The performances page has been updated, with dates now in place for spring concerts by Peggy Pearson/Winsor Music, and the Philadelphia Sinfonia. A few more events will likely flesh out the schedule a bit, including a possible performance of the Piano Quintet at Penn, and a revival of a motet at Emmanuel Church. I’ll also be participating in an Exquisite Corpse project for Network for New Music, but more about that in another post.

I’m back now from my trip to Boston to hear the first performance of my George Herbert setting, The Call, as given by Ryan Turner and Emmanuel Music, as well as Christopher Oldfather’s performance of Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music program at the Longy School.

The visit was immediately after I played the slow movement of my Piano Quintet with the Daedalus Quartet last Friday night on Penn’s “Wail of the Voice!” concert. The movement is a set of variations, or a “meditation” as I put it in the movement title, on the African-American Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” I stick close to the tune for the first two statements, first by high cello over thick, soft piano chords, then by viola, over a simple pizzicato cello line. The next section breaks away from the form of the tune, instead building to a big climax of keening strings over a piano ostinato derived from the tune’s intervals. For the last statement of the theme, the second violin plays the tune one last time, while the first violin is a ghostly shadow of the second, playing in a higher register, more slowly, and in a different key. The lower strings and piano accompany with very soft and gradually sinking clustered harmonies. I was very impressed with the eloquence of all the quartet members throughout, but especially in their solos. I knew the Daedalus to be a superb ensemble, especially from hearing them play my own music. But performing with them let me know in a more intimate way just how fine this group truly is.

Here’s a shot of me with the quartet (Min-Young Kim, Matilda Kaul, Jessica Thompson, and Tom Kraines):

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and here is a picture of the four composers on the “Wail” concert, Anna Weesner, Jay Reise, Mike Fiday and myself:

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After the concert I caught an overnight Amtrak to Boston (thank God for the quiet car), which arrived early enough to let me hang out at a Starbucks reading this before heading over to Emmanuel Church for the first rehearsal of the new motet.

The singers of Emmanuel Music are incredibly fast learners, and I have been rather reckless at throwing challenges at them in the series of motets I have done for them over the years, both in terms of rhythm and pitch. They have never let me down. Ryan Turner’s rehearsal technique is thoughtful and efficient; he knew just what areas to pinpoint and work on. I learn more about the subtleties of the choral medium – the interaction of vowel color and intonation, for example – every time I observe him rehearse.

After rehearsal I enjoyed a tasty lunch at 29 Newbury with Ryan and Emmanuel’s energetic executive director, Pat Krol. Then it was off to meet with John Harbison and try out his Leonard Stein Anagrams, the set of short piano pieces I will be playing on a concert at Penn on February 26. I didn’t play too badly, and John generously overlooked my blunders and praised the things that (accidentally or otherwise) worked OK. Most importantly, I got my questions answered – about how certain notations should be interpreted (for example, a tenuto dash under a slur at the beginning of a phrase can mean a durational accent, not just a dynamic one.)

The next morning’s performance of The Call at the liturgy went well. There were two liturgical events especially worth mentioning. Rector Pamela Werntz preached, and tied in my piece with the gospel reading about Jesus calling the disciples – “listen to the call!” she said, and at that moment, a cell phone rang. The place cracked up. “It’s Jesus calling!” Pam remarked. The other moment was quite touching to me – being prayed for by name as part of the intercessions – thanks to Pam’s spouse, Joy Howard, who offered that petition.

Robert Levin’s recital that afternoon at Harvard’s Sanders Theater was astounding. I followed the scores I had brought for the Harbison 2nd sonata and the Bernard Rands Preludes, and you could have issued the concert as a CD, I don’t think he dropped a note, and the dynamics and articulations were so clearly articulated, you could have taken them down in dictation. That makes his playing sound cold, but it was far from that – the dark power of the Harbison and the exquisite color and lyricism of the Rands were fully present. There were charming and fierce short pieces by Yehudi Wyner and a premiere from a composer new to me, Hans Peter Türk. Here are the principals at a post-concert reception (L to R, Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, Robert Levin, and Bernard Rands):

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Now it was time for the Collage concert at the Longy School. The expert Collage players capably met the formidable demands of David Lang’s These Broken Wings. Crystallography by Kati Agócs was charming, like a folk music from some hitherto unknown culture. Brenna Wells was the vocal soloist, spinning lilting lines. After intermission, Christopher Oldfather played my piano consortium commission piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift with beauty of sound and no small amount of insight. He had a firm grasp of the character of the pieces. I was delighted by how he was able to clearly delineate multiple layers of events in the music. The warm effusions of Charles Fussell’s Pilgrim Voyage closed the program. I was honored to get some generously positive feedback from colleagues who were in attendance, including Yehudi Wyner and Robert Beaser. Gunther Schuller was there, 88 years old, looking rather frail – yet, he was present at both the Levin recital and the Collage concert. I was touched by his kind comments on my piece, as well as his remembrance of my time at Tanglewood some 30 years ago.

