The Crossing in Mourning

I spent all day today working on my commission for The Crossing, took a break to look at Arts Journal, and saw the news of the death of Crossing member Jeff Dinsmore. My thoughts and prayers are with all concerned, including my friend Susan Narucki who is to be soloist in the same Andriessen performance with the L.A. Phil that The Crossing is preparing for. A message sent out by The Crossing tonight is here. Members of the ensemble talk about the group in this video.

My piece for The Crossing includes settings of poetry by Denise Levertov, including this passage:

O deep, remote unknown,
O deep unknown,
Have mercy upon us.

Composer at Work

56.-Welder-making-boilers-for-a-ship-Combustion-Engineering-Company.-Chattanooga-Tennessee-June-1942.-Reproduction-from-color-slide.-Photo-by-Alfred-T.-Palmer.-Prints-and-Photographs-Division-Library-of-CongressPosting will be very sparse in the next few weeks as I have to finish up my piece for The Crossing, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. The piece sets portions of the Denise Levertov cycle of poems by that name, juxtaposed with the relevant portions of the Latin Mass Ordinary. The premiere is June 28 at The IceBox, part of the Crane Arts Center here in Philadelphia. Excuse me now while I pull down my visor and put my protective gloves back on…

Recent Listening

imagesBeethoven: The Violin Sonatas. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Lambert Orkis, piano. Deutsche Grammophon.

I will be working on a violin and piano sonata in the not-too-distant future, so I have been feeding my ear with some listening, starting with the Anne-Sophie Mutter/Lambert Orkis complete Beethoven sonatas. These are extraordinary performances. The rhythmic unanimity of the pair is positively uncanny, especially given the judiciously flexible approach to pulse. Lambert is able to balance chords with stunning consistency and make broken-chord accompaniments hum discreetly, yet articulately. But these details are not the whole story – the larger scale forms are made transparent by the careful calibration of climaxes, by well-chosen tempi, by contrasts of finely delineated character. I recommend the set without reservation.

Unknown-1Paul Bley: 12 (+6) in a Row. Paul Bley, piano; Hans Koch, reeds; Franz Koglmann, flugelhorn. Hat Art.

This is an album of 18 succinct free improvisations, some using a Schoenberg or Webern row as a jumping off point, and featuring the three artists in various combinations alongside solo piano tracks. The concision of the individual pieces (none of them longer than five minutes) is an important selling point of the disc – nothing self-indulgent here. Adding further to the appeal are the subtle hints of boogie-woogie or other traditional jazz piano idioms that Bley weaves into the solo pieces; the playing may be spontaneous, but not without a sense of history. Uncommonly focussed and coherent music-making throughout.


Network Sings John Harbison

Network for New Music celebrated the work of John Harbison this past weekend with two concerts and a variety of talks and workshops. It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

The pieces by Harbison ranged chronologically from 1980′s Mottetti di Montale to the premiere of a 2013 work, The Right to Pleasure, commissioned by Network. The focus throughout was on song: instrumental pieces based on folk or pop songs either real or synthetic, as well as vocal settings of texts by Louise Glück, Jessica Fisher, and Eugenio Montale.

Songs America Loves to Sing, featured in Friday’s concert, arranges 10 familiar American tunes for “pierrot” ensemble, with the melodies either treated in witty contrapuntal constructions or as accompanied solos featuring one or another member of the group. It’s simply a delightful piece, wearing its compositionally virtuosic polyphonic garb casually. You would think the phrase “double canon by inversion with a free bass” is a description of a work by Bach, but it also describes Harbison’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues”. The mensuration canons on “We Shall Overcome” sound similarly organic, not imposed.

The remainder of Friday’s concert was taken up new works by other composers, all based on pieces in the SALTS set. The commissioned pieces included my own Meditation on Amazing Grace; Anna Weesner’s starkly powerful take on We Shall Overcome; Terell Stafford’s Favor, memorable for his masterful performance and inspired by the renditions of “Amazing Grace” he heard in church growing up; Uri Caine’s typically polystylistic treatment of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”; and Bobby Zankel’s Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, built around the similarly named tune about a circle instead of a cycle. Winners of a Network-sponsored composition contest, Luke Carlson and Peter Christian, contributed attractive short works as well. It was a great privilege for me to play my own work and Anna’s with some superb instrumentalist colleagues: Terell Stafford and bassist Mary Javian in my piece, and trumpeter Eric Schweingruber, violinist Hirono Oka, and again Mary Javian in Anna’s.

Sunday was all Harbison, opening with the first six songs from his massive Montale cycle. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley found the operatic qualities in this music, and coupled with Susan Nowicki’s intensely characterized piano accompaniments, the result was a musical setting that made the emotional world of the poetry legible in a way that mere reading could not. Bentley returned in similarly dramatic voice, this time accompanied by a string quintet, for the new work, The Right to Pleasure, which weds four darkly acute poems of Jessica Fisher to economical, tautly made music. The piece disturbs one’s thoughts long after the music has ended. The mood of the Glück settings in Crossroads, sung by Sarah Joanne Davis with great beauty of sound, is less dark, but similarly haunting. Hearing the line “My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer” in a setting by a seventy-five year old composer gives one pause. Not that Harbison was being manipulative – the piece may be concerned with mortality, but it remains clear-eyed in its compassion.

