Saturday, November 26, 2011

Music Interview: Composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

photo by Greg Stepanich

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Quintet (New York premiere)

November 29, 2011
Zankel hall, 57th Street & 7th Avenue

Among America’s foremost composers, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has one of the most enviable track records of anyone in classical music today: she won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1983 for her First Symphony, has her works recorded regularly (most recently, Naxos released a CD containing three of her compositions: Millennium Fantasy for piano and orchestra, Images for two pianos and orchestra and “Peanuts” Gallery for piano and orchestra) and regularly composes works commissioned by eager musicians and ensembles.

Most recently, her mesmerizing Fifth Symphony premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2008 and her Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet has had a dozen performances since its 2009 premiere. Her latest commission has its New York premiere on November 29 at Zankel Hall: a Quintet written expressly for the musicians who will perform it: the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson (KLR) Trio, violist Michael Tree and double bass player Harold Robinson.

The new Quintet--which has the same instrumentation as Schubert’s great ‘Trout’ Quintet--was among many topics the 72-years-young composer discussed in a recent telephone interview, along with other new works, her feelings on the so-called ‘death’ of classical music and music’s place in a technology-obsessed 21st century.

Q: Can you describe composing works for musicians like the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio?
A: The trio and I go back quite a long ways, and it has been the most wonderful personal and musical relationship for me. I just love to write for them. You can’t do better than composing for these artists. It's inspiring for me. What it means for me to be writing for them is not that things are tailored specifically in the piece, but it just makes me very turned on to think of them on the stage waiting for the new music that I've composed to be put on the stand so they can perform it.

Q: How did the instrumentation for your new Quintet come about?
A: If you program Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet, there’s almost nothing else you can put on with it, since it uses a double bass. So the trio was looking for a companion to the 'Trout' and I loved that idea. And I just couldn’t resist taking a little bitty snippet of the 'Moody Trout' section from Schubert and incorporating that into my piece. Happily, modern performers are capable of doing any style you ask of them.

For instance, in my Septet (from 2009), there was a movement where the strings and piano replicated a kind of baroque style of performance. There are all these wonderful players that specialize in this kind of playing. There’s a certain concept of the 'Moody Trout'--the notion that the personality of the trout has its good and bad moods--so I suggested a sort of a blues kind of thing in that section.

Q: What other works are coming up?
A: I just got back from New Orleans where the Louisiana Philharmonic, pianist Jeffrey Biegel and conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto premiered a new piece called Shadows for piano and orchestra. I also have a brand new piece that will be done in May for violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her chamber orchestra in San Francisco.

Q: What do you think of the continued predictions of the demise of classical music?
A: When they invented the player piano, then when they invented recordings, that was also supposed to be the end of music. Everything new only opens the field more broadly, and it’s the same with the digital revolution. Music’s a hard thing to kill off when you come right down to it. I don’t think it’s a good prediction at all. I think it’s a really interesting time as far as musical outreach and what’s available to people worldwide. Although we’ve dropped the ball completely on music education in schools, there is now--if anybody looks for it--the availability of any kind of music you could want. The worldwide availability is amazing to me.

Q: Do you take exception to compartmentalizing different kinds of music?
A: Of course! I actually played jazz when I was younger, so if those sounds come out of me it’s because it’s already there, not because I’m "crossing over," which I think is a very misleading term. There’s been so much talk, especially in the late 20th century, about elements of music that have to do with mathematics or whatever. But to me the wonderful thing about music and why I’m still excited to do this is that it incorporates everything about us: our personal experiences, our heads, our hearts, what we’re attracted to. It's one huge ball of wax: everything in my music is native to me, including the European classical tradition like the 'Trout' and blues and jazz.

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