More “Sketchbook” Thoughts

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:

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