Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Millennium Fantasy; Images; Peanuts Galleryby Alexander Jiménez
Much-honored American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has managed to satisfy both specialist audiences and general concertgoers over her career, often writing works that develop accessible material in a rigorous way. This disc collects three Zwilich works for piano and orchestra, and the interest begins with the fact that none of them can really be described as a piano concerto. Instead, the piano-orchestra dialogue is mapped onto other content, programmatic in two cases. The nonprogrammatic piece is the "Millennium Fantasy," based on an unidentified folk song that Zwilich learned from a family member; it appears fragmentarily throughout and is assembled at the end of the two-movement work. "Images" (1986) consists of short movements depicting paintings in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, along with one expressing Zwilich's reaction to the museum as a whole; many listeners will be hard pressed to catch the representational language here. Not so with the final work, "Peanuts Gallery," composed in 1996 and apparently part of a mutual homage with cartoonist Charles Schulz, who mentioned Zwilich in several strips. Each movement depicts one of the strip's familiar characters, and U.S. listeners, at least, will have no trouble picking these out. Beethoven's "Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, Hammerklavier," is quoted in the opening movement, "Schroeder's Beethoven Fantasy," and recurs later in the work. This work would be ideal for programs aimed at young listeners (who still remember Peanuts, long after Schulz's death), and it's both light and very artfully done. The album benefits from the presence of pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who has a lot of experience with Zwilich's works, and the enthusiastic Florida State University Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Jiménez. Some might criticize Naxos for using presumably low-cost university orchestras, but the fact is that young musicians who become involved in worthwhile projects of lasting value will go on to create prosperous musical economies of their own. A good place to start with Naxos' American Classics series.
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I was fortunate enough to be present at the world premiere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Symphony No. 4 'The Gardens', which was commissioned by two Michigan State University alumni. Before that evening, Zwilich's music was completely foreign to me. That night, she presented a remarkable work for choir, children's choir and orchestra, offering a tribute to MSU's gardens. This disc, Zwilich's 2nd disc of works recorded for the Naxos label, covers nearly all of her works for piano and orchestra. The title piece, 'Millennium Fantasy', is based on a folk melody her grandmother used to sing to her, and was commissioned by Jeffrey Biegel, the pianist featured on this CD. A slow crescendo builds intensity in the strings, until percussion and piano come in, sometimes quietly, other times frenetically. The work has a very American sound to it - I hear influences of Native American songs, Copland, and John Adams. 'Images' is a work for two pianos and orchestra, and was inspired by paintings from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Works represented included paintings by Alice Bailly (whose self-portrait appears on the CD's cover), Elaine de Kooning (wife of Willem de Kooning), and Suzanne Valadon (former lover of Erik Satie). These are more expressionist pieces, darker and yet still colorful. The final piece, 'Peanuts Gallery', has themes for various characters in the Peanuts comic strip. The creator of Peanuts, Charles Schulz, was a fan of Zwilich's music, and even had his characters mention her in two different strips. The works are a fitting tribute to Schulz's cartoon. This disc is exciting to listen to, and Zwilich certainly has her own voice. The only thing I believe would have made this CD any better would have been to include her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1986), which would have filled the disc out nicely, and would have made this recording the only one to include all of her piano and orchestra works. Nonetheless, this is a great recording. Highly recommended!