“Motherless Child” in Philly, “The Call” and “Contraption” in Boston

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.

Wail – 2014 edition and more

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.

Gatsby Videos

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.

Rejoicing Resounding

I’m on the Acela after a fine brunch with Emmanuel Church friends Ryan Turner and Pat Krol – this after the service at which my Gaudete in Domino was premiered. As I expected, the choir did a great job.  By calling for a slightly earlier rehearsal time before the service  than usual, Ryan (the group’s conductor) got the ensemble some extra time to touch on various details of my piece. Ryan knows what he wants – a slightly different emphasis in the text, a warmer sound here, a lighter sound there – and knows how to ask for it; the choir, in turn, knows how to respond to his requests, and does so with skill and with abundant good will. The congregation at Emmanuel is uniquely trained to listen intently, having listened to weekly Bach cantatas and other great stuff for years. So they are uncommonly receptive to my music, often responding with unusually insightful comments. One gentleman this morning remarked on my setting of the words “Dominus prope est”  - the Lord is at hand. He noted that the customary reading of this line associates it with the imminent arrival of the Lord at the end of time (the scripture texts for Advent have an apocalyptic side). My setting – pianissimo, warmly harmonized, low in register – represented another reading: a sense of calm assurance about the Lord’s presence here and now.

Emmanuel Church is indeed a place where the Lord’s presence can be felt – a place where the hidden wholeness of which Thomas Merton wrote breaks into our lives. I’ll say it again: for this I am deeply grateful.

Emmanuel Music’s website here, Facebook page here.

update: My shots from Sunday’s rehearsal mostly didn’t come out well – just this one seems worth sharing:

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update #2: Emmanuel parishioner Elizabeth Richardson was kind enough to pass along a picture taken at the post-Eucharist gathering for hospitality. Here I am (on the left) with parishioner Michael Scanlon (I dig the bowtie, Michael. There were some nice ones among the choir members as well.)

James Primosch & Micheal Scanlon

Rejoicing is Complete

I finished the motet I mentioned in my last post, Gaudete in Domino (Rejoice in the Lord). The first performance will come up very soon: it will be done at the 10 am Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church in Boston on December 16. Ryan Turner will conduct. The choir of Emmanuel Music is quite fantastic – the church is renowned for performing a Bach cantata in the context of the Eucharist each Sunday. BWV 136, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, will be done on the 16th.

Gaudete is the seventh in a series of motets I have written for Emmanuel since 1994, and you can read more about my experiences with Emmanuel here and here, among other posts. The group can do pretty much anything I throw at them, and do it beautifully.

Here’s how the piece starts:

gaudete

 

 

 

All Saint’s Day Miscellany

- Network for New Music’s season opener is this coming Sunday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 pm at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Program includes music by Ingrid Arauco, Joseph Hallman, Louis Karchin, Thomas Kraines, Andrew Rudin, Arne Running, and Robert Schultz.

- John Harbison talks about his 2nd Symphony here.

- the Library of Congress lets you see Elliott Carter’s sketches for his Piano Sonata, among other pieces,  here.

- visit The Crooked Line to read how extraordinary a place Boston’s Emmanuel Church is, and why it is not a bad idea to have an artistic director who is also a gifted tenor. I have plans for a new Emmanuel motet, too early to let on about details.

- I have just about finished setting this poem for voice and piano, again, more details later.

Boston Adventure, Concluded

Two Arms of the Harbor, my new motet, was premiered at the 10 am Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston this past Sunday. In the past, Emmanuel has slotted my motets after the opening prayer but before the first reading. This time they did the piece after the first reading, in lieu of a responsorial psalm, I suppose. I am not sure this was the best strategy. The readings were very well done, but I think the music had too much expressive weight to successfully work between them. Music between the readings should not overwhelm the scriptures, which are the primary focus of that part of the service, and my piece is too emotionally hot and packed with incident to not be a little overpowering in that spot. At the time I thought about how I would not want to be doing the second reading right after the motet. The vibe in the room was attentive and I think the piece hit home, partly because of how it felt at the time, partly because of the warm comments after the service. Thank you to whoever removed their vocalizing child from the church while my piece was being done!

