By Lawrence Budmen

The distinguished American composer Ellen Taafee Zwilich is a native of Coral Gables. A graduate of the Coral Gables High School class of 1956, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1983.

On April 27, 2002 at Miami's Gusman Center, pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra presented the Florida premiere of Zwilich's "Millennium Fantasy" for Piano and Orchestra. Zwilich has provided Biegel with a vibrant musical showcase for his brilliant pianistic talents. Biegel played the score with exhilarating virtuosity. Guest Conductor Michael Christie directed the orchestra in a lyrical, carefully prepared performance. The rhapsodic first movement was distinguished by outstanding playing by the clarinet and oboe soloists.

"Millennium Fantasy" was commissioned by Biegel and a consortium of 27 orchestras of which the Florida Philharmonic is one. Because some of those orchestras are non-professional community or student ensembles, Zwilich has written a work that is not musically or technically complex. It is a two movement set of variations on the folk song "Wayfaring Stranger". The music alternates between pastoral melodies and jazzy counterpoint. The string writing is particularly beautiful. This work should become part of the standard pops concert repertoire. What it lacks is the pensive, agitated quality that marks Zwilich's best works. In her major scores, Zwilich writes with a spikey, bittersweet lyrical pulse that recalls Bartok. "Millennium Fantasy" is a well crafted, pleasant work, but minor Zwilich.

There have been too few performances of Ellen Taafee Zwilich's major works in Miami. We have yet to hear her Pulitzer prizewinning "First Symphony" or the much praised "String Quartet No. 1" or her superb "Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra" (written for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson). The Florida Philharmonic or the New World Symphony should arrange an annual month long musical residency for Zwilich. Over the course of several concerts, her best works of the past as well as new scores could be played. This hometown musical heroine deserves nothing less.

Jeffrey Biegel also gave an electrifying performance of Cesar Franck's "Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra". This once popular, but now seldom played work is a glittering showpiece, but also a subtle, elegant series of variations that reveal Franck's mastery of symphonic form. Biegel played this masterpiece as if it was written for him. There was plenty of virtuoso brilliance in his performance, but also an expressive musical imagination.

As an encore, Biegel offered "Rush Hour in Hong Kong" by Abram Chasins. This finger-breaking piano romp was dispatched with ease. Biegel caught the sly humor that lies beneath the pyrotechnics of this pianistic vignette. Jeffrey Biegel is one of America's most underrated piano virtuosos. While an interesting recitalist, he is at his best playing concerti with orchestra. We need to hear him in this context more frequently in South Florida.

Conductor Michael Christie opened the concert with an undisciplined performance of the "Carnival Overture", Opus 92 by Antonin Dvorak and concluded the evening with that same composer's "Symphony No. 6 in D Major", Opus 60. This symphony represents Dvorak at his most graceful and lighthearted. Christie's performance caught the music's pastoral outpouring of melody, but lacked the Czech spirit that infuses the music. This was Dvorak in the spirit of Brahms. (The opening theme of the fourth movement of this symphony bears an astonishing resemblance to the theme of the finale of Brahms' "Second Symphony"). The warmth and flowing lyrical line that Christie brought to the second movement were particularly striking. There was a wonderful sense of dynamic contrast throughout the performance. Christie was one of only two conductors this season to obtain a real pianissimo from an orchestra. (The other was Pavo Jarvi at the New World Symphony.) 

The Florida Philharmonic sounded better under Christie than under most conductors this past season. Most of the playing was clean and - in the Dvorak symphony - brilliant. Michael Christie is clearly a gifted orchestral technician. With more experience and musical seasoning, he may have greater interpretive insight.

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