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Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – Symphony Nº 5



Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich photographed by Bill Keefrey

How do you characterise a recording that is glorious in aspects both musical and non-musical? You could begin almost anywhere. However, how about with the extraordinary Ellen Taaffe Zwilich [b. 1939] and the fact that while she wears her prodigious gift lightly – but she dispenses it most generously. For her, for instance, the proverbial glass ceiling was shattered quite a long time ago: She was, after all the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music as far back as 1983, she was also the first woman to earn a doctorate in musical composition from The Julliard School, and the first person of any gender to hold the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Symphony Nº 5
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Symphony Nº 5

Speaking of prodigious gifts, any tut-tutting from sneering naysayers and refusniks must needs be pay close attention to this breathtaking sweep of her work on this recording Symphony Nº 5, which begins with the brilliant pomp and circumstance of the short work Upbeat! And ends with the monumental Symphony Nº 5.

In between we find ourselves wearing our hearts on our sleeves in the fall prey to the bittersweet Concerto Elegia for solo flute and strings written as she mourned the loss of her husband in 2015. Here virtuoso flutist Sarah Brady has interiorised the composer’s grief in such a vivid manner that she makes her instrument weep wistfully as it navigates the undulant opening movement, then meditate upon the profound loss, bringing the concerto to its dénouement with heart-soft equipoise.

This relative darkness of the elegy washes away like a sun rising on the next work Commedia Delle’Arte for solo violin and string orchestra. This exquisite narrative composed in the Italian style brings to life the three characters – Arlecchino, Columbina and Capitano – who appear in their original setting of the Venetian elaborately adorned and masked. In Ms Zwilich’s music they give an energetic account of the carnival atmosphere, which is infectious stuff – not simply in terms of the catchy themes in each of the movements but also in the brilliant ornamentation provided by soloing violinist Gabriela Díaz whose wonderful interplay with the strings culminates in an outstanding Epilogue.

The final work – Symphony Nº 5– the four movements, which booklet notes tell us, were conceived as I: Prologue, II: Celebration, III: Memorial and IV: Epilogue. However, these “names do not appear on the score.” Perhaps they were not necessary. After all, Ms Zwilich’s ability to create music that is sensual – almost visually so – appears to be an uncommon strength. Certainly, this is so of the performance on this recording. One might dub Symphony Nº 5 the composer’s ‘finale’ symphony. And this would appear so eminently true for she knows hos best to create dynamic tension to such an extent that her great staging posts are from movement to movement, so that finales in each movement are so brilliantly done that when we come to the symphony’s actual finale – Movement IV, that is – this is superbly presented; forward moving in the grand manner, with the most solid, keenly-felt climax.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project

All of these works have been premiered before, but somehow they all feel just as ‘right’ as performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the baton of the inimitable Gil Rose. Just as the soloists in Concerto Elegia… and Commedia Delle’Arte… have brilliantly internalised Ms Zwilich’s music, so also does Mr Rose, who directs his performers to marry virtuoso skills with new inspiration. The result is an extraordinary recording that does absolute justice to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s mandate: “…to explore the evolution of the music formerly known as classical… [offering along with] classics of the 20th century…music of today’s most influential and innovative composers. It’s hard not to feel that this recording is, somehow, the apogee of that mandate.

Deo gratis…

Music – 1. Upbeat [1998]; 2. Concerto Elegia for solo flute and strings [2015] – I: Elegy, II: Soliloquy, III: Epilogue; 3. Commedia Delle’Arte for solo violin and string orchestra [2012] – I: Arlecchino; II: Columbina; III: Capitano; IV: Cadenza and finale; 4: Symphony Nº 5 [2008] – parts I, II, III, IV.

Musicians – Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose; soloists – Sarah Brady: fl; Gabriela Diaz: vn.

Released – 2024
Label – BMOPsound [1098]
Runtime – 1:01:04

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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