ZWILICH: Chamber Symphony (1979). Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra "Double Concerto" (1991). Symphony No. 2 "Cello" (1985).
Jaime Laredo, violinist; Sharon Robinson, cellist; Louisville Orch/Lawrence Leighton Smith, Albert-George Schram (Chamber Symphony), cond.
FIRST EDITION FECD 0004 (F) (ADD) TT: 58:30

TOWER: Silver Ladders (1986). Island Prelude for Solo Oboe and String Orchestra (1988). Island Rhythms (1985). Music for Cello and Orchestra (1984). Sequoia (1981).
Lynn Harrell, cellist; Peter Bowman, oboist; St. Louis Symphony Orch/Leonard Slatkin/Lawrence Leighton Smith (Island Rhythms), cond.
FIRST EDITION FECD 0025 (F) (ADD) TT: 73:57

The good news apart from the content and quality of these reissues – the music of Ellen Taafe Zwillich outstandingly for me – is that bankrupt or other tent-folding record companies have begun to sell their rights to such recycling labels as Albany, Naxos, JVC and Japan HMV, Sound Dynamics, Musical Heritage Society (which just announced the Reiner/Chicago Pines and Fountains of Rome coupled in RCA-BMG’s “Living Stereo” with La Mer of Debussy) and now, welcomely, First Edition Music. Four of the five Joan Tower pieces on FEDC-0025 were recorded during the mid-‘80s for Nonesuch by Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony in their heyday. Despite the dire predictions of Britain’s loopy Nostradamus, Norman Lebrecht, the disc business not only isn’t dead, it is reviving and even begun to thrive.

On these two discs, the recycling of Marc Aubord and Joanna Nickrenz’s Saint Louis recordings showcases one of the nation’s top six or seven orchestras of 20 years ago, whereas Louisville has always been a second-tier wannabe. Let me qualify that, however, by praising the discipline and vitality of the orchestra during Lawrence Leighton Smith’s decade as music director (1983-93). Like David Alan Miller in Albany, he deserves a major post in one of our musical metropolises, not the Colorado Springs Symphony where he took over in 2000. Albert-George Schram’s tepid, 1992 leadership of Zwllich’s Chamber Symphony (composed in 1979) validates the credentials of Smith in the Concerto for Violin and Cello (1991), created for the team of Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson, and the 1985 “Cello” Symphony No. 2. Surfers of this site might recall my hat in the air for her Third Symphony in Volume 2 the New York Philharmonic issued on its own label. Between studies with Ernö von Dohnányi at the University of Florida and later studies at The Juilliard School with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, Zwillich (b. 1939) played violin for seven years in Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra.

Everything contributed to a style that is contemporary without being off-puttingly “modern,” as one finds in Carter’s overgrown forests, or Sessions’ rigorous dodecaphony almost to the end. The closest she comes to Carter is in the single-movement Chamber Symphony, with its “development of long lines from shorter ones,” the weakest (which is not to say negligible) work on her disc from the Santa Fe Music Group. But the concerto in two movements covers a gamut of expressive moods, from dark-toned drama to “joyfulness” in the finale. As for Symphony No. 2, it ought to be a repertory piece for qualifying orchestras since it is, in the composer’s own phrase, “virtually a concerto for the cello section, calling for hugely virtuosic playing....The first movement even has a cadenza for the section!” Zwillich, in summary, strikes me as the finest American distaff composer since Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53), and superior to a large number of her male colleagues in the last several decades.

The music of Joan Tower (b. 1938) tends to be graphic, certainly in Silver Ladders and Sequoia, which begin and end her program. Island Rhythms, commissioned in 1985 by Irwin Hoffman and The Florida Orchestra to celebrate the opening of Tampa’s Harbour Island, is the only piece played by the Louisville Orchestra of 1990. Island Prelude for oboe and strings, composed three years later, “found inspiration in [Peter] Bowman’s exceptionally lyrical playing and also Samuel Barber’s wonderfully controlled Adagio for Strings. Like the other works, however, including Music for Cello (1984), inspired by Lynn Harrell’s playing a season earlier in the Dvorák Cello Concerto, there is a driving force that erupts even where the music begins softly and ends likewise. In Kyle Gann’s view (in American Music in the 20th Century), Tower writes “music of tremendous energy and clarity in a style...neither dissonant nor quite tonal [that] is supremely organic growing from a central principle.” Well said, if perhaps a shade generously since her music doesn’t stick in the ear or haunt the memory as Zwillich’s does. But then Gann gives Tower the palm; he doesn’t find Zwillich’s style “distinctive...[it] seems to belong to an earlier era.” So you pays your money and takes your choice – if you must make a choice.

The technical components are impeccable here, and transfers of Aubord & Nickrenz’s longterm work with the Saint Louis Orchestra does them honor, as both orchestras and both music directors do respectively to the music on these CDs.

R.D. (April 2004)