I was in NYC on Monday for the BMI Student Awards reception. Thank you to Deirdre Chadwick, BMI’s Executive Director for Classical Music, and her colleagues for a lovely gathering marking an important program, and of course congrats to the winners (sorry, I don’t seem to be able to find a list of winners online at the moment…)

By a happy coincidence, the New York New Music Ensemble was playing at Merkin Hall that evening, so I caught a program of works by Mathew Rosenblum and the late Lee Hyla. There were three chamber works by Lee, all very strong, full of energy, wit, visceral intensity and musical intelligence. Polish Folk Songs (2007) was especially striking for its keening clarinets played by Jean Kopperud and Meighan Stoops. Mathew’s big piece for soprano, sextet and fixed media, Falling (2013) took up the second half. It’s a rich, strange amalgam, including a recording of James Dickey reading his poem about the accidental death of a stewardess, haunting phrases from soprano Jamie Jordan, and microtones woven into dream-like instrumental textures. As Mathew noted in his program note, the piece’s reflections on mortality took on “a special meaning… as we approach the one year anniversary of Lee Hyla’s passing.” It was a pleasure to observe the elegant virtuosity of both NYNME regulars (Jean Kopperud, clarinets; Linda Quan, violin; Christopher Finckel, cello; Daniel Druckman, percussion; and Stephen Gosling, piano) and their guests (James Baker, conductor; Jamie Jordan, soprano; Kelli Kathman, flute; Lois Martin, viola; Meghan Stoops, clarinet; with composer Mathew Rosenblum assisting with the electronic component of his piece).

With a little time to spare before the BMI party started, I sat in the southeast corner of Central Park, checking out some architecture, landscape, and ducks of New York.




…you’ll never know. That’s the legendary answer to the question “What is swing?” I suppose that might be the reasonable response to the questions I have about some points raised in the must-read interview Nicholas Payton gave to Ethan Iverson over at Do the Math. But still, I’ll ask. Payton and Iverson talk about working with classical musicians, and I wonder exactly what is going on in situations like this:

EI:  I haven’t had the experience of having a full orchestra read something that I wrote, but I’ve been around a lot of classical musicians trying to play something with an American beat and it’s always worse than expected.

NP:  I’m really shocked.

EI:  Even basic even-eighth note syncopations won’t lay right.

NP:  And triplets! Triplets really messed them up, and I thought, “Well, it’s a triplet.”

EI:  It’s funny because they can probably play five in the time of four, but really playing three in the time of two will hang them up, right?

I don’t doubt what these gentlemen are saying, I just wonder what is going on when the “even-eighth note syncopations won’t lay right”. Rushing? dragging? inconsistency? steady, but incorrectly placed with regard to the pulse? something with accentuation or articulation? How about when the “triplets really messed them up”? It partly depends on whether we are talking about slow or fast triplets. When I ask my musicianship students to execute a moderately slow three against two, a few of them can’t play the triplets evenly, and end up doing a pattern of two dotted eighths and an eighth note instead of three equal triplet quarters. Was that happening? The thing is, you obviously have to play even-eighth note syncopations and three in the time of two to play European classical music well. But something was going wrong in the situations Iverson and Payton describe, and I am curious as to exactly what it was.

I have to say I don’t know anybody who can do a precise five against four who can’t play a good three against two. But, again, what does it mean to play a good three against two?

Classes have ended at my day job, just an exam to give and much grading. I will have more time for the project on the front burner, a big piece for violin and piano for Tai Murray and Anton Nel,  commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for a premiere in Philly next February. Here’s Tai playing Copland:

And here Anton plays Mozart:

– Speaking of first-class pianism, Marilyn Nonken will be coming to Penn twice next season, for a colloquium in September, and a recital in January. Go here for a fascinating interview with Marilyn.

– I’ll be in NYC for the BMI Student Awards on May 18, and after the ceremony, will head over to Merkin Hall to hear the New York New Music Ensemble play Lee Hyla and Matthew Rosenblum. Info here.

