Nobody would say that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich writes easy music — either to play or to absorb as a listener — but she has one of the highest profiles of any contemporary composer.
"I guess it's the impulse behind it,'' Zwilich replied to a question recently about the appeal of her music. "I think of music not as some intellectual exercise or some wildly experimental thing. I think it's something that involves every aspect of our humanity: your brain, your gut, your feelings, your experiences, everything. Why do we want to tap a foot or dance or move when we hear music? It's something that actually affects your body. And that has to be in our music.''
Zwilich also brings some wit to the classical concert hall. Her popular piece for piano and orchestra, Peanuts Gallery, inspired by the Charles Schulz comic strip, includes movements such as "Lucy Freaks Out'' and "Snoopy Does the Samba.''
Her latest chamber music piece, the Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet, will be played by the musicians she composed it for — the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami Quartet — Thursday at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater. Ruth Eckerd Hall, which is presenting the concert, is one of a dozen co-commissioners of the work. It premiered a year ago in New York and has since been played across the country.
Sharon Robinson, the cellist in KLR, asked Zwilich to write the Septet, because the trio and the quartet (Robinson's brother Keith is the Miami cellist), who play together often, wanted a piece that all seven musicians could perform. "They never had a piece where they could all be on the stage at the same time,'' said the composer, who looked around for another work for this combination of instruments but didn't find one. "So this seems to be the only one. At least nobody's come up with one. There certainly wasn't a model.''
In a program note, Zwilich wrote of the four-movement, 24-minute Septet, "Throughout the piece two of my persistent fascinations are explored, firstly, my interest in designing initial material that can evolve into large-scale form and, secondly, the pleasure I take in chamber music. While the instrumentation of the Septet provides an almost orchestral palette and it was interesting to explore that, I love the idea of seven artist-performers each of whom can be a stunning virtuoso one moment and a thoughtful partner the next, and I relish the electricity that results from those shifting roles.''
Zwilich, 70, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, for her Symphony No. 1, in 1983. A South Florida native — she played trumpet and violin at Coral Gables High School and was student conductor of the marching band — she went to Florida State University in the 1950s when the school was known more for its arts programs than sports. She now divides her time between New York and Pompano Beach.
In 2004, another work by her was premiered at Ruth Eckerd as part of the hall's 20th anniversary, Episodes, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Rohan de Silva. "(Perlman) played it everywhere,'' said Zwilich, who, in typically ingenious fashion, recently reworked the piece for an unlikely instrument, soprano saxophone, and that version has been published and is getting performed.
Though Zwilich is probably the most prominent Florida composer since Erno Dohnanyi, the Hungarian emigre who was one of her teachers at Florida State, her music has never been championed by the Florida Orchestra. Asked which work the orchestra should think about programming, she suggested her Symphony No. 5, whose 2008 premiere by the Juilliard Orchestra was conducted by James Conlon at Carnegie Hall.
"I think that symphony and the Septet are just about my best work,'' said Zwilich, who can't imagine retiring from composing. "That's the wonderful thing about being in this kind of work. It doesn't stop.''
There's another premiere this week, the first North American performance of musicologist Philip Gossett's new critical edition of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle by the Sarasota chorus Gloria Musicae. It's at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Sarasota Opera House.
The Mass will feature a quartet of soloists: Leah Wool, mezzo-soprano; Pablo Talamante, tenor; Michelle Giglio, soprano; and Robert McDonald, baritone. Conducting will be Gloria Musicae's new artistic director, Joseph Holt, who did such a fine job preparing the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay for its performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah with the Florida Orchestra in March.
Gossett, who teaches at the University of Chicago and wrote the superb book Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, is a marvelously entertaining, erudite lecturer on the music of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. He'll talk about the Rossini Mass at Monday's concert. $22. (941) 360-7399.
• For more chamber music, Trio da Camera is playing works this week of Mozart, prolific Italian film composer Nino Rota and Rick Sowash, a composer in Cincinnati whose music the group has been playing a lot. The trio — Laurel Bennett, clarinet; Theresa Villani, cello; Carol Alexander, piano — has one recording (with Kevin Johnson on piano) of Sowash's music and plans more. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, 600 Klosterman Road, on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College. $10, $12. (727) 712-5762.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.