BMOP finds the full measure of Zwilich’s emotionally complex music

April 9, 2022 at 1:33 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project Friday night at Jordan Hall.

After the sudden death of her husband, the violinist Joseph Zwilich, in 1979, composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich began moving away from harsh, atonal sonorities to a lyrical style balancing light and darkness. Where other composers might wall off joy from sorrow and laughter from tears, Zwilich poignantly offers both at once.

Conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project explored these varying shades in an all-Zwilich program on Friday night at Jordan Hall. Drawing on Zwilich’s music from the last two decades, the concert wrapped up her week-long residency at the New England Conservatory of Music in a fitting tribute to her achievements. The first woman to earn a doctorate in composition from The Juilliard School, Zwilich went on to become the first female composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1.

The Concerto Elegia, performed on Friday, was born of another personal tragedy. Written in 2015 after the death of her second husband, this work for flute and strings wrestles with thoughts of sorrow, anger, and eventual acceptance. Flutist Sarah Brady conveyed the isolation and inner struggle of mourning, her velvety tone imbued with a gravity well-suited to the music’s quiet melancholy.

Dissonances in the strings kept the lines tilted towards darkness, while bluesy passages made the central movement into a kind of swaggering soliloquy. Brady’s brighter tone in the finale revealed a moment of reflection amidst the sorrow.

Friday’s highlight was the Symphony No. 5. Composed in 2008 for the Juilliard Orchestra, this anguished and turbulent score—actually a concerto for orchestra— commemorates unnamed composers who have been silenced by tyranny. Its four movements course with nervous energy. Angular phrases create a frenzy from the onset, with jagged statements from brass and strings frequently interrupting any sense of lyrical flow.

The sarcasm and foreboding expressed in this score bring Shostakovich to mind. Yet Zwilich also injects a jazz-tinged panache, and Rose led a performance that brought out the work’s roiling intensity and shifting moods. His brisk gestures drew vivid contrasts from the ensemble in the outer movements, the strings producing a rhythmic zest and brass replying in a kind of abstracted shout chorus.

Elsewhere, solos engaged in colorful dialogue with the larger forces: Trumpeter Terry Everson stood out with gleaming resonance in his featured moments. Woodwind passages offered brief solace in the fleeting lyrical sections.

The jazzy and bluesy elements threaded thorough Zwilich’s later work give 2012’s Commedia dell’ Arte, for strings and solo violin, more humor and a chaotic tension the soloist must navigate through a series of virtuosic vignettes.

Violinist Gabriela Díaz played with appropriate flair, tossing off runs and arpeggios with abandon in movements named for prototypical characters of Renaissance-era Italian theater. The first movement, “Arlecchino,” was downright brash in places, and the third movement, “Il Capitano,” took on an air of braggadocio and pomp. Díaz found momentary repose in the space between, with the second movement, “Columbina,” the playing both sensitive and sensuous. Her closing cadenza unfolded in vibrant flourishes, and the ensemble closed out with a flourish of its own. Rose drew an accompaniment finely attuned to Díaz’s fire and precision throughout the entire work.

Upbeat!, a short curtain raiser from 1999, opened the concert. This riff on the Prelude from Bach’s Violin Partita in E major shows Zwilich at her most joyous, and Rose’s brisk reading captured its playfulness. Following the concert, Zwilich and Rose embraced in a demonstration of mutual affection and admiration.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project will present Anthony Davis’s The Life and Times of Malcolm X 8 p.m. June 17 at the Strand Theatre.

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