Zwilich CD Reviews

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Naxos CD# 8.559268 (52′ 02″)
ZWILICH: Violin Concerto, Rituals for five Percussionists and Orchestra
Pamela Frank (violin), NEXUS, IRIS Chamber Orchestra, Saarbrücken Symphony Orchestra, Michael Stern, conducting.
Review by Victor Carr, Jr.

Rituals (2002) is a celebration of percussion as used in various world cultures, and is so different a work from the violin concerto that it hardly sounds from the pen of the same composer. Nevertheless, it’s a total delight, from the opening Invocations, with its stunning pageantry of bells, gongs, and cymbals, to the dancing Ambulation, to the electrifying Contests, where groups of percussionists engage in a thrilling musical combat, set against an orchestral backdrop of increasingly alarming freight-train chords. Under Michael Stern’s leadership, NEXUS/IRIS Chamber Orchestra members play magnificently as they build to a frenzied, exhilarating conclusion. Naxos’ recording reproduces all of this with satisfying presence and impact, although the Concerto, which was taped live for broadcast, has noticeably less warmth and depth. The bottom line: This is one highly enjoyable disc, enthusiastically recommended!

‘Percussive ‘Rituals’ for Adventurous Listeners’ by Christopher Blank

Memphis (TN) Commercial Appeal, Friday, October 7th, 2005

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: “Rituals” performed by Nexus and the IRIS Chamber Orchestra (Naxos, 8.559268)

In March 2004, the IRIS Chamber Orchestra of Germantown commissioned the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Taaffe Zwilich to compose a new work featuring the Canadian percussion ensemble Nexus.

“Shellshocking” was one word that described the experience of hearing five percussionists clashing and banging on a tremendous variety of exotic instruments while conductor Michael Stern and his orchestra provided accompaniment.

Zwilich’s exotic “Rituals” is not an easily digested work, but absolutely worth a second listen in this beautifully mastered new Naxos release.

Its pairing with the composer’s Violin Concerto, featuring soloist Pamela Frank and performed by the Saarbruecken Radio Symphony Orchestra (also conducted by Stern), shows Zwilich putting her stamp on two different styles of music.

The concerto is romantic in nature, laden with strings and light winds. The stunning second movement finds the soloist moving soulfully, desperately through a darkening tonal environment.

It contrasts distinctly with the modernist “Rituals,” where the rhythmic spectrum runs the gamut from trance-inducing to thrillingly aggressive.

If the pieces share a common thread, it is the sustained build-ups of tension that leave the listener longing for release.

This is especially true with “Rituals.” The opening movement, “Invocation,” begins with six gong-like tolls that introduce a slow, gradual crescendo. A minute and 38 seconds later, you wonder if your stereo is going to explode. But Zwilich plunges suddenly into silence and offers a mystical soundscape.

The percussive palette is extraordinary; “Rituals” creates a parade of exotic imagery inspired by the Japanese finger bells and temple bowls, gongs from Thailand, drums from Africa and much more. The second movement, “Ambulation,” picks up speed and rhythmic diversity. Nexus, the only ensemble in the world prepared to handle this piece, dances sharply on top of the orchestra’s quickly changing musical surface.

The third and most introspective movement, “Remembrances,” is dark, meditative and trancelike with long, repeated notes in the violins lightly dotted by chimes, cymbals, gongs and bells.

The piece concludes with “Contests” a raucous, warlike drum battle with repeated crescendos introducing each drum flourish.

IRIS’s recording engineer Jamey Lamar has done a fine job finding the mid-range for all the highs and lows in this roller-coaster of rhythm. Slightly tempered by the mix, “Rituals” remains an adventurous composition for adventurous listeners.

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