The Boston Musical Intelligencer reports on the Collage concert here.

Emmanuel Music will premiere my George Herbert setting The Call at this Sunday’s 10 am Emmanuel Church liturgy in Boston. You can read the text here; below is my brief program note on the piece:

Thirty years after setting George Herbert’s The Call in a folk style for use by the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University, I have returned to the text with a setting for Emmanuel Church that retains some melodic elements of the first version.

While I usually treat a text in a linear manner from beginning to end, in this piece I have broken open Herbert’s tightly bound form by freely repeating and fragmenting the poem in two contrapuntal Fantasias based on musical motifs from the Chorales that frame the motet.

As was the case with seven previous motets, I gratefully offer The Call as a gift to the Emmanuel community. But this piece is dedicated to a particular member of that community, to John Harbison on his 75th birthday: admired composer, generous advocate, dear friend.

I’m taking a break from working on my piece for this to let you know about some upcoming events. It will be a very busy few days at the end of this week. On Friday, January 24, Penn will offer its annual “Wail of the Voice!” program, featuring faculty and alumni composers. There will be music by current faculty Jay Reise, Anna Weesner, and myself, as well as alum Mike Fiday, performed by the Daedalus Quartet, flutist Michele Kelly and pianists Greg DeTurck, Matthew Bengtson, and myself. The concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, found at 34th and Walnut on the Penn campus here in Philadelphia. The 8:00 pm concert will be preceded by a 7:00 pm pre-concert discussion, with Penn grad student Neil Crimes as moderator.

It will be my first time playing piano in a concert performance in quite a while (playing at church or in the classroom is a different matter). The Daedalus and I will offer the slow movement from my 1996 Piano Quintet, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. As I remarked at rehearsal with the Daedalus, “you guys sound great, and my part is easy”, so this bodes well for a fine performance.

I’ll post the program notes for the Wail! concert during the course of this week. For now, let me point out the rest of my own busy weekend. After the concert at Penn I will take an overnight train to Boston, arriving for a Saturday morning rehearsal of my new setting of The Call, with Emmanuel Music and Ryan Turner conducting. That piece will receive its first performance at Emmanuel Church’s Sunday Eucharist, 10:00 am on January 26. On Sunday evening I will attend Christopher Oldfather’s performance of my consortium commission piano piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music concert. It’s an 8:00 pm concert, 7:15 pre-concert chat, this at the Longy School in Cambridge. Between my two Sunday performances, I hope to attend Robert Levin’s piano recital at Harvard, featuring piano works by Wyner, Harbison, Türk, and Rands. And on Saturday afternoon (assuming I haven’t collapsed from lack of sleep on the train) I will meet with John Harbison to try out some of his Leonard Stein Anagrams for him, in preparation for my February 26 performance of them here in Philadelphia.

I am writing this as a break from working on a new motet for Emmanuel Church, the latest in a series of pieces I have made over the last two decades for that remarkable community and its remarkable musical traditions. The text is a George Herbert poem, the same one that Vaughan Williams used in the Five Mystical Songs:

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

I believe my colleague Carson Cooman has set the text as well. I am sure there must be other composers who have been attracted to the lapidary quality of this poem.

I am working a little differently from my customary process of keeping one eye on the text while composing and taking the form of the poem as a compositional constraint. Here I find myself – at least in portions of the piece – working out the musical shapes first, then fitting text to those shapes. Of course, the musical motifs were first suggested by the rhythms and inflections of the poem, but I am letting musical considerations determine how long a section goes or what dramatic contour it projects, rather than the piece being fundamentally text-driven. I wouldn’t call it a deconstruction; what I am doing is rather more mild-mannered than that. But I can’t recall when I have treated a poem in quite such a non-linear manner. It’s a way of breaking free of a tightly circumscribed poetic form, I suppose.

If I finish this soon enough, it will be heard at the Sunday Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston, on January 26. Time to get back to work.

I am happy to report that I have received a commission from the extraordinary chamber choir The Crossing, to compose a work to be premiered in the performance space called The Icebox, part of the Crane Arts Building here in Philadelphia.

Here is what I wrote about my proposed piece in my application to the commission competition:

In describing the Crane Icebox space, the competition guidelines refer to it as an “industrial cathedral.” This suggested to me a work that would reflect both the cathedral-like qualities of the space as well as the paradox inherent in the juxtaposition of those two terms. I propose a work that will set portions of the traditional Latin texts for the Mass alongside excerpts from Denise Levertov’s cycle of poems “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus”. Levertov’s choice to refer to the apostle known as “doubting Thomas” in her cycle’s title reflects the struggles of her own faith journey. “Industrial cathedral”, with its suggestion of human effort set alongside divine possibility strikes me as resonating with the figure of St. Thomas, whose story in the Gospel brings together both the skeptical and the faith-filled.