– don’t forget to check the upcoming performances listing at the very bottom of this page or via the performances link at the top of the page. My music will be heard in LA; NYC; Easton, MD; Philadelphia; and Tanglewood in the next few months.

icons_cdI just learned that Ben Fingland, clarinet, and Stephen Gosling, piano, will perform my 1984 work for clarinet, piano and electronic sound called Icons at a concert on Staten Island on June 14 at 3:30 pm. The concert is part of a series called Music at St. Alban’s, and while I don’t know all the program details, it sounds like a reprise of the Voixtronica program Ben, Steve, and Ben’s wife, the violist and composer Jessica Meyer, offered at Penn not so long ago. Go here for details on the St. Alban’s concert, and here for the New World cd recording of Icons, with Jean Kopperud and Aleck Karis.

imagesRavel – by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. This novel – a series of sketches, really – covers the last decade of Ravel’s life, especially the physical and mental decline of his later years. It’s a life full of acclaim, travel, carefully chosen clothing, Gauloise cigarettes, boredom and insomnia. The book’s tone is cool, selectively detailed (Adam Gopnik’s forward elegantly describes the author as a “fanatic miniaturist” but not a “minimalist”) and elegiac. It deserves a place on the shelf near James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel about the later life of Elgar, Gerontius, another book about musical genius in decline.

UnknownThe Midnight Blues, Standard Time Volume 5. Wynton Marsalis. An album of melancholy standards with a blue chip rhythm section (Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) and string orchestra arrangements by Robert Freedman. The arrangements are above average, with attractively dark harmonic colors (is that a 12-tone row at one point?), though inevitably when the strings swell up I am transported to the easy listening radio show my mother used to listen to on Sundays back in 1970’s Cleveland (“Journey into Melody” with Joe Black). Marsalis commands a million different colors and modes of articulation, with Armstrong-esque glissandi, and remarkable command of vibrato and fine distinctions of pitch. But an album of ballads is no easy thing to sustain, and Marsalis’s virtuosity gets the better of him at a few moments, with irrelevant displays of facility. Maybe the tag on “The Party’s Over” is supposed to suggest a desire for the party to continue?

2015nominee-georgewalkerHere’s a chance to offer a modest gesture of respect for a formidable artist: go to this site and vote for George Walker who is a 2015 nominee for the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Also of interest: several works by Walker will be featured on the Mannes Beethoven Institute concert series later this spring; go here for details.

I’m back now from hearing two performances of my Oboe Quartet as well as one of a choral piece at locations in Boston and New Hampshire.

Spring is finally evident at Boston’s Public Garden:


That shot was taken on Saturday morning before I strolled over to Emmanuel Church:


where I attended a rehearsal of my motet One With the Darkness, One With the Light. Ryan Turner conducted this short piece, scored for treble voices only. (Sorry, I don’t have everyone’s name!)




Later that day I was in Peterborough, New Hampshire to hear Peggy Pearson, oboe, and the Apple Hill String Quartet (Elisa Kuder and Colleen Jennings, violins; Michael Kelley, viola; and Rupert Thompson, cello) play Haydn, Brahms, and my new Oboe Quartet, a Winsor Music commission. The performance was in Bass Hall, a handsome room in the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. (More about their playing below, in connection with their Brookline performance.) I visited a park a short walk from the center while waiting for my takeout dinner from the Peterborough Diner (I recommend the onion rings).


The motet went very well the next morning at Emmanuel. The performances there are consistently strong, but in this case the brevity of the piece and the use of just the treble voices yielded an exceptionally focussed and detailed performance. By a curious bit of synchronicity, the sermon preached by Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew made mention of Wendell Berry, a reference Rev. Grew told me later was written in without him knowing that my motet setting a Berry text would be heard that morning. (photo: Elizabeth Richardson)

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Spring – and the Easter season –  was making itself felt inside Emmanuel, in the form of huge paper or maybe fabric flowers suspended over the nave:


It was nice to see John Harbison at the service (photo: Elizabeth Richardson):


