Thursday, September 21, 2000

CSO to premiere 'Millennium Fantasy'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “If it doesn't give you goose bumps there is something wrong,” says composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. “One of the joys of my life is writing music for people who really want to play it. And that's priceless.”

[photo] Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
        Modest and friendly, Ms. Zwilich, 61, may not seem like one of America's most distinguished musical pioneers. But as the first person to hold the Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall, Musical America's 1999 Composer of the Year and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music — plus many other achievements — she is in the lofty ranks of the world's most performed and recorded American composers.

        The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and pianist Jeffrey Biegel will perform the world premiere of her Millennium Fantasy this weekend in Music Hall.

        Admitting that writing music is hard, solitary work, Ms. Zwilich likens a first performance to a sauna: “First you get very, very hot, and then you jump into very cold water!” she says.

        She is prolific. Her works range from four symphonies (Symphony No. 1 won the Pulitzer in 1983) to Peanuts Gallery — which includes “Snoopy Does the Samba” — inspired when Charles Schulz made her the subject of a 1990 comic strip.

        “People can relate to it because she goes for raw, base emotion,” said Pamela Frank, who gave the CSO premiere of Ms. Zwilich's Violin Concerto last season.

Distinctly personal

        Her music, once primarily atonal, is now distinctly personal and communicative — a style change that occurred after the sudden death of her husband, violinist Joseph Zwilich, in 1979.

        “I think music shows where you've been and what you love,” Ms. Zwilich says. “I was willing to practice the violin to play Beethoven. At the same time, it's also contemporary music. I was very interested in jazz and still am.”

        Part of her appeal is rooted in her background as a performing musician. She was born in Florida and studied trumpet and violin.

        Before age 10, she was improvising at the piano; by high school, she was composing music for the band and orchestra. After earning two degrees from Florida State University, she moved to New York to study with violinist Ivan Galamian and “to make my way.”

    What: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, conductor; Jeffrey Biegel, pianist.
    When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
    Where: Music Hall.
    Tickets: $12-$49; $10 students. 381-3300 or at
    The program: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, world premiere; Glinka, Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla; Shostakovich, Symphony No. 15.
    Classical conversations: Ms. Zwilich and Mr. Biegel discuss Millennium Fantasy, 7 p.m. A dessert reception open to the audience in the lobby follows each concert.

        She won a job as a violinist in the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Then, deciding to focus on composing, she studied at Juilliard with two of the deans of American music, Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter. She was the first woman to earn a doctorate in composition there.

        Her experience in the orchestra proved to be crucial to the path she would eventually take. She is thankful for the opportunity at a time when, in the 1960s, there were few women in U.S. orchestras.

        “If you have a world where a woman can't be a professional musician, there's all this experience that no woman is going to get,” she says.

        “That was very much a laboratory for me. One of the great things about the American Symphony in those days was that we had the most amazing array of guest conductors.

        “What I'm doing is not an academic thing to me. It's much more rooted in human experience. Those things you can only learn about by doing them.”

In high demand

        Even before she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, an impressive array of great orchestras and artists had begun to commission her music. She remains in demand. Carnegie Hall commissioned her Piano Concerto (1986), Peanuts Gallery (1997), Violin Concerto (1998) and her String Quartet No. 2 (1998) for the Emerson Quartet.

        She is proud of several projects during her tenure in Carnegie Hall's Composer's Chair (1995-99), including a videotaped series of interviews with American composers such as David Diamond and Gunther Schuller, making a living archive of American music. She introduced the public to new music in an informal series called Making Music. It sold out.

        In the meantime, her Symphony No. 3 was re-released in a 10-CD archive set by the New York Philharmonic; her Symphony No. 4 has just been recorded by Michigan State University.

        Last week, she had dashed off a manuscript to her publisher called “Partita for Violin and String Orchestra” for the New York School for Strings.

        The latter two point to her firm belief that “the future of music is the next generation.”

        The genesis of Millennium Fantasy began when pianist Jeffrey Biegel approached her to write a work for piano and orchestra.

        Thinking about milestones — the millennium, the turn-of-the-century — she began to think about “how the world was a century ago.”

        She recalled a folksong her Indiana-born grandmother used to sing to her as a child. She based her fantasy on that tune.

        “As I thought about it, I had my grandmother's voice in my ear,” she says. “I hope people are still singing to their children and grandchildren, so that their voices stay for a lifetime.”

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