“Washington’s National Cathedral might not be the first place one considers as the best to record chamber forces. But Cathedral Music, the 21st Century Consort’s new Albany recording, revels in the space. Soprano Mary Mackenzie’s supple rendition of James Primosch’s Sacred Songs and Meditations sounds clear as crystal. The song cycle collects ancient hymns and refashions them into a beautiful collection of graceful, often chant-inflected, melodies.”
-Christian Carey, sequenza21.com
“At a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert, violinist Tai Murray and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute will premiere Five Poems by James Primosch, a composer who always seems to get everything just right without doing anything flashy.”
– Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, May 3, 2016
“The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia assembled a whale of a mostly British music program on Sunday. It would have been great – had the performances consistently honored the music on levels that it required. As it was, the best news that came out of this season-ending concert at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion is that two of Philadelphia’s world-class composers wrote new pieces. Both were in top form, showing hugely different approaches toward the same text.
The program continued Mendelssohn’s mini-commissioning series of pieces written to the word Alleluia in honor of retired artistic director Alan Harler. For Sunday’s program, James Primosch and Robert Maggio delivered works that felt completely self contained but are full of ideas that should be continued into larger works.
Primosch’s Alleluia on a Ground began with unison vocal lines of such apparent simplicity that they could almost have been Gregorian chants. Yet subtle quirks pointed to a discreet individuality that would never have been heard in music from that world. Many vocal lines had what might be called a hinge note, opening a door into unanticipated but never radical directions. These created a web of contrapuntal writing at home in a religious text setting but going to places specific to Primosch, especially with background and foreground effects.”
– David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 3, 2016
“The afternoon ended with Stratigraphy (2016) by James Primosch, also on the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Introducing his piece, Primosch mentioned he was inspired by geology—the word refers to the analysis of strata—and by spectralism, after reading pianist Marilyn Nonken’s book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age (2014, Cambridge University Press). Also director of piano studies at NUY’s Steinhardt School, Nonken has long been at the forefront of contemporary piano music, and has commissioned many new works. Here, as a guest with the ensemble, she offered clean, expertly balanced keyboard sound, often in delicate tracery—a welcome counterpoint to the saxophones. Primosch makes maximum use of the instruments’ contrasting timbres, framing the quartet with the piano—the latter often at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Each of the six movements has its beauties, but I was most struck with “Game of Pairs” (a nod to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra), and the motoric sparkle of “Geochronologic.”
– Bruce Hodges, Musical America, March 23, 2016
“Why so little Rilke-music?” a critic from The New York Times asked over 20 years ago, noting how many composers have kept a respectful distance from this great poet. Among those who have heeded the challenge of setting his texts is the composer James Primosch, who has turned to Rilke’s religious poetry for a number of songs that elegantly combine personal fervor and worldly sophistication.
On Tuesday at the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall, the New Juilliard Ensemble presented the New York premiere of Mr. Primosch’s “From a Book of Hours,” set to devotional texts Rilke first published in 1905. With one evoking “the calm between two notes” that get along with difficulty, yet “are reconciled, with trembling, in the dark rest,” it’s the sort of poetry that’s aching to be sung.
Alexandra Razskazoff gave a beautiful performance of this captivating work, which benefited as much from her richly faceted, slinky soprano as from the expressive clarity she brought to the German text. Art song requires a singer to lavish as much thoughtfulness and art on diction as on musical phrasing, and Ms. Razskazoff appears to have the makings of a great recitalist.
The ensemble, under the assured direction of Joel Sachs, sounded most comfortable in this work, with its late-Romantic language laced with idiosyncratic colorings.
– Corinna da Fonsecca-Wollheim, New York Times, November 18, 2015
“And what of now, and in America? In the time of Lady Gaga, techno, metal, etc., sacred music, or music aiming for a sacred space — and not a new-age sacred space-is not a burgeoning field. One who is in it, and doing very fine work, is James Primosch. This is nowhere so clear as in his recent disc, appropriately titled Sacred Songs.
The four works presented are on sacred and high literary texts, including Rilke, St. Bernard, Prudentius, Psalms, and Stewart for a start-sung wonderfully by William Sharp and Susan Narucki-in English, Latin, and German. Like the languages used, the music is eclectic, as there are many influences: plainchant, expressionism and folk songs are a few. Yet this is an integrated eclecticism, where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and all is formed into a widely (this is important) expressive language, one that has a basis in tonal relationships, but that can be abundantly clear or mysterious. It is hard for some composers to know when to stop or be quiet, but Primosch gauges that well in these works. The pacing is elegant, movements are never too long or over stay their material, and the balancing of movements is delicate and done with assurance. The music, unlike the Holy Minimalists, doesn’t strive always to be in a holy space, but instead to describe it and give it a human response. In this way Primosch is able to take us to, be in the presence of, and then take us out of, sacred time and space, an attribute which is at the center of the Western musical art form. For example, Dark the Star, on beguiling texts by Susan Steward, is a bit of an askew palindrome, and at 22 minutes passes swiftly but with the sense of a journey taken that is of note and meaning, finding sacred space and then retreating from it. The other works are similarly well judged in their pacing and emotive reach.
Christopher Kendall’s 20th Century Consort brings out the glistening textures and
rapid fire alterations of orchestration. This is a modified Pierrot Lunaire orchestration (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, voice), and Primosch does wonders with it. At times savagely thick, at others wispy, delicate, almost desiccated, it is always in the service, and supportive, of the texts.
John Harbison, whose cantata The Flight Into Egypt is an earlier and wonderful sacred work, wrote the linear notes, which are movingly informative and insightful. “The music sounds like it intends to be remembered. Motives are felt, rather than just being useful. Quiet static moments are driven home, not just waiting for something to happen.” He is right. As Hillel might have said, the rest is commentary, now go listen.”
–Daniel Asia, Huffington Post, August 26, 2015
“In addition to Mr. Wuorinen’s piece, there were liturgical elements to other works I heard while in attendance from Thursday to Saturday (the festival ended on Sunday), including James Primosch’s gorgeous “Dark the Star.” Set to texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, Susan Stewart and the Book of Psalms and sung with dramatic nuance by the baritone Dimitri Katotakis and the bass-baritone Davone Tines, it featured a brooding opening section, soaring and expressive vocal lines and creatively scored, beautiful instrumental writing.”
-Vivien Schweizer, New York Times, July 27, 2015
“Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus by Philadelphia composer James Primosch, reprised from past Crossing concerts, is one of his best works, and it showed the choir at its considerable best while offering variety. Though the writing is as sophisticated as that of the other composers, less assembly was required of the listener. St. Thomas here was, indeed, “doubting Thomas,” and in that spirit, the piece had an interior trajectory about the evolution of belief with a mixture of traditional Latin text and Mass-inspired poems by Denise Levertov.
Harmonic ambiguity steadily decreased as each of the five movements ended. But never was there a ringing sense of certainty: The most one gets is a rhythmically emphatic setting of the words “grant us peace.” And in the fifth-movement “Agnus Dei,” some ethereal soprano writing slowly melds with the rest of the piece, like a mirage that turns temporarily real. Faith seems provisional here, with each day presenting a new challenge. You can trust a piece that’s too personal to proselytize, and, through depth of feeling, achieves more universality.”
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 24, 2015
“Hearing the premiere of James Primosch’s new Quartet for Oboe and String Trio was especially compelling. The composer wasn’t present, but his note suggests that he had Pearson’s renowned oboe style as an inspiration for not only Baroque sound but Baroque form. The work, in five movements, shows a spectrum of harmonic imagination ranging from well-defined triadic tonality to dense and complex chromatic blocks. The Moderato first movement has the character of a slow introduction in D minor, followed by an Allegro con fuoco in fast triplets but metrically organized into perceptible dancelike phrases, mostly atonal and punctuated by heavy chromatic chords; because of their continuity, the two movements seemed like one. A slow passacaglia forms the geographical center; its ostinato theme, short and mostly elusive, is passed around in different transpositions that emerge prominently from time to time. It ends with a mysterious high-register chord in string harmonics, the theme plucked in the cello.
The fourth and fifth movements also form a close continuity, a part three. The opening texture features high-register parallel fifths, oboe above and violin below, in a sound that reminded me of the parallel-oboes beginning of Ravel’s l’Enfant et les sortilèges. There was even more Ravel-like harmony with well-outlined seventh chords alternating with those mournful motivic fifths, which even reappear at the end of the work, this time with the oboe below and the violin above. In between come a brisk finale with a declamatory song for the oboe, rich and strong without strain, and a fast succession of repeated chords alternating rhythmically with jazzy bursts—remembering the Hungarian Haydn which we had just heard, I thought this finale was like a csárdás with bebop chords underneath. In all, there was a great deal of togetherness in the quartet that wasn’t upset by the seemingly eclectic association of triadic harmony and chromatic crunch. This new work is more than just an interesting piece that I would happily hear again; it’s a worthy and needed addition to a repertory that can’t be very large.”
-Mark DeVoto, Boston Musical Intelligencer, April 13, 2015
“James Primosch’s album of vocal works based on religious-themed texts reveals an impressively broad range of approaches to creating sacred music for the twenty-first century. Regardless of style, however, Primrosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama, whether the mood is one of wonder, joy, frustration, reverence, bleakness, or some combination thereof.
The Rilke poems in the first cycle, From a Book of Hours, are searching and inquisitive, trying to comprehend and illuminate the poet’s personal relationship to God. Primosch’s musical language for setting these German verses is appropriately wide-ranging, sophisticated, and often unsettling: In “Lösch, mir die Augen aus,” Primosch matches the grisly imagery of the poem (“Put out my eyes, and I can see you still;”) with driving, violent thrashings. By contrast, the next song begins with a Tchaikovsky-like horn solo. Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation that guides us easily through some of the denser thickets… Even at his “simplest,” Primosch is surprising on the level detail contained in his writing. “Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross. Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.
Another standout is “Deathbeds,” the last song of the last cycle (Holy the Firm). Primosch transforms Annie Dillard’s poem into something unsparingly grim, even slightly unhinged. Narucki manages to to preserve vocal beauty while giving full dramatic authenticity to Dillard’s schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness from the moments right before death. These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple. Even listeners with conservative musical tastes will find much to enjoy here. Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment. ”
– Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News, September, 2014
“As director of the electronic music studio at Penn, Primosch might not seem the type to write the voice-only Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. Yet his command of the medium was complete, with the standard Mass text meaningfully augmented with non-sacred texts by poet Denise Levertov about putting one’s trust in the unknown. Melodies were enhanced by chants with fat-free, hard-edged Stravinskyan chords and partitioned voices, including a small band of soloists physically dispersed from the larger chorus. The irony of this “doubting Thomas” work is that, unlike the turbulent religious works of his contemporary James MacMillan, Primosch has a serene, assured core that creates a less-congested contrast, putting the agony of uncertainty in higher relief.”
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2, 2014
“Whether you are a spiritual seeker or confirmed secularist, James Primosch’s affecting settings of sacred texts, and poems seeking the sacred or spiritual, can prove a balm for the soul and food for thought. On the Bridge CD Sacred Songs, this is doubtless assisted by the extraordinary talents brought to bear upon the material. Soprano Susan Narucki displays impressive range, diction, and dynamic control throughout the three song cycles she assays. Likewise, baritone William Sharp provides an intensity of declamation that is required by the song cycle Dark the Star. At the same time, his instrument retains its lyric timbre and suppleness.
Primosch is quite fond of Rilke, and both Dark the Star and From a Book of Hours spotlight the poet’s work. Dark the Star also features fetching settings of poems by Susan Stewart. The juxtaposition of Rilke and Stewart supplies us with a postmodern vantage point on what it means to be seeking the sacred in art (John Harbison’s liner notes also gracefully illuminate this sometimes thorny subject). Four Sacred Songs deals with older texts and, in the case of Cordes Natus ex Parentis, a most familiar hymn tune. Yet Primosch’s distinctive scoring, filled with sumptuous textures punctuated by percussive tintinnabulation, make them his own. The 21st Century Consort, conducted by Christopher Kendall, have engaged in a long term collaboration with Primosch and it shows here in their incandescent and carefully prepared playing. (There are also elegantly arranged voice and piano versions of the songs – singers would do well to seek them out and program them).
