Shadows, for Piano and Orchestra

Ellen Taafe Zwilich (b. 1939)

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first woman to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts from Julliard and the first female composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for her work, prefers to keep her compositional sound free of definition. She is not striving for a particular style, although there are elements she can trace back to her roots: rhythms from jazz, blues, and other American idioms find their way into much of her work and she says, “Certain things come out if you are an American…Those rhythms get into your bones and show up later no matter what kind of music you make.” Her piece Shadows explores a similar ancestral nostalgia, and in presenting a spread of sounds for the listener without dictating their meaning she seeks to connect with the audience on an emotional level that speaks to everyone.

Shadows was commissioned by pianist Jeffrey Biegel, to whom the piece is dedicated, and it premiered with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2011 under the baton of Carlos Miguel Prieto; the orchestra is one of an international consortium of eight groups, including Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, that funded the piece and that will perform it with Biegel.

The three movement piece features solo piano and displays its wide-ranging effects, but it also includes solo passages for other instruments that engage with the piano. A large percussion section calls for tom-tom, kick-drum, djembe, a variety of cymbals, and more; this diversity of color plays a prominent role in conveying the piece’s exploration of different cultures and their ancestral roots. Rather than assigning specific associations to the piece, however, Zwilich sees it as “truly belonging to the listener” in that everyone will interpret the music differently based on their unique backgrounds, emotional ties, and cultural identities. Perhaps the “shadows” are the deep pockets within each of us that stir at the evocation of the language of our pasts.

© Pamela Feo