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Saturday, May 20, 2006
Zwilich Concertos for Violin and Percussion

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Violin Concerto; Rituals
Pamela Frank, violin
IRIS Chamber Orchestra, Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra
Michael Stern

The music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has at times been criticized for its tendency toward prolonged stretches of intense buildup without release. Although this would make an interesting case study in light of musicologist Susan McClary’s theories regarding the gender-based need for teleology, I did not find this to be an issue in either of the works included on this disc. Pamela Frank, who premiered Zwilich’s Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in 1998, is an ideal match for its formidable technical and artistic demands. Rhythmically kinetic passages, one of the Zwilich’s trademarks, abound (the type of “cat and mouse” music that for me always conjures up mental images of Cary Grant dodging a crop duster). The possibility of tedium is swiftly averted by a constant variety of texture and orchestration. A violinist herself, Zwilich has contributed a masterwork to the repertoire that explores the instrument’s multiple personalities. The violin’s inherent versatility shines in the soaring cantabile lines of the second movement (using Bach’s D minor Chaconne as a basis) and throughout the finale’s virtuosic moto perpetuo. This concerto contains many echoes of Ravel, particularly in its use of winds, jazzy rhythms and impressionistic harmonies. The relentless crescendo near the end of the third movement brought to mind his Concerto for the Left Hand.
The four movements of Zwilich’s Rituals were inspired by the use of percussion sounds in cultural contexts worldwide. The instrumentation marks a departure for the composer, yet the formula she has used in her numerous concerted works for more conventional soloists and orchestra is again successful here. The work cleverly manages to effectively blend a diverse battery of percussion instruments (skillfully handled by the Toronto-based ensemble NEXUS), with a chamber orchestra. Zwilich’s score also allows for some improvisation within the solo lines. Rituals opens with an “Invocation,” an introduction to the soloists’ exotic timbres. Zwilich’s own version of a short ride in a drum machine follows with the “Ambulation.” The eerily evocative third movement, “Remembrances,” focuses on the traditional use of percussion in memorial ceremonies. Finally, in “Contests,” the orchestra eggs the soloists on as they engage in a bit of friendly competition that becomes a showdown as the frenetic pace increases.
The two pieces on this disc vary greatly in their instrumentation, yet both demonstrate Zwilich’s unmitigated mastery of the concerto medium. She is a composer who continues to build unapologetically upon history; as a result, her music is supremely listenable, accessible, and perhaps not coincidentally, beautiful.


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