Friday, November 21, 2014

CCC 119 - Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

This week the Consonant Classical Challenge profiles American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. For the first part of her career, Zwilich wrote in an agressively atonal style, perhaps reflecting her studies with Elliot Carter. Her first symphony, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, is a good example of her earlier style.

By the late 1980s, Zwilich had moved to a more tonal style of writing, which some characterise as post-modernist (or just neo-romantic). According to her website, "Ms. Zwilich combines craft and inspiration, reflecting an optimistic and humanistic spirit that gives her a unique musical voice."

Perhaps because of that, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is one of the most successful living American composers. Her works are frequently performed and recorded, and as recently as 2012 was still filling commissions.

Zwilich's late style may be tonally based, but it's a far-ranging tonality. Her melodies often have wide leaps that recall those of atonal composers. Those leaps, and the way they're harmonized give the melodies strong emotional impact.

The Lament for cello and piano, written in 2000, lays bare the essence of Zwilich's style. In it, one can hear the wide melodic leaps that give the music its piquancy.

In addition to studying with some of the major composers of the 20th century, Zwilich was also a member (early in her career) of the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Zwilich's first-hand experience as an orchestral player shows in her music. It's both imaginative in creation and practical in execution. Her third symphony, completed in 1992, demonstrates both these qualities.

Zwilich sometimes incorporates older forms into her music. Her Concerto Grosso (1985) was written for the Handel Tricentennial. Although the instrumentation (which includes harpsichord) and the work's structure may be Handelean, there's no mistaking Zwilich's unique compositional voice.

According to her website, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has been called "one of America’s most frequently played and genuinely popular living composers." And with good reason. Her music is well-constructed, genuinely has something to say, and is both player- and listener-friendly without making any artistic compromise.

Recommended Recordings
(this is but a sampling of the works available on recordings)

Music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Zwilich: Millennium Fantasy; Images; Peanuts Gallery

Zwilich: Concertos

Zwilich: Passionate Diversions

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Julian Wachner: Works for Orchestra and Voices

Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1 and Other Works
NOVUS NY; Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Majestic Brass Quintet; Trinity Youth Choir; Jessica Muirhead, soprano; Christopher Burchett, bass-baritone; Steven Burns, trumpet
Naxos 3 CD Set

In the liner notes for this three-CD set, Julian Wachner writes,

"My music lives in a sound world that seeks to balance harmony and melody, movement with stasis, simplicity with chaos, and contemporary techniques with unabashed borrowing from the past."

And for the most part, he succeeds in achieving that balance, as this new three-CD collection shows. For the most part, this release presents Wachner's works for orchestra and voices. Wachner's extensive background as a church musician has given him an intimate familiarity with the possibilities of the human voice, which makes his writing for it particularly effective.

Wachner's musical style isn't easy to pin down. Sometimes his music is aggressively atonal, sometimes tonal, but always in his own voice. The First Symphony is a good example. The way Wachner voices his chords sometimes give the orchestra a hollow and ethereal sound. And his layering of voices and cross-rhythms make the orchestra sound massive, while blurring the edges.

The other large work in the collection, "come, My Dark-Eyed One" was commissioned for a concert with the Brahms Requiem. For contrast, Wachner chose a secular subject, the loss of a loved one and the emotions it triggers. I found the work quite compelling as the protagonist works his way through to acceptance. To my ears, it sounded like a companion piece to Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles" -- and one that seems to be more successful in its evocation of atmosphere and drama.

There's much more to this collection. There are several short sacred songs that are absolute gems. The duet for trumpet and organ "Blue, Green, and Red," that takes this instrumental combination far beyond the world of Jeremiah Clarke.

Overall, this collection provides a good overview of Wachner's style. There are large, complex works, and short ones of more modest aims. Whether you're interested in choral music or contemporary music, this one's highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Kenneth Fuchs - Falling Man Stands Up to Comparison

Kenneth Fuchs: Falling Man; Movie House; Songs of Innocence and of Experience
London Symphony Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Roderick Williams, baritone

This release is the fourth such collaboration between Kenneth Fuchs and JoAnn Falletta -- and it's of the same high quality as the other three (see my review of Atlantic Riband). This time around, Falletta and the London Symphony Orchestra present three Fuchs works for baritone and chamber orchestra. 

Roderick Williams is the baritone soloist, and  he has a warm, rich voice that is supple and expressive. And that's a good thing, because each of these works has it's own character and mood.

Falling Man is inspired by Don DeLillo's novel about 9/11. At times, the work is unsettled and chaotic, echoing the emotions of the original event. Fuchs sets some of the text in an  atonal declamatory style that detaches the narrator from the action. But that detachment doesn't last. There are hints of jazz in this work, as well as a quiet, contemplative section towards the end that draws in the listener.

Kenneth Fuchs is a great admirer of John Updike, and his work Movie House sets seven of Updike's poems to music. To me, this  set had a very American sound, almost as if Fuchs had used Copland as a starting point. That's not to say Movie House is derivative -- far from it. Fuchs is inspired by his material and his music responds to Updike's imagery, providing emotional context for the words.

William Blake's poems, which are set in Songs of Innocence and of Experience are perhaps the most familiar to most listeners. And yet Fuchs gives them a fresh interpretation. The settings are quite beautiful, each song a charming miniature to be enjoyed.

If you've enjoyed this series to date, you'll not be disappointed with Falling Man.