It was a fantastic concert tonight, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: an all-Ives program with Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. On the first half Dawn showed off the immense variety of the Ives songbook, including a number of pieces familiar from Gil’s performances and recordings of them with the late Jan DeGaetani. “Tom Sails Away” was especially touching; “Serenity” created its silver aura of stillness; “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” was visionary.  Dawn very much still has it – the beauty of sound is there, if a bit darker than it once was. She retains that transparency where there seems to be no distance between the song and the listener.

For the second half, Gil played the Concord Sonata. I can’t claim to having made a comprehensive survey, but of the five or so I have heard, Gil’s recording for Nonesuch remains my favorite, in part simply for the sheer gorgeousness of his piano sound. That sound was present tonight, as was Gil’s ability to clarify the various strata of Ives’ textures and to shape even the most rambunctious moments. A small example: the build-up to the fusillade of fast clusters in the Hawthorne movement was carefully shaded, rather than getting too loud too soon. I remember as a student at Tanglewood observing a rehearsal that Gil was coaching, hearing him exhort the pianist in the ensemble to “Phrase!” What we heard tonight was eloquent phrasing, meaningful contours springing organically from the Ives’s transcendental (and Transcendentalist) piano writing.

Charles Abramovic and Jeffrey Khaner offered a exceptionally fine recital last week at the Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia. I have been blessed with many wonderful performances over the years, including work by top-rank flutists, but Jeffrey Khaner’s performance of my new A Flutist’s Sketchbook last week featured some uncommon playing. He gets a luscious sound from his instrument, with variety of color and intensely beautiful tone in every register and at every dynamic level. Charlie has played my music several times in the past, including the Network for New Music recording of Dream Journal, so I was already familiar with his unostentatious virtuosity. The Sketchbook is a grab-bag of styles, beginning with a simple diatonic chorale, and ending with a set of variations on “Be Thou My Vision”, with stops along the way for pieces that are modal, twelve-tone, and places in between. I had thought of the 13 pieces as being in a somewhat arbitrary order, though moving roughly from straightforward to more complex, and had even thought that performers could devise new orderings of the pieces, but friends told me the order I gave the work made a satisfying arc. It’s not a piece for those who insist on a consistency of style in a multi-movement work, but I have often preferred breadth of expression over uniformity of vocabulary.

Thank you to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for its ongoing commitment to new music in general and Philadelphia composers in particular with commissions such as the one that made A Flutist’s Sketchbook possible.

My premiere opened the concert. Charlie continued the program with the Carter Piano Sonata. This is a piece I want to like more than I do. It’s relatively early Carter, with key signatures and passages that are diatonic, but somehow the pitches don’t “tell”, just as the pitches don’t quite make sense in a some of Carter’s later music. The work is a big conception, with grand gestures that contrast with scurrying figuration that brought to mind the similarly scurrying but decidedly non-diatonic figures in Carter’s Night Fantasies from more than 30 years later. Charlie got the striking passages with harmonics to speak more clearly than in other performances I have heard, and he commanded the declamatory, florid, and reflective aspects of the piece with his customary assurance.

Dick Wernick’s Pieces of Eight was the other premiere of the evening, a set of eight short movements for solo piano. The set includes occasional pieces with dedications to friends and colleagues. The Wernickian wit was much in evidence, as in a piano version of the little piece he wrote for Network for New Music’s Diabelli Variation project a few years ago. Though they may be relatively light pieces, Dick’s always masterful craftsmanship remained in play.

The program ended with Copland’s flute and piano Duo. I hold Copland in very high esteem, but the Duo, his last major work, is not one of his best pieces, and even as fine a performance as this couldn’t make up for the lack of inspiration.

Here are Charlie and Jeff taking a bow after the Copland:

IMG_3541

Philip-ManevalPhilip Maneval’s contribution to next Thursday’s concert of music by students of Richard Wernick is a piano quartet. Like Yinam Leef, Philip was my fellow student at Penn in the graduate composition program more than thirty years ago. In the years since, rather than hold an academic position, Philip has worked for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and the Marlboro Music Festival. This constant contact with the chamber music repertoire over a lengthy period has naturally led to a body of compositions in which chamber music predominates. In fact, the new Quartet is part of a set of chamber pieces, alongside sonatas for piano and each of the string instruments in the quartet. While there is a sense in his music of Philip’s love for that chamber music repertoire, he does not slavishly imitate neoclassical models. He has found a non-doctrinaire, quite personal harmonic language, consistent yet varied, and capable of wide emotional range. The “in C-sharp” portion of his new piece’s title reminds me of how George Perle once spoke of how he considered called his Toccata for piano a Toccata in D, but felt that would be too provocative at the time – 1969. Today such a gesture feels rather less controversial. Still, it will be intriguing to see how Philip’s piece projects his personal approach to “post-tonal tonality.”

Here are Philip’s reflections on Dick Wernick, as well as a program note for the new quartet:

On studying with Richard Wernick:

Often it is the teacher who is the hardest to please who ends up giving us the most.  When I began studying with Dick Wernick in the graduate program at Penn, like many young composers, I had a swagger, a high degree of confidence in my abilities.  It took just a few lessons with Dick to realize how far I was from achieving the goals I had set out for myself.

Dick dissected my works in those early sessions.  In his autopsies, he spoke about those characteristics of composition that seem to exist in successful music in all eras and regardless of style:  clarity and consistency in the use of materials; rhythmic vitality; a strong profile; clear architecture; strong voice leading; meaningful expression; and that elusive yet critical trait, ‘integrity.’  In each piece, he insisted that all of the aspects of craft work together in support of its dramatic and expressive intentions.  Nothing less would satisfy him, and earning his respect became an enduring goal.

Today, decades later, these lessons remain as guideposts in my work.  While I have had the considerable pleasure of knowing Dick as a close friend, a colleague in this city’s musical life, and a composer and lecturer for PCMS, I continue to value greatly his reactions to my music.  His shelves abound with my scores, and I eagerly await his thoughts on each new piece.  His wise counsel and insights never fail to inspire me.

I can only hope that by aspiring to his standards, I have given back to this amazing man and teacher at least a small part of all that he has given to me.

On Piano Quartet in C-Sharp:

This is the final piece in a set of four works that I composed in 2011, the others being duo sonatas with piano for violin, viola and cello.  While this piece employs a variety of classical and contemporary techniques, my intention was for a well-blended and distinctive new language and rhetoric.

As I composed the work, my harmonies began revolving around C-sharp.  I recalled Dick Wernick’s assertion that dissonant harmony and a strong sense of tonality are not mutually exclusive, and I began to cultivate this gravitational pull.  Despite the highly chromatic harmony, C-sharp stubbornly remains as a point of reference, arrival, remembrance and return.

Melody, and the Brahmsian approach of continual motivic variation also play key roles in the organization of this piece.  I have sought to create clearly shaped melodic lines that re-emerge in various ways, such as with different pitches or rhythmic embellishments, to provide places of reference that help to unify the form.

I have always believed that each new piece is but a point on an artistic continuum, both emerging from the past and showing a way forward.

wernick-richard_2009credit-adamleefNext Thursday, April 18, is the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society‘s concert in honor of Richard Wernick, featuring music by four of his former pupils:

Daedalus Quartet
Trio Cavatina
Burchard Tang, viola
Elizabeth Hainen, harp
Thursday, April 18, 2013, 7:30 pm
Settlement Music School (Queen Street)

program:
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
Theme: Largo
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
Coda: Largo

program note

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.

sunspots_full_diskThese things just happen once in a while – I don’t know why – sunspots? –  but I seem to have six performances coming up next month. To save you from having to click on the “upcoming performances” link above, (although you should feel no inhibitions about doing so), here’s the news for April:

April 2, 2013: Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (premiere)

Judith Gordon, piano
Sage Hall
Smith College
Northhampton, MA

April 5, 2013: Chamber Concerto

Benjamin Fingland, Clarinet
Network for New Music
Rose Recital Hall
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

April 13, 2013: Times Like These

Lisa Oberlander, clarinet
Yien Wang, piano
Cheryl G. & Joseph C. Jensen Grand Concert Hall
of the Stephens Performing Arts Center
Idaho State University, Pocatello, ID

April 16, 2013: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm

Kameryn Lueng, soprano
Szilvia Mikó, piano
Longy School of Music
Boston, MA

April 18, 2013: String Quartet #3

Daedalus Quartet
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Settlement Music School, Queen Street Branch
Philadelphia, PA
Concert will honor composer Richard Wernick with performances of works by his students.
Program includes music by Melinda Wagner, Yinam Leef, and Philip Maneval.

April 27: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm; How Can I Keep From Singin’? (arranged by Primosch)

Kameryn Lueng, soprano
Szilvia Mikó, piano
Bito Performance Space
Bard College Conservatory of Music
Annandale on Hudson, NY

Would that this kind of thing happened more often. Hope to see you at one or another of these – I’ll be at Smith, in Philly for both concerts, and possibly at Bard.

- I’ll be hearing lots of music in the next few days – the Network/Mendelssohn Club/Philadelphia Chamber Music Society performances of my Ariel Songs this weekend;  the NY Phil at the Kimmel Center here in Philadelphia tonight (a run-out of this week’s subscription program of Stucky, Berlioz and Mussorgsky-Ravel, with Joyce DiDonato, Alan Gilbert conducting) as well as Eric Owens‘s recital, again at Kimmel, next Tuesday.

- My hometown is also home to an amazing book store.

- A lovely post for the beginning of Lent.

- Many of these are quite funny.

 

The first performances of my Ariel Songs are coming up. These settings of texts from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” began life as part of a larger set of pieces composed for the early instruments of the Folger Consort, with soloists William Sharp and Ellen Hargis. I subsequently arranged the work for modern instruments, and then made this piano and voice version of Ariel’s songs.

The piece will be performed on joint concerts by Network for New Music and FELYX_M, the chamber choir of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. The first is 8:00 pm, Saturday, February 25 at the Community Music School in Trappe, PA. The second, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, will be at 7:30, Sunday, February 26 at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Soprano Barbara Berry will be accompanied by pianist Susan Nowicki. The program also includes music by Cynthia Folio, Jan Krzywicki, Thomas Whitman, Jennifer Higdon, and Donald St. Pierre. If you are in the Philadelphia area, I hope to see you there. Update: video from Tom Whitman about his piece here.

——————————————–
(image: “Ariel” by Henry Fuseli. c. 1800-10. Oil on canvas, approx. 36.5 ” x 28 “. The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. The painting is inspired by Ariel’s line: “…on the bat’s back I do fly…”)

- Go here for info on Bowling Green State University’s 2011 New Music Festival. David Lang is the composer in residence, a Michael Gordon U.S. premiere, lots more.

-The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s season is announced here. Amazingly affordable, class AAA performers. Some interesting new and recent music – for example, the Juilliard playing the late Don Martino’s Quartet #5 on November 18.

- Sharon Browning is eloquent on Tucson and wild geese.

- WHYY offers an archive of their telecasts of Curtis student performances here. (Hey folks, how about some new music on these programs?)

- the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s blog previews the upcoming performance by the Matthias Pintscher leading the Curtis Chamber Orchestra, this Wednesday, January 26.