melody, and the other elements of music. (At the same time, she did not go vanilla, make no mistake.)" And Peter G. Davis, in musicalamerica.com, thought that "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."
On the eve of her actual birthday, the Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet was given a pair of world premiere performances in New York's 92nd Street Y, one of the co-commissioners sponsoring the work for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami String Quartet. Additional performances are already scheduled for the Kennedy Center, Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk, Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Kent/Blossom Music (Ohio), Duke Performances (Durham, NC), Friends of Chamber Music, Denver, Kravis Center for Performing Arts (West Palm Beach), Friends of Chamber Music (Portland, OR), Philharmonic Society of Orange County (Irvine, CA), Ruth Eckerd Hall (Clearwater, FL), and Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle at Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY).
The reviewer for The New York Times recalls that "the extensive catalog of the composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich reveals her penchant for unusual instrumentation. She has written a quartet for four clarinets, a concerto for bass trombone, strings, timpani and cymbals, and a quintet for alto saxophone and string quartet, among other works." And unusual her new Sextet certainly is in that one does not hear a piece for piano and strings but, just as the title suggests, a work for two ensembles that freely exchange partnering and balancing. In a program note, the composer writes: "The fact that there is no model for such a Septet made the precompositional process a most enjoyable exploration. I liked the idea of having two strong ensemble personalities in the mix, and I thought that there must be some sort of challenging interchange at the outset. The first movement, Introductions (note the plural), starts with the piano trio throwing down the gauntlet and the string quartet entering quietly, but gradually (almost one by one) joining with the trio to make a true septet with multifaceted relations. The second movement, Quasi una Passacaglia, is based on a repeated phrase pattern. Part of the formal design is a contrast between "Baroque"-style performance and modern, more romantic ways of playing. Games, the third movement, involves much playful interplay, while the fourth movement, Au Revoir, offers both reminiscence and farewell-not 'good-bye,' but 'until we meet again.'"
On the day of the Kennedy Center performance, the Wall Street Journal's Barrymore Laurence Scherer wrote: "Last week's world premiere performance, in New York, was deeply satisfying. In her masterly deployment of this novel instrumentation, she manages to integrate the trio and quartet while maintaining their individuality within the overall musical fabric. Moreover, the emotive drama of her thematic ideas, the logical clarity with which she develops them, and the architectural polish of each movement make this an important addition to the chamber repertoire, and one that warrants frequent performance."
Merion Music (Theodore Presser) is Zwilich's principal publisher.