Boston has been the site of numerous important events for composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. It was here that her First String Quartet had a strong success during the International Society for Contemporary Music’s World Music Days festival in 1976. In the audience at that performance was Richard Pittman, music director of Boston Musica Viva, who would become a longtime friend. He would commission Zwilich’s Chamber Symphony, another milestone in her output.
And her flute concerto, composed in 1989 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and soloist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, led to Zwilich becoming perhaps the only contemporary composer to be featured in a “Peanuts” comic strip. In the cartoon, Peppermint Patty sits sullenly at a concert until her friend Marcie tells her that the next piece is by Ellen Zwilich, “who just happens to be a woman.” The final frame shows Patty standing on her chair hollering “GOOD GOING, ELLEN.” (Her status as pop-culture icon was cemented when, at a performance of her Third Symphony by the Philadelphia Orchestra at its summer home in Saratoga, a car full of musicians drove by shouting, “Good going, Ellen!”)
Zwilich’s latest Boston calling card is “Shadows,” a concerto for piano and orchestra. The piece was a joint commission by a consortium of eight orchestras that includes Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, which will give the local premiere on Sunday. Pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who helped conceive the piece with Zwilich and raised money for the project on Kickstarter, will be the soloist.
Speaking from her home in New York — she divides her time between that city and Miami — Zwilich said that the consortium model for commissioning was “the best thing in the world for new music.” Instead of a situation where a soloist learns a piece and performs it once, “the piece sort of gets played in, and the soloist gets to really benefit from all the work that goes into it.”
When she and Biegel began planning the piece they talked about “the cultural, religious, ancestral roots that people in this country bring to bear. We come from not only North America and Europe but also South America, Africa, Asia. Some people came here as slaves, some people came here seeking a better future for themselves, some people came here escaping persecution. . . . There’s this element of hanging onto cultural identity.”
Having given those weighty ideas a great deal of thought, though, she put all of them aside when she began composing. “I’d much prefer to do a lot of thinking and planning and then sit down and write the piece without any preordained ideas. When I get into a piece, if it wants to do something that’s different from my plan, I always throw away the plan.”
But she thinks that a few ideas may have crept in, almost subconsciously. A few reviews of the world premiere, in 2011, mentioned jazz and blues influences. “I knew the first performance was going to be in New Orleans, and this was not too long after Katrina,” Zwilich said. “And I think a little New Orleans jazz funeral kind of slipped in. I’m not saying I put it in, but it might just be there.”
The intermingling of genres is nothing new for Zwilich, who played in both standard classical ensembles and jazz bands during high school and college. “You would probably think I do love the European tradition. But I also was very deeply affected by jazz and other kinds of music. So it’s not surprising to me that these kinds of things pop out once in a while, though I don’t specifically set out to underline it or anything.”
Zwilich is a composer often preceded by her reputation. It is common to hear her “firsts” trotted out: the first woman to receive a doctorate from the Juilliard School of Music (1975), the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music (1983). These achievements have created a sort of image of Zwilich as a crusader for her gender — one that she almost finds amusing, given how much at odds it is with reality.
“It’s funny, I’ve read things about myself and I can almost see myself in a bonnet on a cross-country wagon, going to settle the West or something,” she said with a laugh. Her high school ensembles had blind auditions long before they were standard in the music world, “so if I got to be concertmaster of the orchestra, they might have called it concertmistress, but I got it for the playing.” She added that when she arrived in New York in the 1960s, she played violin for seven years in Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra, “where we had a lot of women in the orchestra, we had black people in the orchestra, we had Asians, which was very unusual in those days.’’
The upshot, she continued, is that “I don’t think I experienced the sad condition of being pushed down because of my gender. And also, every time there was someone saying, you can’t do this, you’re a girl, someone else was saying, you’re doing great, keep on going. So I felt very lucky.”