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ClassicsOnline Home » ZWILICH, E.T.: Millennium Fantasy / Images / Peanuts Gallery (Biegel, Gainsford, H.L. Williams, Florida State University Symphony, Jimenez)
Among America’s most admired, awarded and frequently performed composers, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, who celebrated her 70th birthday in 2009, remains young at heart. Performed here by virtuoso pianist Jeffrey Biegel for whom it was written, Millennium Fantasy is based on a folksong that Zwilich’s grandmother sang to her as a child. Images drew its inspiration from a number of paintings held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., including the Alice Bailly self-portrait reproduced on the cover of this disc. Zwilich, herself featured in Charles M. Schulz’s famous Peanuts® comic strip, returned the favor with a delightful series of musical portraits of Schroeder, Linus, Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Peppermint Patty and Marcie.
Almost all of Zwilich's works for piano and orchestra
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 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, 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!more....
Exciting new works for piano from unique perspectives!
The new Naxos CD "Millenium Fantasy" (8.559656) showcases three very engaging new works for piano and orchestra by the renowned American composer, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. The title work, written in 2000, is structured very much like a two movement piano concerto. Written for Jeffrey Biegel, who performs it wonderfully here, it is based on a "folk song" that Zwilich's grandmother used to sing to her. (Which is very familiar to me, as well, but the composer does not provide - does not know? - the title).
A very pleasant, pretty and somewhat virtuostic work, the "Fantasy" was written for the millennium but does not have to do with the date. Her "Images" for two pianos and orchestra (1986) is, I believe, the best piece on this program. Written for the opening of the National Museum in the Arts in Washington, DC, the work exists in five movements. Each section is a depiction or tribute to one of the paintings in the gallery. Clearly, each of the paintings focuses on a theme with a particularly feminine perspective, but the music is strong and reflective.
Zwilich herself has long ago surpassed any connotation of her art as a talented female composer and for the past thirty years, at least, is seen more properly as one of America's great composers. In looking up the paintings online, one can see the sonic connections to themes that range, visually, from simple beauty to a bit unsettling. In particular, I was taken with the soft, pensive feel of #2, "La poupee abandonee" by Suzanne Valadon, depicting a doll whose owner has outgrown the need for her. Equally interesting but quite different is the final section, "Spiritualist" by Helen Frankenthaler, reflective of the soft, but abstract feel of an image - possibly a female head - in deep thought.
This is a very interesting work deserving of much wider play in a genre that needs more good rep!more....
By Bill Bukowski
The WSCL Blog
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b.1939): Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra
Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra • Peanuts® Gallery for Piano and Orchestra
Among America’s most admired and most often performed composers, the youthful Ellen Taaffe Zwilich celebrated her seventieth birthday in 2009 with the premières of two critically-acclaimed works: her Symphony No. 5 (Concerto for Orchestra), with the Juilliard Orchestra under James Conlon at Carnegie Hall, and the Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami String Quartet.
Zwilich is the recipient of numerous prizes and honors, including the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Music (the first woman to receive this coveted award), the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, the Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award, the Ernst von Dohnányi Citation, the NPR and WNYC Gotham Award for contributions to the musical life of New York City, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and four Grammy nominations. Among other distinctions, she has been elected to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1995 Zwilich was named to the first Composer’s Chair in the history of Carnegie Hall and in 1999 she was designated Musical America’s “Composer of the Year.” She currently holds the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professorship at the College of Music at The Florida State University. This recording features three diverse works for piano(s) and orchestra, written between 1986 and 2000.
Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (2000), commissioned by pianist Jeffrey Biegel and a consortium of 27 orchestras, was premiered on 22 September 2000 by Biegel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Jésus López-Cobos. Cincinnati’s mayor proclaimed 23 September 2000 “Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Day” and presented her with the Key to the City. About Millennium Fantasy Zwilich has said: “The musical point of departure was a folk-song my grandmother sang to me when I was a child. I can still hear her voice when I remember this, so it was a special pleasure to create a musical fantasy based on it.” The folk-song only appears in its entirety towards the end of the two-movement work, but fragments of it provide the material for the work as a whole. In the composer’s words “the folk-song occasionally rears its head, but more often serves as a springboard for a larger musical design.” While there is significant interaction between the solo piano and the orchestra, the piano leads the exploration in virtuoso style.
Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1986) was commissioned by the National Museum of Women in the Arts for the opening of their permanent gallery in Washington, D.C. It was premiered on 28 March 1987 by Leanne Rees and Stephanie Stoyanoff with Fabio Mechetti conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. The score is dedicated to Wilhelmina Holladay, founder of the museum and collector of the works that inspired this music. Each movement is a tribute to one of the paintings in the Museum’s collection: I. Opening (to Self-Portrait 1917) by Alice Bailly; II. La Poupée Abandonnée by Suzanne Valadon; III. Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses by Alma Thomas; IV. Bacchus No. 3 by Elaine DeKooning; and V. Spiritualist by Helen Frankenthaler.