I was sorry to not hear the church’s rector, Rev. Pamela Werntz preach, but the visiting homilist, Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew (a retired bishop, if I understand correctly) did well. And it was a pleasure to celebrate a baptism as well – congratulations to the Miles Family! I thought Sumner Thompson, bass, did a superb job with the cantata after communion, BWV 158. John Harbison has a good note speculating about this somewhat unusual piece. The aria with chorale – layering a florid (flaying a lurid? sorry.) solo singer with an even more florid violin obligato (Heidi Braun-Hill), a walking continuo bass and a chorale tune sung by the women of the chorus – was the quietly spectacular high point. The text of the final chorale, right out of Luther, is almost surrealistic:

Here is the true Easter-lamb,
offered up by God,
which was, high on the cross’ stalk,
roasted in hot love,
the blood marks our door
faith holds it against death,
the strangler can no longer harm us,
Hallelujah!

There was a lovely brunch after the service and coffee hour, glad to have a chance to chat with various Emmanuel friends, including fellow blogger Joy Howard, who is Rev. Pam’s spouse.

Sunday evening I attended a fund raiser for Collage New Music. The event featured some chat between the group’s music director, David Hoose, and guest Augusta Read Thomas with some short pieces of Gusty played in first-rate performances. I’m sorry I didn’t catch the name of the violinist and cellist, but the pianist was the splendid Christopher Oldfather – Chris and I go back some 20 years or more, to the first performance of my Three Sacred Songs with soprano Christine Schadeberg. His performance of excerpts from Gusty’s Tracings was stunning. Here are some pictures from the event, including a shot of Gusty and I with Gunther Schuller:

 

and one with Chris Oldfather:

The coda to the Boston trip was a visit to NYC for the American Music Center annual meeting. The AMC/MTC/ACF merger/re-arrangement was discussed, official decision not yet made until votes are tallied. John Harbison received an award:

Among the friends at the meeting were fellow Columbia alums Eric Chasalow (l.) and Paul Moravec:

Now it’s back to grading papers and chairmanly duties at Penn. But good to see friends, good to hear some music.

Boston Adventure, part two

After Saturday morning’s rehearsal with Emmanuel Music, I had a great lunch at 29 Newbury with Ryan Turner (Emmanuel Music Director) and Pat Krol (Emmanuel executive director). (Check out the tomato soup and the pulled pork sandwich.) After a long walk in the Public Garden (amazing tulips) I made my way over to Brandeis where the 2011 BEAMS Electronic Music Marathon was in progress. Twelve hours of electronic and mixed media works! I caught nearly half the event, arriving – regrettably – too late for music by some familiar names, among them: David Felder, James Dashow, William Coble, Kaija Saariaho, Hans Tutschku, and Dennis Miller – and some not so familiar names: Ferdinando De Sena, Jeremy Podgursky, Michel van der Aa, Malin Bång, and a good many others. The unfamiliar names were mostly European, and one of the good things about the mix of pieces was the inclusion of music from Europe that is not often heard in this country. There was a chronological mix as well including older pieces such as …sofferte onde serene… of Nono, from 1976 (has not worn well) and Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco from 1980 by Jonathan Harvey (still sounds fabulous, especially nice to hear it in a hall with a multi-channel setup). There were a lot of pieces that involved live processing, but much of this mostly just involved putting a live player through a laptop that served as a sophisticated stomp box providing variations on delay. There seemed to be a limited array of compositional options: either the processed version accumulates the notes as though the piano pedal was depressed (the homophony strategy); or something that was just played gets repeated, looped or not (sort of canon at the unison). Pieces for what we used to call “instrument and tape” – now the expression is “instrument and fixed media” – were also heard. Performances were at a very high level throughout the evening. A few standouts:

the forgotten dialect of autumn by Heather Stebbins – memorably lyric violin lines played by Krista Buckland Reisner, with live electronics.

Winter Fragments by spectralist master Tristan Murail – the Boston-based group Sound Icon playing with live processing, plus video imagery by Herve Bailly-Basin – mostly aqueous images, sometimes crystalline, mostly responding to the music in a direct way, and therefore suggesting a high end  iTunes visualizer. (Just as the laptop ends up being a fancy stompbox. Fancy technology does not always mean a fancy result.)

Rope and Chasm by Matthew Greenbaum –  Re’ut Ben Ze’ev, mezzo soprano, narrating, singing, and interacting with a video. The piece is based on Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; one memorable moment was when the mezzo reached up her hand to a wounded figure in the video, casting her hand’s shadow onto the screen – a simple gesture, but quite touching.