Two lighter instrumental works offered a nice contrast to the vocal pieces. The Fourteen Fabled Folksongs are not pre-existing melodies, but folk-like tunes devised by Harbison. Hirona Oka, violin, and Angela Nelson, marimba, caught the various playful moods of the set in their exceptionally well-etched playing. Thanks Victor, a medley of Victor Young songs arranged by Harbison for string quartet, was offered by young members of the Philadelphia Sinfonia – Stephanie Bonk, Benjamin She, Jamie Ye and Max Song – who played with stylish lilt.

Harbison continues to be one of my favorite composers, creating music with breadth of expressive means, profound musical intelligence, and touching emotional resonance. This is a spiritually nourishing body of work, and I am deeply grateful for its presence in my life.

Go here to stream an interview with Harbison heard on NPR’s Here & Now in which he talks about Songs America Loves to Sing.




Any Sequence

2754“Any sequence of numbers is always right and credible if it is the correct one.”

-Gerhard Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, by Roald Nasgaard.

Substitute “notes” for “numbers”.

The image is of Gerhard Richter’s painting “180 Colors”, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Quote found on PMA website.

Harbison and Network on “Here and Now”

There will be an interview with John Harbison on NPR’s “Here & Now” this afternoon between 2:45 and 3:00 pm. It’ll be heard on WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. He’ll talk about his music and his current trip to Philly to work with Network for New Music.

UPDATE: go here to stream the interview.

Scroll down for various posts about the concert and my participation in it as composer and pianist. Here’s a performance of Songs America Loves to Sing, Harbison’s work that will be heard this Friday:


Harbison and Network

I’ll be picking up John Harbison at the Philadelphia airport tomorrow as he begins his visit in connection with the concerts, talks, and workshops that Network for New Music is offering. The concerts will be on Friday, April 4, 8 pm, at Temple University’s Rock Hall; and Sunday, April 6, 7:30 pm, this time at the Curtis Institute. Go here for more complete information.

My new piece, Meditation on Amazing Grace, will be on the Friday program – here is my program note on the piece:

My reflection on this familiar tune is rather darker than the version I used to sing to my twins as a lullaby: here I have cast the piece in minor, and framed it with harmonies that imply a key, but not that of the melody. After an introduction, the trumpet takes us through one verse, followed by a repeated and expanded version of the introduction now serving to accompany fragments and embellishments of the melody.

The troubled light I have shone upon the tune was purely a musical thought; but perhaps it has to do with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contention that there is no such thing as “cheap grace”.

I posted the first two Network videos previewing the Friday concert here; Uri Caine and Terrell Stafford are featured in the third:


“Waltzing the Spheres” Premiere

I was very moved by Kiera Duffy’s intense and beautiful performances of my new song Waltzing the Spheres at Lyric Fest’s concerts featuring settings of poetry by women this weekend. While Friday’s performance at Bryn Mawr College was very fine, today’s at the Academy of Vocal Arts was even more powerful and emotionally potent. Laura Ward’s piano accompaniment – for my song, and for the entire program – was varied in color, sensitive in timing and nuance. Laura and her Lyric fest colleagues, Randi Marazzo and Suzanne DuPlantis, are experts at devising satisfying programs, and there was a good bit of material with which I was unfamiliar, including songs by Paul Bowles (setting Gertrud Stein), Florence B. Price, and, of all people, Irving Berlin. Baritone Randall Scarlata offered Berlin’s setting of lines from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (Give me your tired, your poor…”), this from a show called “Miss Liberty” from 1949. I loved Randy’s interpretation of Ives’ “The Greatest Man”, funny and touching in quick succession. The other very fine singers were tenor Joseph Gaines (his “Visit to St. Elizabeth’s”, text by Elizabeth Bishop, setting by Ned Rorem, was memorably harrowing), mezzo Elizabeth Shammash (charming in both another Bishop setting, this one by Lee Hoiby, and the Bowles mentioned above) and Suzanne herself, touching in a Jake Heggie duet with Elizabeth. There were also premieres by Benjamin Boyle, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djupstrom, Daron Hagen, and Maurice Wright, and I thought every piece had something to commend it. I shouldn’t overlook the contribution of actress Michelle Eugene, who, for some of the songs, read the poetry before the setting was performed. I was a little skeptical about this idea beforehand, but after hearing it I think it was a good experiment that helped call attention to the poems. Certainly she read beautifully, with thoughtfully considered shadings of the texts.

UPDATE: David Patrick Stearns’s review of the program is here.

Here I am with Kiera:


and with Laura:


and here’s a rogue’s gallery of composers (L to R: Maurice Wright, myself, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djustrom, and Ben Boyle):


Network on WRTI

Go here for a post about the April 4 and 6 Network for New Music concerts that will be discussed on Saturday’s “Crossover” program on WRTI-FM. I spoke with host Jill Pasternak earlier this week, and Uri Caine will also comment. The program can be heard Saturday morning at 11:30 am on WRTI-FM, with an encore Friday evening at 7 pm on WRTI-HD2. Both airings are available on the All-Classical stream at the WRTI website. UPDATE: go here for the stream of this edition of Crossover.

Lyric Fest Friday and Sunday

KieraDuffy7_credit_Steven_LaxtonA reminder that the first of two Lyric Fest performances featuring my “Waltzing the Spheres” will be Friday night, 7:30 pm, at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall. I heard a rehearsal with Kiera Duffy and Laura Ward earlier this week, and they sound marvelous. If you can’t be there on Friday, come to Sunday’s performance at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street in Philadelphia, at 3:00 pm. More on the piece here. That’s Kiera at left.