My proposed work will call for a small group of singers, perhaps three or four, to function as a schola, singing the traditional Latin Mass texts using a musical vocabulary that evokes plainchant but in a modern harmonic idiom; something ritualistic, austere, stylized. This schola will be placed at one side of the Icebox space, while the main body of the choir will be positioned at another side, and will sing the Levertov texts in a more dramatic and expansive idiom, though motivically related to the music for the Latin settings. The possibilities for choral antiphony are obvious. At times the groups will simply be contrasted, at other times they may be more dramatically juxtaposed, with the schola being heard amidst openings in the larger choral texture, or with the larger group providing a contemplative sonic space in which the schola can perform its rituals.

I am very excited to be working on this. Although I have written a number of short motets (and am presently trying to finish another one for a January premiere at Emmanuel Church), this piece is the biggest unaccompanied choral work I will have attempted. The premiere will be June 28, 2014.

Go here for a substantial set of videos featuring Emmanuel Music’s Ryan Turner, along with John Harbison and Richard Dyer discussing John’s The Great Gatsby, to be performed by Emmanuel in Boston’s Jordan Hall this coming Sunday, May 12. Of particular interest in the videos are segments where John and Ryan perform excerpts from the piece, illustrating how the same motives and harmonies can be heard in both the synthetic period pop songs and in the main body of the work.

The Albany Symphony’s performance of a suite from The Great Gatsby as part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival is tomorrow night, May 7 – tickets here.

Judging from what you can hear on the trailer, you won’t be going to the upcoming film of The Great Gatsby for the music. Seekers of a musical Gatsby should be getting their tickets for the Boston premiere of John Harbison’s opera on the subject, being given by Emmanuel Music in a concert version featuring the the full orchestration.*  This will take place at Jordan Hall on Sunday, May 12.

A few days before the Boston performance you can preview some of the music from the opera in a May 7 Carnegie Hall concert by the Albany Symphony, with David Alan Miller conducting. The program will include a suite from Harbison’s work, alongside music by Gershwin and Morton Gould. This is part of Carnegie’s Spring for Music festival of orchestral concerts.

It is nearly inexplicable to me that Harbison’s opera was not more universally praised on its first appearance. I say “nearly” because the tempi of conductor James Levine did make the piece lose momentum at moments, leading critics to interpret a performance flaw as a compositional one. There was certainly plenty of praise for the piece, as the quotes on G. Schirmer’s web page confirm. But apart from Bernard Holland’s despicably condescending take, most of the reviews mix admiration with niggling at details, or vague reservations. Alex Ross didn’t care of the setting of Gatsby’s first entrance, with a long note on the first word of “I’m Gatsby.” What did he want, a long note on the first syllable of “Gatsby”? You’d have something akin to the current fad of goat vocalism on YouTube. Mark Swed remarks that “Harbison may have solved too many problems.” He would prefer that the piece have unsolved problems? It’s hard to know what that means, given that Swed goes on to describe how the composer succeeds in creating a dramatic narrative. I was amused to read how Holland and Swed had precisely opposite opinions on the staging and design of the production.

Listening to the piece again on the recording issued by the Met as part of a James Levine 40th anniversary CD collection, one thing that struck me, besides Levine’s tendency to drag the pacing at moments, was how poorly the chorus sounds, singing the synthetic 20’s pop songs with an unpleasantly and totally inappropriate heavy vibrato. (I’m sure Emmanuel won’t have that problem.) Still, the performances by the all-star cast (Upshaw, Hadley, Hunt-Lieberson, Graham) make up for these deficiencies. It’s good to have the recording because repeated listenings confirm that the piece is musically substantive in a way that few post-war operas are. There is a real composer at work here, folks – maybe the problem with the reception of the piece is that listeners to contemporary opera aren’t accustomed to that.

* In an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the chamber orchestra version (prepared for a production in San Francisco) was being done. Apologies to Emmanuel Music for the error!

UV01I was very sorry to hear today that Mary Ruth Ray, violist of the Lydian String Quartet and a performer with Emmanuel Music, has died of cancer at the age of 56. There is an article here from Brandeis where she taught and chaired the music department. (Note the slideshow link – some great pictures.)

The Lyds over the years have made a terrific contribution to new music. I’m familiar with their fine recordings of music by Harbison, Mackey, and Hyla, and I experienced their excellence myself several years ago when they performed my 2nd Quartet. I didn’t know Mary Ruth well, but in that performance of my quartet, and in observing her work with Emmanuel, I gained a sense of her quiet excellence.

Fifty-six, my own age. And two In Memoriam posts in a row. (photo credit: Mike Lovett)

UPDATE: Boston Globe obit here.