When Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's music first appeared on disc she had a couple of things going for her: first, she was a woman, which was very politically correct and afforded her more attention than she might otherwise have aroused at the time; and second, her last name begins with the letters "Zw", which makes her discs easy to find in large collections since they fall near the end of the alphabet. Neither of these facts does her justice, obviously, and now that she's exactly as old as my mother it's a pleasure to report that she has maintained and even enhanced her reputation as a major American composer for no other reason than that she's a major American composer.
TheRead more earliest work here, Images for two pianos and orchestra (1986), is a moody suite of five movements inspired by paintings created by, you guessed it, female artists. Next up is Peanuts Gallery (as in the comic strip), a delicious piece for piano and orchestra somewhat in the tradition of Carnival of the Animals. Schroeder leads off with a tribute to Beethoven, followed by Linus asleep, Snoopy dancing the samba, Charlie Brown's lament, Lucy "freaking out", and a final parade similar to that in Peter and the Wolf, led by Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Unfortunately Pigpen doesn't participate, and neither does Woodstock, but the music is wholly delightful, all the more so for being so sincere and not a bit cartoonish.
Millennium Fantasy is a two-movement piano concerto based on a lovely folksong that Zwilich first heard from her grandmother. It's a terrific piece, beautifully constructed, and sounding at times like modern-day Gershwin. In the second movement, dance rhythms keep on breaking out, and if you listen to all three pieces in order you begin to realize that Zwilich really does have her own distinctive voice. Her handling of certain instruments--suspended cymbals, for example--and her use of sustained notes in the violins as a background for music in quicker rhythms, features prominently in all three works. Just as noticeably, she handles form in a smart and shapely way, pacing each movement and grouping them together, in an unfailingly satisfying way.
The performances here sound uniformly excellent. Jeffrey Biegel, for whom the Fantasy was written, plays both that work and the solo part in Peanuts Gallery with aptly proprietary confidence. Read Gainsford and Heidi Louise Williams team up most effectively in Images, and the Florida State University Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Jiménez leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. The sonics are also excellent: bright, clean, and well-balanced. A splendid disc, then, in all respects, and a mandatory acquisition if you're interested in good contemporary music.