By Lawrence Budmen 

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is one of America’s most prominent composers. A South Florida native, Zwilich was a graduate of Coral Gables High School. In the ensuing decades, she has achieved renown as a creative artist and teacher. In 1983 Zwilich was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music (for her First Symphony), the first and only woman to receive that honor to date. On March 25 the Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia presented the South Florida premiere of Zwilich’s bracing Bassoon Concerto. A large audience awarded the composer an enthusiastic, well deserved ovation. 

Zwilich’s brightly imaginative score expands the bassoon’s virtuoso agility and color palette. An opening Maestoso gives full rein to the composer’s lyrical bent with an edge of pensive intensity. The ensuing Allegro is an exciting, agitated jazz rumination with a percussion trap set prominently spotlighted. An incredibly exciting cadenza tests the extremes of the instrument’s range. Zwilich’s bold score is an important addition to the limited solo repertoire for this instrument. 

Luciano Magnanini, former principal bassoon of the Florida Philharmonic, displayed splendid musicianship in a brilliant performance that captured the essence of Zwilich’s challenging work. Guest conductor Alastair Willis led a surging, lyrically expressive performance, obtaining wonderfully transparent articulation from the ensemble.

Willis’s relaxed, splendid musical rapport with the orchestra produced an afternoon of felicitous music making. He opened the concert with an elegantly stated version of Dvorak’s Czech Suite, replete with sensuous string tone and charming wind ornaments in the Romance. (Flute and English horn solos were sensitively spun.) Willis brought rousing vigor to the Furiant, producing a celebratory conclusion indeed.

Mendelssohn’s familiar Symphony No.4 in A Major (Italian) emerged with Mozartean grace under Willis’s patrician direction. The beautifully shaped Andante con moto offered surges of eloquence. The Boca Symphonia’s horn section gave sonority and precision to the difficult trio section of the third movement. Willis capped the performance with an exciting, virile rendition of the Saltarello. 

Willis’s charming commentary enhanced the concert experience. As the Boca ensemble searches for a music director, this gifted conductor (with major league orchestral credentials) deserves prime consideration. He obtained marvelous playing from the orchestra and offered revelatory interpretive insight and flair in an imaginative program.

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