Strange Autumn by Steven Kazuo Takasugi – a theater piece with narration, electronic sound and a percussionist making amplified noises with various pieces of paper. Something oddly moving about making a piece with such impoverished means.

Scuffle & Snap by Eric Chasalow – an heir to the Davidovsky tradition, Brandeis faculty member Chasalow, who curated the marathon, offered another one of his finely crafted studies in, as he put it in a program note, “building heightened dramatic structures around traditional instruments”. He continues, “I like to use a wide variety of sound sources, recontextualized, but very resonant with memories.” Chasalow’s work is important because he is not just an electronic music composer, he is an electronic music composer; the way he carefully shapes musical gestures and their interaction was a welcome contrast with much of the music heard that day.

The last piece I heard was Davidovsky’s Synchronism No. 12, played with her customary verve and lively array of colors by clarinetist Jean Kopperud. This is the most recent in the series of pieces for instruments and electronic sound by the original maestro of the medium. Here is Jean just before playing the piece:

By now it was getting close to midnight, and time for me to go get some sleep before the next morning’s church service with my motet at Emmanuel. More soon.

My Excellent Boston Adventure

The primary reason for visiting Boston this past weekend was to attend the first performance of my new motet Two Arms of the Harbor by Emmanuel Music. This took place at the regular 10:00 am Eucharist at Emmanuel Church with Ryan Turner conducting. The choir did a fantastic job, learning the piece in one intense rehearsal the day before, plus a touch-up on Sunday. It was like my experience with the Chicago Symphony: very good sight-reading, though a bit of disarray, and then an incredible amount of improvement between the first reading and the second. Like a first-rate orchestra, the Emmanuel choristers are very fast learners. I didn’t make things easy for them. The rhythmic language is sometimes a bit challenging (not every choir can do a decent eighth note quintuplet the way they can), and there is a dense stretto passage where the harmony gets more chromatic. For that passage, I wanted, and got, the leggiero quality I hear in this choir’s singing of similarly contrapuntal passages in the Bach cantatas. My piece has a lot of short sections packed into 4 or 5 minutes, and make it all hang together involves some crucial nuances of tempo, dynamic and color. Here all glory goes to Ryan Turner who led a wonderfully characterful performance. When I asked for a big upbeat bar to have a ritardando “like Bernstein conducting Mahler”, or suggested that a passage should sound like the singers are sleepwalking, Ryan knew just what to do and how to make it happen. I am intensely grateful for this beautiful performance, as well as for the customary Emmanuel hospitality. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: this is a community that knows how to listen, and brings an attentive and sympathetic ear to the music I have written for them. I have worked as a church musician since high school, and have had wonderful experiences, but nothing like Emmanuel. To experience a connection with a worshipping community that is nourished by music in this way is deeply nourishing for me in turn. Thank you, dear Emmanuel. More specifically, thank you to Pat Krol, executive director of Emmanuel Music, for her energetic attention to detail; to Rev. Pamela Werntz, the rector of Emmanuel, who truly knows how to facilitate the assembly’s prayer; and to John Harbison, principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music, who kindly took the time in a busy day to attend Saturday’s rehearsal and offer good advice and moral support.

Before the Emmanuel events on Saturday and Sunday I attended Dawn Upshaw’s recital at Jordan Hall on Friday night. Soho the Dog has written more eloquently than I could about the concert, with its carefully chosen twenty-four songs by almost as many composers. I would need to hear the program again to pick up all the connections between and among the pieces: shared keys, musical motifs, textual imagery. Even with all these connections, there was no simplistic route from song to song; the connections were real, but often allusive rather than explicit. Dawn sounded great. No, she’s not thirty anymore, and the voice has changed a bit. But the extraordinary ability to communicate in a direct manner has not. Stephen Prutsman was her superb partner. He looks very grounded when he plays, sitting well back in a chair rather than on a bench. His physical activity at the keyboard is sleek, sometimes quite minimal.  But, perhaps as a compensation for his lack of superfluous motion when actually playing the notes, he likes to conduct himself with an unoccupied hand, as well as having a repertoire of peculiar releases – some miming vibrato, for example.

OK, enough for one post – back soon for more on the BEAMS marathon and more. Here are some shots of Emmanuel Music in rehearsal: