My good friend and admired colleague Melinda Wagner is featured in the latest New Music Box, with a substantial interview and video. Mindy is the real thing, with a body of orchestral and chamber music that speaks powerfully to heart and to mind. I wrote about her trombone concerto here. Paul Dunkel plays her Pulitzer Prize winner flute concerto with the Westchester Philharmonic, Mark Mandarano, conductor, on a Bridge CD that you can sample in this video:
Here is the mentor and his mentorees: L to R, Philip Maneval, Yinam Leef, Richard Wernick, Melinda Wagner, and myself, taken after the April 18 concert of music by students of Dick Wernick held at the Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia.
Dick told the story of the graffito above the urinal in the men’s room in the Penn Music Department annex, the building where the faculty composers’ offices used to be. The inscription read: “Rochberg is the Father, Crumb is the Holy Ghost, and Wernick is the Son of a Bitch.” Yes, Dick was a challenging teacher, as some of us wrote in the program book for the concert. (Find the program notes here, here, here and here.) But there is more to the man than that, as I know from the kindnesses he showed me decades ago when I was ill with the same disease that took the life of his son. It would have been quite understandable if Dick went running in the other direction when he got word of my diagnosis. Instead, he was on the phone to me with advice, with names of doctors, with generous support. I count myself fortunate to know Dick Wernick.
And you will be fortunate if you check out his music! Try the recordings on Bridge of his concerti, or of his chamber music, or the one with big sonatas written for Lambert Orkis by Dick and myself. These are all splendid performances of Dick’s powerful, beautifully made pieces.
Speaking of performances, the players of the Daedalus Quartet, the Trio Cavatina, Elizabeth Hainen and Burchard Tang were superb in some very challenging music last week. These were high-calorie pieces, densely argued, with wide-ranging expressive demands. The performances were notable for their passion and sharply etched character. I was delighted with the performance of my quartet, and was astonished at how the Daedalus took on not just my piece, but three substantial works, all played with uncommon care.
Readers of this blog will know how very strongly I believe in the music of Melinda Wagner – if you haven’t read it, here is my post on her Trombone Concerto. Mindy and I followed a somewhat similar path in that we followed a Penn Master’s degree with a doctorate elsewhere – Columbia for me, U Chicago for Mindy. We were not at Penn at the same time, and only got to know each other later. I consider myself lucky to count her as a friend, and I look forward to every new piece from her.
Here is Mindy’s reflection on Dick Wernick in connection with this Thursday’s concert that will include her Pan Journal:
I have known Dick Wernick since the inaugural year of the Delaware County Youth Orchestra—1971. Dick was a creator and conductor of this orchestra, and I sat somewhere near the back of the cello section for most of my high school years.
It was around this time that I began to drive my mother and all of my teachers to utter desperation: I was constantly at the piano composing (well, it was improvising really), yet I refused to practice traditional keyboard skills and didnʼt know how to read music properly. My schoolwork was mediocre at best. Perhaps as a favor to my poor mother, Dick generously allowed me to perform several of my compositions for him, among them a little blues number entitled, “Iʼm an Unwanted Woman in the Gutter of Love.” Dick took me on as a student regardless, and the experience changed my life completely. I say this without exaggeration.
Years later, as a graduate student at Penn, I had the wonderful opportunity to study with Dick again. We discussed the key elements of great music—clarity, strength of design, dramatic pacing, compelling voice leading, counterpoint, and yes, integrity—elements that ring loud and clear in Dickʼs own music. While it rarely makes my work easier, I carry these discussions into my own studio every single day. Dick always knew what I was trying to say musically, no matter how tangled up I became in my attempts to be a COMPOSER. He was encouraging when praise was warranted, yet had no tolerance for either “fudging” or “schmeer.” Ultimately, I found our lessons to be inspiring, exhilarating; indeed, I always left the building on 34th Street with the determination to do better. Dick still has the uncanny ability to step into a composerʼs shoes, simply by looking at the score. And I show him every new piece to this day.
Dick continues to be one of the most important people in my life—someone who has changed my life. He has been my dear, dear friend for all these years, and I owe him so much. I love you Dick.
