Sunday, April 26, 2009

From E to Z

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Miami String Quintet
World premiere of Zwilich’s Septet
April 28-29, 2009

Ellen Zwilich
The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music (in 1983), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has been at the forefront of the American composing scene for awhile, and now, with another milestone on the horizon—her 70th birthday is on April 30—her music has shown no signs of losing its grip on musicians, who love to perform it, and audiences, who love to hear it.

Last fall’s world premiere of her elegant, tuneful and memorable Fifth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, with James Conlon conducting the Juilliard Orchestra, was only one new composition that New York audiences would get to hear; on April 28 and 29 at the 92nd Street Y, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robin Trio and Miami String Quintet will give the world premiere of Zwilich’s Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet, a work co-commissioned by the Y.

Zwilich spoke recently about her career milestones and composing for long-time friends and talented students.

Kevin Filipski: How important do you consider your 70th birthday?
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: I think that people are having a little fun with it—it’s always something to celebrate, and when the number goes to zero on the right hand side, it’s considered some kind of a milestone. I take each day as it comes and not count the years.

KF: There’s a photo of you at Tanglewood two summers ago with other notable composers born in 1938-9, including John Harbison, William Bolcom, Charles Wuorinen, and Joan Tower.
ETZ: We were a group that grew up in post-WWII America and were the beneficiaries of really wonderful public school programs, which is something I lament that we don’t do for our children any more. There are good programs here and there, but at my high school in Coral gables, Florida, they don’t have any more music. We had two bands, an orchestra and two choruses, and we had a band rehearsal room, choral rehearsal room and three professors. Some of us went on to become professional musicians, and I think it enriched all our lives.

KF: How did your new Septet originate?
ETZ: As a commission from the Y for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Miami String Quartet. This is actually the third piece I’ve written for the Trio (she has also written a piano trio and a triple concerto), so it’s like coming home, so to speak. I love these people—we’re a musical family. It’s a thrill to have this kind of relationship over a period of years where you really know one another. So as I wrote this piece, I thought of these performers, which was inspiring. It’s corny but true.

KF: Was it daunting to write a septet for piano and strings, which is unusual?
ETZ: It was fun to think about doing this configuration—the first approach was a piano and a little string orchestra, but I decided to do this because I had two really strong musical personalities in these ensembles. They start with the Trio, then the Quartet, then they merge. The first movement, “Introductions,” has the Trio laying down the gauntlet and the Quartet coming in very quietly then peeling off to make it a full septet. The other movements are “Quasi una passacaglia,” “Games” and “Au revoir,” which means not “goodbye” but “’til we meet again.” With that amount of horse flesh onstage for 25 minutes, I do work up to an orchestral palette, but I wanted to keep the spirit of chamber music, with shifting roles, different partners and different functions, like an electric current. But once in a while, it does become a little bit of an orchestral storm.

KF: How did you find composing your Fifth Symphony for the Juilliard Orchestra?
ETZ: It’s really extraordinary what young performers can do these days. I thought while writing for those musicians is that everybody on that stage was at their peak—they might get even better, but they were superb already. I also love James Conlon’s work, and I really enjoyed writing that as a kind of concerto for orchestra as well as a symphony. I loved the idea of not settling into a certain mold, but giving the instrumental writing a certain fluidity. I’m a person who writes a piece and gives it a title later—I’m not too imaginative at titling—like “concerto” or “septet.” I felt that this was a symphony but it also had elements of a concerto for orchestra, that notion that everyone onstage is a soloist.

KF: Many of your works are performed frequently and there are several recordings available as well, which you can’t always say about contemporary composers. Are you still composing regularly?
ETZ: Well, I am very lucky in that I have very few orphans among my pieces: they leave “home” and do very well. I have new works coming down the pike, and I’m always looking ahead—it’s a wonderful thing for a composer when you’re told that you’re 70 years old but you feel that you’ve really just started. I worked hard and gambled on this as a career, but the way it’s turned out, I think of myself as a lucky person.

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