Chamber Music Northwest: David Shifrin & Friends features music from four leading American composers — beloved icon Aaron Copland and three contemporary masters: Stephen Harke, Aaaron Jay Kernis, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Here, on the Delos Insider, we want to introduce you to these composers and their works, via Delos’ own liner notes.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939) — Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra: (2001-2002)
A Miami native, Zwilich learned piano, violin and trumpet as a child, and began composing at the age of ten. She completed her undergraduate and initial graduate studies in violin and composition at Florida State University, where she studied with Ernst von Dohnanyi, among others. She supported herself for a time in New York as a freelance violinist (including a stint in Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra) before enrolling at the Juilliard School, where (in 1965) she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in composition. Her works began to attract serious attention after Pierre Boulez performed her Symposium for Orchestra with the Juilliard Orchestra.
Her early compositions were noted for their often edgy and strident style – which she later toned down in favor of “communicating more directly with performers and listeners.” Her Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1) won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize: the first ever awarded to a female composer. Otherwise, her long list of prestigious awards, fellowships, appointments and other honors includes her selection as Musical America’s 1999 Composer of the Year, four Grammy nominations and five honorary degrees. She currently teaches at Florida State University, and holds several positions with prominent musical advisory and advocacy organizations.
Zwilich had already begun her Concerto for Clarinet (commissioned by the Arlene and Milton D. Berkman Philanthropic Fund) by the time the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks occurred. In his review of the 2003 world premiere performance of the piece, Peter G. Davis of New York Magazine observed: “Like everyone else, composers were badly shaken by 9/11, and their musical responses are beginning to be heard. (This work) would surely have turned out to be quite a different piece had not the fatal date arrived just as she was about to start work on the second movement. That inevitably became an elegy, and the subsequent two movements grew from there. Astonishingly, as heard at its world premiere in Alice Tully Hall performed by clarinetist David Shifrin and twelve members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the entire piece shows no sign of sudden gear-shifting. The instrumentally brilliant opening is brash, hectic, and streetwise, the perfect picture of a city going about its business until stopped in its tracks. After the scream-punctuated lament, the rest of the work struggles to pick up the pieces and restore a semblance of normality, ending on a note of cautious optimism. It’s all done with the most skillful application and development of its musical materials — a score truly inspired by a tragic event and one that is likely to transcend it.”
Writing in OregonLive.com, James McQuillen described the concerto as “…a superb piece of music, a model of bold spirit and careful craftsmanship; Zwilich has struck a fine balance between touching lyricism and muscular, jumpy energy…Zwilich writes masterfully for clarinet, with an unerring grasp of its idiom: The liquid flow of the solo part in and out of the orchestra was as natural as water, and every phrase seemed placed exactly where it ought to be in the instrument’s wide and varied range.”
The performance at Chamber Music Northwest was recorded at a live concert (unlike the other pieces on this album, which were recorded in sessions without an audience.) The CMNW performance was a west coast premiere, and combined the best of both worlds by having a small all-star chamber orchestra made up of Chamber Music Northwest festival artists conducted by Ransom Wilson.”
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