Composers in the classical tradition — even living ones — aren’t immune to fashion. Maybe they don’t cycle as quickly as their pop music counterparts, but any study of music history follows the "trends" that came into — and out of — favor with composers and audiences of the time.
Just as Nirvana spawned its share of imitators, so too did Ludwig van Beethoven. And just as the White Stripes was called neo-garage and Eryka Badu neo-soul, Igor Stravinsky wasn’t above dabbling in neo-classical, and serialism? Oh, so stylish in the post-war years.
The labels are still getting thrown today — minimalism, post-minimalism, post-classicism, neo-Romanticism, totalism. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich doesn’t follow any "-isms", so states the liner notes from the First Edition reissue of orchestral works performed by the Louisville Symphony. Rather, her works concentrate on the rigorous development of motifs. If I were so lazy, I’d call that neo-Hadynism.
The resulting effect from such a style is highly expressionist music with a nebulous sense of structure. The Chamber Symphony is chromatic to the end, but there’s a sense of direction under that flurry of notes. Scored for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, the Chamber Symphony has a lean texture, but the intensity of the music gives it weight.
A string player herself, Zwilich maximizes her writing for such instruments as the violin and cello. The Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra does a fine job of intertwining the expressiveness of the solo instruments, and pitting that power against the orchestra.
Symphony No. 2 is subtitled "Cello", and Zwilich intended the piece to be a concerto for the cello section of the orchestra. The work very much involves the entire orchestra — in my unconscious listening of the piece, not once did the cello section really emerge as a dominant figure. The effect is probably more pronounced when you look for it.
I was introduced to Zwilich in 1989 when I was listening to public radio during a morning commute. I didn’t hear much of the piece presented, but what little I heard struck me. It was chromatic but not impenetrable. The orchestration wasn’t outrageous, but it did feature a unique combination of instruments.
I read about her in Pulse! magazine shortly afterward, but the record stores in Honolulu didn’t stock any of her albums. I probably couldn’t have afforded them anyway.
The First Edition reissue is my formal introduction to Zwilich’s work, and the sliver of appeal I detected many years back was no fluke. Zwilich’s music is incredibly rhythmic, and while dissonant, it’s not un-melodic. The second movement of the Symphony No. 2, for instance, reaches an intense climax that’s dramatic but not overly dense.
Perhaps most refreshing is the fact Zwilich can’t be pegged by fashion. Her music is her own, and she sounds like herself. And that’s all that should be required of any artist.