Melinda Wagner (Pulitzer Prize, 1999): Pan Journal
James Primosch (current Penn faculty): Quartet No. 3
Yinam Leef (President, Rubin Academy, Jerusalem): Quartet No. 2
Philip Maneval (Executive Director, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society): Quartet in C-sharp, Op. 50
My third quartet was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and premiered by the Ying Quartet in 1999. Here is a program listing and note on the piece:
String Quartet No. 3 (1999)
I. Theme and Variations
Var. 1: Andante Moderato
Var. 2: Allegretto Grazioso
Var. 3: Vivace
Var. 4: Prestissimo
II. Fantasia: Allegro Ansioso
Var. 5: Adagio
III. Finale: Vivace, Poco Scherzando
After writing a series of pieces that either set texts or relied on pre-existing melodies (old sacred tunes) as compositional resources, I set out to create a more autonomous, abstract world in my Quartet No. 3. My efforts yielded a somewhat unusual formal scheme: a theme and variations set is first interrupted by an anxious (“ansioso”) and expressionistic Fantasia; then resumes for a single variation, infiltrated by the gestures of the Fantasia. A viola cadenza follows, introducing a rondo-like finale. This attempt to cap the piece in a playful spirit is surprised by another reprise of the slow variation theme, this time in a simple unison statement. The entire sequence plays without pauses and runs about 20 minutes.
Philip Maneval at PCMS requested that each of the composers write a note on their experience working with Dick as a student at Penn. Here is my note:
Some teachers of composition make it easier for the student to compose; some make it harder. Richard Wernick made it harder, and I am grateful that he did. Dick encouraged me to think deeply about fundamental musical issues, to work at making pitches truly matter, to hold myself to the toughest standards, to avoid simplistic solutions. Striving in his own composing for similar goals, he earned the right to be a kind of biblical prophet, issuing a radically uncompromising call to the highest artistic ideals. Thank you, Dick, for continuing to strive, for clinging to your vision of what a composer can be, for enriching us all with music of substance and expressive power.
That’s Dick in the photo above, taken by Yinam Leef’s son, Adam. It could be Dick the magician, conjuring up a new work – or sending it off into the world, in flight.
Network for New Music gave an excellent performance last night of my Chamber Concerto. This is not an easy piece – I wrote it for the hyper-virtuosi of Speculum Musicae, with Allen Blustine as clarinet soloist – but the Network ensemble pulled it off in style. Soloist Ben Fingland had full command of the part, not only the rapid flurries of notes, but the most delicate nuances, including some uncannily soft high register tones. The players relished the jazzy parts of the last movement. My one small regret was that I don’t feel I tweaked some of the synthesizer patches quite properly; Linda Reichert covered the part just fine, but if the piece is done again I would make some of the patches a little more resonant, with longer decays and capable of a wider dynamic range. Besides Ben and Linda, the players were Paul Arnold, violin; Tom Kraines, cello; Mary Javian, double bass; Christopher Deviney, percussion; and Charles Abramovic, piano, with Jan Krzywicki conducting.
The other works on the program were performed to the customary high Network standard – Paul Arnold’s violin was alternately dancing and lyrical in Judith Shatin‘s Penelope’s Song; Hirono Oka, Burchard Tang and Thom Kraines were an exceptionally refined string trio in Paul Lansky‘s As If. (It’s odd to realize that I was a tech person for the premiere of the Lansky in 1981 at Columbia University – “tech” only in the sense of being assigned to move speakers around.) Arne Running gracefully commanded the sleight-of-hand narrative of Mario Davidovsky‘s clarinet Synchronisms.
Network’s Third Space festival continues, with programs at Temple U on Sunday night, at Community College of Philadelphia on Monday, and with a reprise of the Sunday program at Haverford College on Friday. Read more details at the Network website.
In addition to tomorrow’s Network concert, you will want to be present for the premieres of works by Melinda Wagner and Richard Brodhead at Marcantonio Barone’s piano recital this Sunday, sponsored by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and presented at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
You can find downloads of performances by UC Davis’s Empyrean Ensemble here. Composers include Davidovsky, Melinda Wagner, Lee Hyla, Xenakis, Cage, Wayne Peterson, Kurt Rhode and more.
– I should have looked on YouTube for music by Melinda Wagner when I wrote that post about her Trombone Concerto. Only now did I think of doing so: here and here are excerpts from Four Settings, the vocal piece on the same Bridge CD as the concerto. Soprano Ilana Davidson is featured.
– Sorry I messed up the links in this post below – they are now fixed – you may want to visit it again.
Melinda Wagner‘s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra begins unpretentiously, with a delicate version of the composite attack/decay that is a standard opening ploy for so many pieces: a soft single note from the harp and timpani, with the decay provided by half the second violins, tremolo. Then the first phrase from the soloist is heard: pianissimo, curving up and then down. The pitches can be parsed into two octatonic scale segments, with that sustained tremolo note shared by the two segments. But what you attend to is not the harmonic structure, though that is what gives the phrase coherence; rather, what is most striking is the simple elegance of the shape, with its minor thirds to begin and end, with its highest pitch sounding like an upper neighbor, resolving down by step. Reiterations of the orchestra’s opening sustained note are fitted around the phrase at exactly the right time. For example, the highest note of the trombone phrase is also the longest note, so that’s the place for a fresh harp pluck. The rest of the second violins sneak in as the soloist reaches his cadencing minor third, and repeated horn notes affirm the end of the phrase. These opening bars are poised, suave, satisfying in a modest way. But what happens next raises the stakes.