Alice Bailly’s work appears on the cover of this CD. The other paintings may be viewed online at www.presser.com/images/other/ellentaaffezwilichimages.cfm
Zwilich said, “The movements based on the Valadon, Thomas, DeKooning, and Frankenthaler works are musical responses to the paintings themselves. The Alice Bailly painting, with its (literally) self-effacing portrait, prompted a more complicated response and made me want to celebrate the opening of a museum dedicated to women artists.” In Suzanne Valadon’s 1921 painting a girl symbolically leaves childhood behind by exchanging a doll for a mirror. Zwilich creates a pensive mood through muted strings and the suggestion of F sharp minor. Alma Thomas’s 1969 work is colorful and abstract, presenting vertical bands in a mosaic-like texture. Zwilich has the pianos rapidly hammer a single pitch while the orchestra adds color and punctuation. Elaine DeKooning’s 1978 painting features a mass of bluish-grey forms (suggesting a Bacchus figure) with lighter blues and greens around the edge. Zwilich’s music is brassy, with an extended tuba solo, and ends with a hard stick cymbal strike. String harmonics provide additional color. Frankenthaler’s 1973 work is abstract with shades of pink and yellow. Zwilich responds with a solemn string opening and substantial use of glockenspiel and vibraphone. Motives from the beginning of “Opening” return, bringing these responses to paintings to a fitting close.
Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz (1922–2000) loved classical music and, according to his wife Jean, became aware of Zwilich after she was profiled on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. On 13 October 1990 he incorporated her into a Peanuts® strip. At a concert Marcie observes that the next piece on the program, a concerto for flute and orchestra, is by Ellen Zwilich, who “just happens to be a woman.” Peppermint Patty stands on her seat and exclaims “Good going, Ellen!” Peanuts® Gallery for Piano and Orchestra (1996), commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, was premiered there by that ensemble with pianist Albert Kim on 22 March 1997. The piece was the subject of a prize-winning PBS documentary featuring The Florida State University Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Jiménez. The six movements, dedicated to Schulz, are intended as musical portraits of Peanuts® characters.
In Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy, Zwilich quotes the opening motive in Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, which she recalls seeing in the balloon above Schroeder’s piano in more than one Peanuts® strip. Zwilich describes this movement as “Schroeder improvising a fantasy on the opening of a late work by his favorite composer.” Linus and his “security blanket” inspired the second movement. Since he “always looks ready for a nap,” she wrote a lullaby. The dreamlike mood is enhanced as half of the cellos slide their left hand along one string while tapping the string with the wood of the bow near the end of the movement. Zwilich decided to have Snoopy dance, since he often does so in Peanuts® strips. She chose the samba because it is both “hot” and “cool,” sophisticated and “a lot of fun.” The drum set, including hi-hat cymbal, three tom-toms (to be played like the surdo, a Brazilian drum) and a pedal bass drum, is first heard. Basses and cellos begin plucking an obstinate dotted-rhythm before the piano states the main theme. This flashy and infectious music includes syncopations, white-key glissandi, and soaring violins.
Schulz hoped we recognized some of ourselves in Charlie Brown “since we are far more acquainted with losing than with winning.” Zwilich created a lament for Charlie, not a “terribly sad one” but an acknowledgement of times when we want to say “good grief.” His part-time nemesis Lucy is portrayed next. Schulz spoke of her inner violence, and Zwilich of her sweetness that quickly boils over into anger. A calm solo violin and double bass duet soon yields to orchestral fury. Piano trills and ascending string glissandi darken the mood. A “freak-out” ensues, in which grating dissonances in the strings are punctuated by sharp outbursts in the piano. Solo viola reprises the innocent theme, before another freak-out. The movement ends with a counterpoint of the innocent theme in violins against freak-out material. Zwilich ends with a procession of the characters led by Marcie and Peppermint Patty, who are often portrayed marching in single-file. Everyone parades past us in proper order: Schroeder, Linus, Snoopy, and Charlie, who is interrupted by Lucy. The piece ends with spirited march music reminiscent of the opening.
Zwilich and Schulz viewed each other with awe. She was amazed that he had created characters she felt she knew personally, and he marveled at how she created complex and beautiful music on her blank page. He was thrilled that she wanted to incorporate his characters into a concert work, which had not been done before, and felt she took his characters “to another level” because the musical portrayal was so lifelike. On 16 March 1997 he published a strip in which Schroeder discusses Zwilich’s Peanuts® Gallery with Lucy. Instead of quoting Beethoven in Schroeder’s balloon, Schulz included one of Zwilich’s melodies. Jean Schulz found this significant because he rarely put his real life into the strip. Mutual admiration yielded a work of creativity and warmth that stands as a fitting tribute to the late cartoonist.
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