Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939) is not only one of America’s most cherished and in-demand composers, but no doubt the doyen of domestic women tunesmiths. She was not only the first woman to ever be awarded the Juilliard School’s doctorate in composition, but the first female composer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize; four recordings of her music have earned Grammy nominations. Zwilich had already begun her Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra (2001-2002: a project that she had been discussing with David Shifrin, our clarinetist here, for about a decade. She had already completed the work’s first movement by the time the 9/11 attack happened.
Nobody has described the finished work better than Peter G. Davis of New York Magazine: “Like everyone else, composers were badly shaken by 9/11 … (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 … 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.”