Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)
Cello Concerto (2019/20)
Peanuts Gallery (1996)
Prologue and Variations (1983)
Zuill Bailey (cello)
Elizabeth Dorman (piano)
Joseph Edelberg (violin)
Santa Rosa Symphony/Francesco Lecce-Chong
rec. 2021, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, USA
DELOS DE3596 
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is one of the most decorated American composers currently working. Most notably, in 1983, she was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her musical style evolved from atonalism to neo-romanticism, the change seemingly prompted by the death of her husband, violinist Joseph Zwilich, in 1979. All the works on this recording come from the latter part of her career; had they been otherwise, there is no chance I would have requested the disc for review.
Now in her eighties, she continues to compose, as evidenced by the Cello Concerto. It was commissioned by Miami-born Zwilich’s local orchestra, the South Florida Symphony, for the soloist on this recording, Zuill Bailey, and they premiered it as part of an online concert during the 2020 Covid lockdown. It seems, therefore, something of a shame that its first recording is by an orchestra on the other side of the country (more about that in the next paragraph). It is a compact work, spanning less than nineteen minutes in three continuous movements. The atmosphere is initially pensive, the cello in plaintive mode, but a more upbeat mood soon takes over, with the orchestra providing a somewhat jazzy accompaniment. This thematic material is used in different forms throughout. I won’t attempt to describe the progress of the whole work, suffice to say that it is exceptionally enjoyable, rich in diverse moods, glorious melodies, and catchy rhythms.
Peanuts Gallery is one of Zwilich’s best-loved works, appropriate for perhaps the most-loved comic strip series ever penned, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Schulz lived in Santa Rosa for the last thirty years of his life, so that might help explain why the city’s orchestra was chosen for this recording. Written for piano and orchestra, the work’s six short movements each portray one of the comic strip’s characters, beginning with Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy. For sheer joyous pleasure, it is hard to go past Snoopy Does the Samba, and the wistful Charlie Brown’s Lament is quite lovely. Proof, if any was needed, that great classical music need not be serious.
The Romance for violin and orchestra is not quite as you would imagine from its title. It begins and ends with slow, somewhat brittle music and the middle section is occupied by “athletic” (the composer’s word) and virtuosic solo passages.
The Prologue and Variations for string orchestra is the work closest to her atonal period chronologically and stylistically. It is in two movements, named as per the title, and the contrast with the Cello Concerto certainly demonstrates the continuing evolution of her style. It doesn’t have the emotional pull of her later music; it is more neo-Classical in manner. My initial thoughts were not negative, more neutral, but as the Variations movement progressed, I found much more to enjoy.
Performances by soloists and orchestra are all one could wish for, and the sound quality is good. The booklet notes are written by the composer, and while they are concise, they do the job. The niggardly runtime of just over fifty-three minutes is the only disappointment; Zwilich is quite prolific, so there are certainly a number of other short orchestral pieces in her output that could have taken the disc past an hour.
The Australian composer Graeme Koehne, whose music I love, has said that “music which does not set out to entertain often ends up being boring”. He clearly has a soulmate in Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. On the basis of this excellent recording, I will be seeking out more of her music.
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