It is an effect created by an different sort of composite sound: violas, cellos and contrabasses divided into a total of 8 parts, adding seven pitches to the sustained opening note, and bound together with the ringing sounds of piano, harp and a tam-tam stroke. It is as though the sustained note suddenly became three-dimensional, changing from a simple line to a geometric shape, heard in perspective – exactly the effect Mindy speaks of in her program note when she writes how she “tried throughout to imbue the orchestral writing with a sense of three dimensions – of space and the presence of a vanishing point.” The soloist enters as that low chord dies away, with a longer, more wide-ranging phrase, again beginning and ending with thirds, but this time one minor, the other major. The highest, longest note resolves downward again by step; in fact, the gesture is repeated – but one time with a minor second, one time with a major second. In both cases – the thirds and the seconds – the contour is maintained, the precise intervallic content varied. If you clump together the notes of this second phrase, you get not an octatonic structure, but a chromatic cluster, one that intersects with the little octatonic segment to which the opening sustained single pitch has grown. The final note of the soloist’s phrase turns the sustained octatonic segment into a chromatic one. It is as though the major mode has turned to minor. And yet the structure stays in the background where it belongs – the focus is on the soloist’s eloquent arabesque and the deep perspective opened up by the low chord; craft is at the service of poetry.
That is just the opening eight bars of the piece, recently released on a Bridge CD, in a magnificent performance by Joseph Alessi and the New York Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel.* The clarity, richness and deft subtlety of those opening bars are maintained throughout the piece. It’s a standard three movement form – fast, slow, fast, with a slow introduction to the first movement, and a chorale for the brass serving as an interlude between the second and third movements, returning (embellished and varied) in the body of the third movement – an effective formal touch.
Mindy has a genuine orchestral voice, commanding full-sized gestures that are devised with uncommon care. She enriches the “upward whooshes of sound, and spilling cascades” that she mentions in her program note by structuring them in overlapping waves – not just a single scale or arpeggiation upward, but layers of them played by different orchestral groups. Sometimes these take on a heterophonic character, with more or less simultaneous statements of a figure with small variations. She often deploys a counterpoint of gestures. This middle ground counterpoint – not motive against motive, but gesture against gesture – is an important part of what makes the piece so satisfying. Rather than one thing followed by another like beads on a single string, the musical discourse is more of a woven fabric encompassing many threads. In addition to these richly layered textures there are more direct moments, like the ear-teasing hocket-like passages where chords bounce around the orchestral choirs in rapid succession. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra is varied, with the ensemble sometimes content to simply set the scene, sometimes closely echoing the solo lines with shadowy resonances. The trombone writing is eloquent and brilliant by turns, sometimes astonishingly brilliant. Mindy must have had a chart of trombone slide positions next to her drafting table, as well as consulting with her soloist.
The Bridge release also includes Mindy’s Four Settings, based on poetry of Robert Desnos, Denise Levertov and Emily Dickinson, and featuring soprano Christine Brandes with an ad hoc septet of superb New York instrumentalists, as well as Wick, written for the New York New Music Ensemble. Both pieces receive exemplary performances. I continue to be impressed by the uncanny, near telepathic precision exhibited by the NYNME players, thanks to their long experience working together.**
It is no small coup for an American composer to get a commercial recording of an orchestral piece by a top-flight American orchestra, and it must have taken a great deal of persistent fund raising to make the disc happen. It’s a pity, given the wealth of fine orchestral music being created in this country, that such releases are so rare.
*) This is the second of two superb concertos Joseph Alessi has premiered with the New York Phil, the first being that of Chris Rouse, which won him the Pulitzer in 1993.
**) Note that they will be appearing at Penn on April 4 with a program of Eric Chasalow, Rand Steiger, Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, and Zhou Long.
Posting has been sparse thanks to the day job, family duties, and attempts to compose. But here are a few items:
– Curtis Opera Theater is presenting Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot by Peter Maxwell Davies with soprano Anna Davidson in the title role. It has been a while since I saw the superb Christine Schadeberg do the piece, but I recall it as quite a tour de force. A dramatic cantata of Handel completes the evening. Performances are October 6 through the 9th at 7:30 at the Curtis Institute.