Classical music has long been justifiably accused of being the genre of dead white men. It comes out of a European tradition, and like almost all professional fields, it has historically been dominated by men. But over the past 50 years or so, classical music has been diversifying, mirroring the overall transformation of society. This certainly isn’t happening quickly or easily — the classical music world is notorious for its intransigent and traditional nature — but more and more women and minorities have started landing jobs in major orchestras and taking the stage as featured soloists.
One area of classical music in particular that has been slow to evolve is the field of composition. With a few notable exceptions — Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Nadia Boulanger — there have been nearly no famed female composers until very recently. Today, numerous female composers of great talent and skill are active — such as Joan Tower, Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, Kaija Saariaho, Julia Wolfe and many others — but there is still a noticeable disparity between the number of male and female artists in the public eye.
Another such successful woman composer is Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who — along with Joan Tower — is one of the earliest contemporary female composers to establish a large reputation. Still active today, Zwilich will have her latest work, Concerto Elegia — for flute and string orchestra — performed on Wednesday by flutist Amy Porter and the University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kenneth Kiesler. Also on the program will be Verdi, Wagner and Ravel.
“I’ve been a musician since I was — I don’t know — old enough to climb under the piano bench,” Zwilich said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily. “I had the very good fortune to go to a high school that had a wonderful music program … I was a trumpet player and a violinist, and wrote music for the band to play … it was quite a wonderful high school music experience I had, and I lament the fact that that’s not available to all kids today.”
Zwilich began her collegiate musical studies at Florida State University — where she is now a professor — and following her graduation, moved to New York.
“One of my big reasons [for moving to New York] was to get better as a violinist … shortly after I got [to New York] I began to work as a violinist,” Zwilich said. “I had seven years in the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski — which was quite interesting — and at one point I really wanted to go further with my composition … I had never quite written a piece I was satisfied with.”
Zwilich then began pursuing a degree in composition at the Juilliard School, studying with the renowned composers Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions. In 1975 she became the first woman to ever earn a doctorate in composition from Juilliard, an event which marked the beginning of her many triumphs as a composer.
“Eight years later I had an overnight success,” Zwilich said, alluding to her winning of the Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony No. 1. She was the first woman to win the prestigious prize, and her ensuing popularity allowed her to compose full-time, secure in the assumption that commissions would be regular enough.
“I’ve been lucky.” Zwilich said. “Writing has been part of my life really since I was ten years old. I love what I do, and it’s a great honor to write for some of the people I’ve written for.”
Concerto Elegia, the piece which will be performed Wednesday by the USO, was commissioned by a group of eleven universities, including the University of Michigan. It was completed last year, in response to a personal tragedy which also caused a dry spell for Zwilich preceding its composition.
“I had a commission for flute and string orchestra … and my husband [Erik Lamont] died,” Zwilich said. “And I was really not able to write much for a time after that, and it really just turned into a memorial for him.”
The piece is in three movements, the first Elegy the second Soliloquy and the last Epilogue, to which Zwilich affixed an inscription of importance to her.
“I’ve put in the score a quote from [the ancient Greek playwright] Sophocles, saying ‘One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been,’ ” Zwilich said. “ The odd thing about it was that this is the next piece I was supposed to write, and when I wrote the Elegy — which was very different from all the thoughts I had about the piece — I found out after I’d finished it that in ancient Greece the flute was the instrument of elegy. It was really quite amazing.”
Concerto Elegia is a concerto, which means that it is for a soloist and orchestra. Traditionally the orchestra has been regarded as accompaniment to the soloist, but many more-recent composers — including Zwilich — have come to regard the form as a dialogue.
“I really love to balance the weight of the solo instrument against the weight of the orchestra,” Zwilich said. “For me a concerto doesn’t mean that the orchestra is lying down like a doormat. It involves interaction — almost everything that moves me in music and what I want to write is really a lot like chamber music. Where there is support and interaction between the ensemble and the soloist.”
The piece also gives ample opportunity for the soloist to display their skill, artistry and individuality.
“There’s a little room for the performer to put their own stamp on it,” Zwilich said. “And I like that, because for me music doesn’t exist until someone breathes life into it.”
“It’s a piece left open for many chances of interpretation,” said flute soloist Amy Porter, a professor at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “I also feel like because it’s in memory of her late husband, it’s putting life and death experiences into my performance, because I’ve suffered loss as well.”
Porter described the piece as being extremely fluid, lyrical and emotionally engaging. For an open listener, the concerto is designed to touch strong emotions. When asked if there was anything she would like audience members to know before hearing the piece, the composer had some specific advice.
“One of the saddest things, in my experience, is when somebody comes up to me and asks ‘what should I listen for?’ ” Zwilich said. “And my answer is always ‘open your ears and your heart and your mind, your soul — the whole thing — and just listen.”