Frost Symphony celebrates Zwilich’s colorful music in winning fashion

By Lawrence Budmen

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

The music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich resounded vibrantly on Saturday night at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall. Concluding a two-day Frost School of Music residency by the Coral Gables High School alumna and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, the Frost Symphony Orchestra played two of her most captivating scores — Jubilation and the Bassoon Concerto. The celebration was long overdue. Despite her Miami roots and distinguished career as orchestral player, composer and pedagogue, Zwilich’s music has been all too rarely heard locally.

Jubilation is a celebratory overture written in 1996 for the opening of a new concert hall at the University of Georgia. Many American composers have written fanfare-dominated occasional pieces but few with the mastery of Zwilich. This score revels in the instrumental colors of every section of the orchestra. The strings offer a spacious, thrusting theme that contrasts with the bright glints of woodwinds andĀ  trumpet fanfares in concert with gleaming mallet percussion. Zwilich creates a varied and exciting sound world, and the Frost players met the challenge of this virtuosic orchestral display piece. Associate conductor Andres Jaime led a tight, vigorous performance that impressively displayed the ensemble’s corporate sonority and tonal palette.

Zwilich’s Bassoon Concerto was written in 1993 for Nancy Goeres, principal bassoon of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Cast in two brief movements, the score is prime Zwilich. The concerto takes the instrument places where it has rarely been before, the bravura cadenza displaying the bassoon’s lowest depths and highest register in quick succession.

The bristling lyricism of the opening section is followed by a jazzy rumination, percussion vying with the bassoon for solo status. As the soloist sounds a wonderfully angular melody at the concerto’s outset, slashing string chords provide dissonant contrast. The speedĀ and wide leaps of the finale test the soloist’s agility to the utmost. Longtime Frost faculty member Luciano Magnanini met the score’s Herculean demands head on. Magnanini’s large, rich tone embraced the quieter moments while his terrific precision sailed through the high jinks of the finale. Thomas Sleeper led the Frost musicians in a taut, exciting reading and Zwilich, Magnanini and Sleeper all received a well-deserved ovation.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor is a 20th century classic. Sleeper conducted an emotionally probing performance, the score’s angst, ironic humor and bold contrasts projected vividly. The sardonic scherzo was a whirlwind of biting sarcasm, and Sleeper led the Largo without baton, the hairtrigger dynamics and visceral power of the strings capturing the music’s tortured power. Taking a slower tempo in the Allegro non troppo finale than many conductors, Sleeper’s more deliberate approach inexorably gathered momentum, with shattering climaxes The orchestral playing matched the conductor’s energy and passion, a proved a remarkable effort for a student ensemble.


Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Frost Symphony celebrates Zwilich’s colorful music in winning fashion”

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2012 at 7:36 pm by Sherri Tan

    Wholeheartedly agree. Zwillich’s music is rich and complex, yet accessible. FSO and soloists performed with the greatest agility and musicality, and Sleeper conducted with passion, depth and integrity to the score. From nuanced pianissimos to grand ferocity, the architecture of Shostakovich 5 was rendered so clearly and fantastically. The evening was both magical and moving. Bravo !

  2. Posted Mar 04, 2012 at 10:48 pm by Ken Zeichner

    Fortunately I was able to experience this via Livestream available online through the U of Miami Calendar- I especially enjoyed Maestro Sleeper’s moving interpretation, and the Orchestra’s performance, of the Shostakovich 5.

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