There was a full house at St. Paul’s in Brookline for a reprise of the previous night’s concert, the last in the Winsor Music Chamber Series for the season. The Haydn was a transcription of Symphony No. 97 that included oboe with the quartet. I thought the arrangement worked well, and especially enjoyed the warm, fluent bass playing of Lawrence Wolfe, who was not at the NH performance. This was now the third time out for these players in my new quartet, and though they sounded great at the premiere, now they had even greater command of the piece. It was a passionate performance, well-received by an audience that filled the church. After intermission there was one of Winsor Music’s “Song for the Spirit” commissions, a brief hymn-like setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” composed by Eric Nathan, and intended for audience participation, though mezzo Katie Hoyer’s demonstration of the tune was so lovely that it might have made a few of the listeners hesitate to add their voices on the second go-around. The Brahms Quartet in A minor closed the program, in a performance memorable for its long sweeping lines and elegantly shaped details. Here’s a picture from the reception after the concert (L to R: Mike Kelley, Elise Kuder, myself, Peggy Pearson, Rupert Thompson, Colleen Jennings):

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The next morning there was a cardinal outside my window, waiting to say goodbye:


I’ll be hearing Peggy do the quartet again on June 18, this time with a different group of string players, at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival.

I’ll be heading to my performances this weekend in Peterborough, Boston, and Brookline, but if I didn’t have gigs of my own I would be considering the following:

– my Penn colleague Guthrie Ramsey plays at the Blue Note this Friday, April 24 (see poster below). Check out Dr. Guy’s blog, Musiqology.

– The New York Virtuoso Singers offer a program with works by Luigi Dallapiccola, Elliott Carter, Thea Musgrave, George Perle, George Tsontakis, Hugo Weisgall, Karol Rathaus, Joel Mandelbaum, Leo Kraft, Allen Brings, Edward Smaldone, Bruce Saylor and David Schober at Merkin Hall in NYC on Saturday, April 25, 8:30 pm.

Bowerbird presents Either/OR playing For Philip Guston by Morton Feldman in a free concert at The Rotunda in Philadelphia this coming Sunday, April 26. The performance begins at 3 pm. Scored for piano/celesta, flute, and percussion, this is a work in Feldman’s late super-long style; the piece will last about 4 and a half hours.



The mercurial voice of Uri Caine‘s pianism met the polished ensemble work of the Prism Saxophone Quartet last week at the WXPN World Cafe here in Philadelphia in a program presented by Live Connections.

It’s always a pleasure to hear a jazz musician work over a standard tune – knowing the underlying structures of a piece helps you grasp more clearly what the artist is doing. But for Uri, “standards” include the European classical canon. And so he started with the Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545. It was more of a fantasia on the materials of the piece rather than an embellishment of a straightforward circuit of the form, though at times a good bit of the structure could be traced beneath the busy textures. There were moments when pulses moving at different rates of speed gave a quasi-cubist perspective, looking at the same material from two angles simultaneously. The playful wit of bringing Mozartean gestures into contact with bits of stride or with bebop harmonies, with the resulting contrasting textures juxtaposed at lightning speed, required both pianistic and improvisational virtuosity.

Uri was more restrained when he played over two pieces by Jacob TV, whose work I had not previously encountered. Postnuclear Winterscenario No. 10 was restrained and remarkable pretty, given that title, while Pitch Black combined recordings of Chet Baker’s voice with Andriessen-esque minimalism. There were two short movements by Matthew Levy, harmonically sensitive and beautifully written for the quartet. The program closed with the premiere of a big suite by Uri for both he and Prism, The Book of Days. The seven movements had moods suggested by the particular time of day and day of the week. “Friday 5 pm” evoked rush hour, while “Sunday 11 am” was time for the players to take it to church. The writing was lively and imaginative but quite dense, and seven movements of that kind of density, combined with a harshly amplified piano, made for a listening experience that was a bit wearing. But there was superb playing and vivid compositional thinking throughout.

l to r: Uri Caine, Zachary Shemon, Robert Young, Matthew Levy, Taimur Sullivan