When I was working on my Master’s degree at Florida State, I had the great fortune to have a lesson with Pulitzer Prize-Winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich on her Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra (1992). At the time, I wrote up a little report on my experience and posted it on a previous incarnation of my web site. I’d more-or less forgotten about it (the post, not the experience!) until a couple of days ago. My friend and frequent collaborator Nicolasa Kuster mentioned that she’d found it while searching for information on the concerto. I’ve decided to repost my experiences here, with just a few edits for clarity.
Lately, I’ve been working on Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s bassoon concerto. I wanted to work on something new (to me) for this year’s concerto competition. I consulted with professor [Jeffrey] Keesecker, and he suggested either the Jolivet Concerto or the Zwilich. Both are tough, but he said that the Zwilich is more both audience- and performer-friendly. I ordered a CD, listened to the piece, and decided to play it. Another reason for choosing the Zwilich is that she is on faculty at FSU. She is the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor of Composition, but is only in residence for one week each semester. A few weeks ago, I found out that she’d soon be in town, and I managed to get an appointment with her.
I was quite nervous in the days leading up to my lesson. I’d been practicing the piece like crazy. After all, it’s not every day that you play a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s piece for her. When I arrived at the appointed time, I found that Dr. Zwilich had been double-booked. I had some time to spare, so I let the other student, who is pursuing a Masters in composition, go first. I waited outside for half an hour, then my turn came.
Dr. Zwilich was very laid-back and friendly. She said that while she’d enjoyed writing for the bassoon, she doesn’t completely understand the instrument, and certainly doesn’t understand why anyone would want to play it. I have to say that I often agree with her! Apparently when Nancy Goeres, the principal bassoonist of the Pittsburgh Symphony and dedicatee of the work, examined the first movement of the work-in-progress, she said that she liked it, but that it needed to be harder to be a concerto. So, Zwilich turned around and wrote a second movement based on octatonic scales with lots of sixteenth-note runs at quarter note equals 168bpm. When Goeres received that movement she asked, “What did I do, wave a red cape at a bull?”
I started by asking a few questions about articulation, phrasing, and her notation. Then, I played the first movement and much of the second (and final) movement. Dr. Zwilich seemed quite happy with what I was doing, and was complimentary of my playing. She had a few general comments about the first movement, and offered some suggestions for attacking the blazingly fast second movement. She also wanted me to change a couple of things in the second movement cadenza. Fortunately, many of her suggestions and changes will actually make the piece easier to play.
We ended up going twenty minutes over into the next person’s time, so I got almost the full hour I’d been allotted, despite her being double booked. Before I left, she complimented my playing again, and asked me to keep her posted about my progress in the concerto competition. I’m very glad that I had the chance to talk to and be coached by Ellen Zwilich. It’s not often that a musician, let alone a student, is offered the chance to work one-on-one with an eminent composer on one of their pieces.
Although I didn’t end up winning the competition, I did perform the Concerto in reduction (with piano and percussion) a couple of times in the following year or two. It’s probably about time for me to revisit the piece!