Album Title: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Millennium Fantasy / Images* / Peanuts® Gallery
Performers: Jeffrey Biegel piano, Read Gainsford piano*, Heidi Louise Williams piano*, Alexander Jiménez conductor, Florida State University Symphony Orchestra
Label: Naxos 8.559656 (TT 53’09”)
Recorded: 4/5 April 2009

Among the many accolades and distinctions bestowed on her, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1983. Grove Music Online calls her "one of America’s most frequently played and genuinely popular living composers." Take note how the quote didn’t specify female composers. Unlike popular music, gender was an issue in the classical genre. Female composers have traditionally been slighted.

But they’ve come a much longer way than Virginia Slims. Ask any record producers. I bet most of them would rather make new recordings of any male composer dead or alive (and there are so many good ones) than Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, Rebecca Clarke or Sofia Gubaidulina. With the exception of Naxos. Some people jibe Naxos for undercutting production costs. I applaud them for expanding the repertoire, works by the fairer sex included. Among their generous listing of over ten recordings for example, I find the compilation of British Women Composers [Naxos 8.572291] to be a pleasant treat. But the most impressive one has to be Zwilich.

Zwilich is a prolific composer whose tour-de-force oeuvre centres on five symphonies and some unexpected concertos for vibraphone, tuba, bass clarinet and bells. She also works in chamber music, choral music and ballets. Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by pianist Jeffrey Biegel and a consortium of 27 American orchestras. It was premiered by Biegel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jesús López-Coboson on September 23, 2000, a day proclaimed 'Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Day' by the Cincinnati mayor.

Born in Miami in 1939, Ellen Taaffe graduated from Florida State University before studying the violin under Ivan Galamian in New York. She joined Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra for some time before studying composition with Elliot Carter and Roger Sessions. In 1975 she became the first woman to graduate with a doctoral degree in composition. She won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize with her Symphony No. 1. (Her husband was violinist Joseph Zwilich who passed away in 1979. She remarried Erik LaMont after more than ten years.)

This spectacular work begins with a hauntingly beautiful pentatonic leitmotiv that in the second part gradually unfolds into a grand theme after many improvisational developments. According to Zwilich her leitmotiv derives from her grandmother’s favorite folk song. To me it has that magical spell of American Indian chant. The intriguing dialogue between rhapsodic piano and orchestral bravura is spiced up with jazz and pop elements occasionally accented by high-hat and pedal drum.

The musical image is inspiring. The sonic vista is as fascinating as the Grand Canyon. But grandness and excitement are not the only attraction. In the slow passages tales of the century-old great American outdoors are passionately retold through the nostalgic piano set against an expansive string canvas effectively plotted with woodwinds.

Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1986)
written for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D. C. is a work that combines arts and music. The five movements are devoted to five women artists including Swiss painter Alice Bailly whose self portrait is featured on the CD cover. The works by the remaining four artists can be found here. The music pays tribute to the female artists and their struggle to gain recognition. Each movement is musically rewarding. The style is more neo-classical than abstract but emotionally communicative throughout. Zwilich shows off her skill as orchestral colorist with a virtuoso pianistic duet duelling with a daringly brassy wind band and hard-stick cymbal strikes in the fourth movement; and rippling pianos floating on glockenspiel and vibraphone in the final movement.

The most entertaining work on the disc, Peanuts® Gallery (1996), is a collection of musical portraits of the lovable comic strip characters by Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000). The respect and admiration between the two was mutual. Schulz loved classical music and admired Zwilich’s works. Zwilich was once featured in one of his Peanuts® strips in which Peppermint Patty stands on her concert seat and exclaims “Good going, Ellen!” When the Carnegie Hall commissioned Zwilich to write a new work for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, she wrote this comic suite for piano and orchestra.

The suite opens with Schroeder storming away on the piano in a fantasy impromptu on the theme of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier followed by Linus’ Lullaby, Snoopy’s Samba, Charlie Brown’s Good Grief Lament, Lucy’s Freaking-Out Grotesque and it finally finishes with a parade of all the characters lead by Peppermint Patty and Marcie. It’s a wonderfully animated work that warms you to the heart. Pianist Jeffrey Biegel (in Millennium Fantasy and Peanuts Gallery) is also a composer and arranger. One of his renowned transcriptions is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons [Naxos 8.570031]. His virtuosity and musicality have lined him up for more dedicated works in the 2012-13 seasons from Zwilich and William Bolcom, another contemporary composer I truly admire. Naxos’ recording excellence has always been underrated by audiophiles despite the fact that the label continues to sweep recording awards and critics’ choice honors. (The most recent one is a Gramophone 2011 Best Orchestral Recording for Shostakovich's Symphony N°.10 conducted by Vasily Petrenko.) This is another good example of audiophile production values par excellence.