Played unisono and morphing among different orchestra groups Upbeat, beginning Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Jordan Hall “Portrait” concert, celebrated its Malcolm Peyton Composer Artist-in-Residence Ellen Taaffee Zwilich Friday evening. It was interesting to hear how she combined references to J.S. Bach’s “Preludio” from the Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 with reminiscences of Aaron Copland, in particular his Americana verve exemplified by the Appalachian Spring; like Copland, she mixed classical elements with jazzy parts.
The composer had already been exposed to violin music during her high school years, thriving in her progressive Miami environment where auditions for her school orchestra were already being conducted behind a screen to avoid bias. This modern-day attitude, pervasive in the life of this female composer, began during a time when the merits of women in music — despite their abilities — were still under-represented.
Undeterred, Taaffe Zwilich completed her bachelor’s degree at Florida State University and then played violin in the American Symphony Orchestra in New York City. She continued her studies at Juilliard and became the first woman who received a doctorate in composition, in her first of many “firsts”, including her status as the first female composer recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her first symphony.
Conductor Gil Rose artfully facilitated the interplay among strings, brass and woodwinds and percussion in this accessible display of modernism. Sarah Brady, the soloist of Concerto Elegia for Flute and String Orchestra, a favorite of the audience, wonderfully intoned this memorial to the composer’s late husband. The first movement “Elegy,” reminded us of the grieving loss displayed in the slow movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, while also conveying haunting atonal elements that made it not entirely peaceful. In the subsequent “Soliloquy,” the flute evolves from solitude to engaging in a rhythmic dialogue with the plucking pizzicato strings; Elegia ended with an “Epilogue” that suggested a Wagner overture with jazzy parts — an element the composer picked up during her college times. It concludes with peaceful, accepting low notes from the flute. Much enthusiasm for the soloist ensued.
Gabriela Diaz, the soloist in the Commedia Dell’Arte for Violin and String Orchestra, dressed appropriately dressed for the occasion and displayed her virtuoso talents. In this piece stemming from the Italian theatrical art form, the violinist composer creates an atmosphere similar to the one in Sibelius’s violin concerto. In Arlecchino she combined impeccable technique with sound musicality to bring the playful harlequin or somewhat mischievous clown to life. This is also underlined by the slapstick, an instrument played by the percussionists in the orchestra. “Colombina” uses another playful percussion instrument, the tambourine. The “little dove” (Italian for “colomba”) also uses this instrument in Carmen-like flamenco references. After the sounds faded away, “Capitano” provided a march-like, almost militaristic contrast where the percussion also played a major role. In “Cadenza and Finale,” the different characters interact, and the violin concludes with another opportunity for the soloist to shine and display a virtuoso ending.
The composer’s Symphony No. 5 provided ample opportunities for different orchestra groups and members to alternate displays of their artistic capabilities as soloists with accompanying moments in a true “Concerto for Orchestra.”. The “Prologue” recounted the alterations of instruments from Upbeat, but here different instruments like the horn and oboe alternated as soloists with the percussion. A “Celebration” ensued in Shostakovich symphony style. The Juilliard School of music commissioned it in honor of Bruce Kovner and Suzie Kovner with support of the Trust of Francis Goelet, and this piece celebrates the artistry of the Juilliard Symphony. Strong impulses from the conductor Rose kept the vibrant energy of the orchestra masterfully in check. “Memorial,” dedicated “in remembrance of composers whose voices were silenced by tyranny,” appropriately displayed a profound base sound. “Epilogue” begins with a sequence reminiscent of Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, but here not with trumpets, but rather with clarinets; it concluded with upbeat jazzy elements.
Though Taaffee Zwilich’s music relies heavily on contrasts among different instruments, rhythms, dynamics. and styles, it achieves these juxtapositions in a melodic yet refreshingly modern manner. The well-deserved applause for BMOP and its dedicatee honored both one of the leading interpreters of contemporary music and a composer thereof.