Orchestral Music: Violin Concerto (Ellen Taaffe Zwilich)

(Born April 30, 1939, in Miami)

About her early childhood, the talented contemporary American Ellen Taaffe Zwilich said, “I was making up music, but I didn’t start to write it down until I was about ten.” Later she studied composition at Florida State University, on whose faculty Ernst von Dohnanyi represented nineteenth-century European esthetics, and then she went on to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Her teachers there were very much of the American twentieth century, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, and in 1975, Zwilich was awarded the first doctorate in composition that the School gave to a woman. While a student, she worked in New York as an orchestral violinist, playing in the American Symphony Orchestra under such conductors and composers as Ansermet, Berio, Böhm, Henze and Stokowski, experience that helped shape her ideas about music and composition. During her last year of study, Pierre Boulez conducted her orchestral work, Symposium, and since then her music has been widely performed in the United States and Europe. In 1983, her First Symphony won the Pulitzer Prize for music, the first time that a woman received this distinction. Since that time, she has received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award. Zwilich has also won many more honors and many major artistic institutions have commissioned her works. As the first holder of the Composer’s Chair granted by Carnegie Hall, she wrote this concerto and in addition to composing, took on the function of advising on issues of contemporary music and overseeing the “Making Music” series which features her fellow composers’ works.

On March 26,1998, in Carnegie Hall in New York City, Ellen Zwilich’s Violin Concerto received its premiere with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Hugh Wolff conducting and Pamela Frank, playing the violin solo part. Of it she has said: “My new Violin Concerto is a very personal and deeply felt contemporary response to the instrument I have been closest to throughout my musical life. Perhaps that’s why I found the experience of writing my concerto at once a challenge and a labor of love. I was especially happy to be writing for the prodigiously musical Pamela Frank. In a world that often celebrates virtuosity for its own sake, Pam’s immersion in profound musical values celebrates the deeper meanings of music.” Zwilich composed this violin concerto from an unusual perspective: most composers of violin concertos have not themselves been violinists, but she is.

She explains: “My first goal in beginning a concerto is to try to internalize the ‘karma’ of the solo instrument, believing, as I do, that the soul of the instrument should guide the nature of the piece. (In fact, each of my 12 concertos has a different form and instrumentation, because each is inspired by the special nature of the solo instruments.)

“For me, the soul of the violin shines through in the repertoire it has inspired, revealing a nature both sensuous and intellectual. While the tremendous athleticism of the violin can sometimes overshadow its deeper nature, the violin has shown itself capable of expressing the most profound aspects of music. And this is what drew me, as a young composer, to the violin.

“While one doesn’t necessarily associate the violin with ‘new’ music, the instrument has captured the imagination of composers for over three hundred years. There’s something timeless about the violin. Think of it! When Pam’s 1736 Guarnarius was new, Vivaldi was alive and his Seasons was ‘new music,’ Mozart was not even born yet, and the Beethoven Concerto was to be composed seventy years later, the Berg Concerto in 200 years. Now, as we end the twentieth century, the violin is still providing fresh inspiration.”

With the intention to “sculpt” the “forces at hand” of the orchestra, Zwilich has richly orchestrated the concerto with piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, timpani and harp. Zwilich comments, “For me, it is important that the orchestra play a crucial role in the dialogue, but I want the violin to be free to be expressive in its mezzo piano range. So, achieving good balance in a rich musical setting is a major challenge in writing a violin concerto.”

The first movement begins slowly, and after the violin joins in, the solo passages involve widely skipping intervals. In the middle of the movement, there is a rubato cadenza-like section for the violin, then rhapsodic development, and it ends with another small cadenza-like solo. The second movement follows without a pause, and the violin, according to the composer’s directions is “quiet, but intensely vocal with lots of shading.” The violin part stretches to the extremes of the instrument’s capabilities, and yet is consistently lyrical. Critics have praised this movement as Zwilich’s tour de force, suggesting that it takes Bach’s solo violin Chaconne “as its point of departure,” and transforms Bach’s opening notes into a theme of fate, building it to an emotional climax. The third movement, the finale, is longer than the first two movements combined and explores several styles, ending with a dramatic statement. The violin concludes with high but fluid, mellifluous lines.

Zwilich has not written a formal cadenza for the violin, which is a usual part of the concerto, and she explains, “My Violin Concerto has a lot of cadenza-like material in it but no authentic cadenza. What virtuosic display is in it is part of the piece itself, emerging from the nature of the instrument. There are too many works that ignore that nature, that treat the violin as if it were an equal-tempered instrument, for instance.” No one will miss the stock cadenza in this moving and exciting concerto.

 
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