March 9th, 2010 5:00 pm | by MATTHEW KORFHAGE Arts & Books | Posted In: Classical

Live Review: Septet by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich at First Baptist Church

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

It is a rare thing, in Portland, to witness spanking-new work by a renowned composer of contemporary classical music, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's career has been nothing if not storied—works played for the White House, first woman to win the Pulitzer, a career as one of the most performed composers in America. And so we can consider it a privilege when Friends of Chamber Music brings in her newest work in for a go-round at First Baptist Church yesterday, and also at Reed College's Kaul Auditorium this evening at 7:30 pm. Or, at least, some of us can consider it a privilege.

The audience at the church was predictably septuagenarian; “Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet” was, after all, Zwilich's 70th birthday composition. I counted precisely eight people under 40 in the room. The prevalent formality and eat-your-vegetables approach to promoting classical is perhaps partly to blame, the hefty price tags ($27-$40 for this performance) perhaps even more so, but considering that one of the non-Taaffe Zwilich works played, Boccherino's "Minuetto from the Quintet in E Major," was even featured in Spinal Tap, one could hardly blame the music for being unpopular.

The complex contrapuntos in that Quintet's early movements should be familiar to any fans of post-rock or post-Aphex/Autechre IDM—much of which, with its classic-minimalist roots, is based as much in baroque as in jazz or hip hop. Boccherini's lines are chained into series of surprising, overlapping progressions, and the Quintet's tight interlacing melodies are propelled by unbridled Italian whimsy into a near-romantic abandon constrained only by form. This, in the end, segues nicely into Zwilich's piece, which is also mostly an exercise in tightly regimented romance.

Zwilich's new composition is an oddity—a piano septet—commissioned by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson trio in concert with the Miami String Quartet; its structure at the start uses these two groups in juxtaposition (a sort of dueling banjos for the chamber set), channeling itself into round-robin, ejaculatory point-counterpoint among the various strings in the septet while the piano forces itself jarringly up off-kilter, staccato scales. This initial bombast and tightly controlled dissonance is tamed in the second movement into a sloping, slow-swinging arabesque punctured suddenly by attacks of heart-rending high string harmonies, coming on as seeming ruptures in the firmament. As without prelude as they are, the transcendental, static romance of the strings acts more as quotation than sincere feeling—post-romantic as much as neo-romantic, perhaps, a hyper-conscious form of transport.

Zwilich stumbles a bit in the third movement, “Games,” into a good-humored mess of quotation, well apart from pastiche, that unfortunately runs a bit stale in its sourcing. The piece descends over and over again into an old, grating jazz-blues breakdown—white people's blues, as much crutch as jester-ly nudge—amid much more interesting crescendos of staccato or thumped-on string that pleasantly recall Leonard Bernstein and Benny Goodman's foray into swinging classical in “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs." Zwilich wisely ends the final movement somewhat soberly, in a precarious formal balance between saturated string and countermoded piano pound. It will not become one of her major works—and Zwilich herself is fading a bit from view, after her apex in the postmodern-happy ‘80s—but it was an intriguing piece of work, especially performed as vitally as it was by the dual chamber group, and I was glad to be there for it.

GO: The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, Miami String Quartet plays 7:30 pm Tuesday, March 9, at Kaul Auditorium, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd. $27-$40. Tickets at

Photo of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich courtesy of
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