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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Pacifica Quartet, Contemporary Voices, Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Under the sun there will always be new music, or at least we hope. No matter the difficulty of the times and challenges we all face. So today we contemplate such a thing, a recent program of three landmark chamber works of true substance and style, all by women composers. It's the Pacifica Quartet and their CD entitled Contemporary Voices (Cedille Records 90000 196). Interestingly all three composers on the program are Pulitizer Prize winners. Most regular readers of this blogspace will be familiar with the names--Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. And no doubt you've heard at least some of the music. 

As it so happens these are cornerstone contributions to the Modern American chamber scene. Each work brims over with originality and composer-craft brilliance. Whether you contemplate Ran's "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory--String Quartet No. 3" (in its world premiere recording)  Higdon's "Voices" Quartet, or Zwilich's "Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet" (with the lovely addition of Otis Murphy on alto saxophone), there is a wealth of excellent music that does not stand pat but rather unceasingly moves things forward without a set formula or a predictable outcome.

Shulamit Ran got to know and appreciate the Pacifica Quartet while they were in residence at the University of Chicago, 1999-2016. Shulamit in that period was actively a professor of composition there (she is now Professor Emeritus). "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory--String Quartet No 3" was written expressively for the quartet. It centers around paying homage to artists who created during the Holocaust, especially the painter Felix Nussbaum, who was martyred at Auschwitz in 1944. The four movements explore deeply somber beholdings, bleak memories. survival of the artworks as transcendance and a refusal to go down without an urgently creative flourish. The music has tenderness, tensile strength and dissonance as appropriate and tributary complexities of form.

Jennifer Higdon's three movement "Voices" has a great deal of breathtaking Modernist animation it its opening "Blitz" movement, introspective expressionist interest in its inner "Soft Enlacing" movement, 
And  in its finale movement "Grace" there is a very moving constancy of heightened emotive and aural vibrancy.

The presence of Otis Murphy on alto saxophone and the singularity of his part on Ellen Taafe Zwilich's "Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet" makes for a lively contrast in the program. The three movements work together in variously exciting ways to underpin a sometimes jazz-inflicted and always extraordinarily interesting series of musical discourses dialogic and endlessly fascinating.

Both Maestro Murphy and the Pacifica Quartet play as if they were born to this music, which they certainly are in their idiomatically superlative talent and their insight into this most latest of Modernisms. Three local women composers of utmost eloquence carry forth on this disk. The results are most happy indeed. Highly recommended.

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