“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.

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

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