The earliest set represented here, Holy the Firm, is also one of Primosch’s most striking cycles. Once again we hear from Susan Stewart, alongside Denise Levertov, two poems by Annie Dillard, and a text from the 7th century AD by John Climacus. Usually, when dealing with a group of songs with poetry by multiple authors, one uses the term cycle judiciously and selectively. But Primosch has selected texts that speak to one another, about the sacred found in nature, about the bridge between temporal existence and eternity, and about the sense of meaning, transcendence, and poetry one can find every day, even, as Annie Dillard points out, on one’s deathbed. Not every composer’s music can support such weighty themes, but I find myself returning again and again to Primosch’s songs. Recommended.”
-Christian B. Carey, Musical America (blog), May 4, 2014
“James Primosch’s treatment of the Susan Scott Thompson poem Waltzing the Spheres had a kind of harmonic ambiguity that seemed to let the poems [poem] run exactly where they [it] wanted to.”
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 2014
“James Primosch’s terrific Chamber Concerto began dauntingly with musical ideas splintered over a large range of sounds, opening the door to an exquisite, mysterious garden of sound in the second movement, reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen, with a playfully intricate final movement.”
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 10, 2013
“The Lyric Fest concert featured works by Andrea Clearfield, Kile Smith and other members of the cohort of composers that Philadelphia has acquired in the last two decades. All of them contributed worthy pieces, but I’m most impelled to mention James Primosch’s Cinder.
Primosch never writes anything flashy, but his work always stands out when it appears on a new music program. For Cinder, he began with a well-chosen poem by a poet named Susan Stewart. Its subject is the symbiosis of opposites, starting with the flame we use to make the tong that protects us from the flame. It’s a simple, tender poem that’s loaded with significance, and Primosch gave it the simple, tender musical setting it deserved.”
-Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, January 1, 2013
“James Primosch… generated much magic with spiralling ecstatically, to e.e. cummings’ poem.”
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 23, 2012
“Cinder [from Holy the Firm] of Primosch masterfully balanced opposites. His orchestral canvasses are songs; it is only right that Cinder, well, it is a symphony.”
-Kile Smith, blog post, October 16, 2012
“The third work, James Primosch’s Fire-Memory/River-Memory, from 1998, sets two poems by the British-born American poet Denise Levertov. Primosch ranges freely and effectively across the tonal spectrum, holding the listener in his emotional grip even when the harmonic language becomes harsh. The first poem, “What Were They Like?”, is a series of rhetorical questions and answers, posed to victims of the Vietnam War. Toward the end, a solo violin emerges from the choral texture with poignant beauty. The second poem, “Of Rivers”, build grandly and evokes nature’s majesty, as well as the divine, metaphoric ability of rivers to “remember.” This makes an effective counterweight to “What Were They Like?”, emphasizing that the horrors of war must not be forgotten.” [on Mendelssohn Club cd recording “Metamorphosis” for Innova Records]
-Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News, October 1, 2012
“Primosch contributed his 2007 Ariel Songs with the Shakespeare words set in a clear, almost conversational way, but with all sorts of fun stuff going on in the instrumentation, suggesting an earthiness that’s not quite of this Earth.”
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 2012
“If there’s anything out there like Primosch’s Songs for Adam, I haven’t heard it – though the music wears its singularity lightly, with no need to express itself radically. It has a confidence of expression that comes of Primosch’s having written a steady stream of song cycles since the late 1990s. Composers are still drawing legitimate inspiration from poets of the increasingly distant past, such as Walt Whitman, but Primosch pushes both himself and thus his listeners onto new ground with Susan Stewart’s verse, which are called songs in their printed version because they suggest music, especially in the first poem, in which Adam is stuttering his way into existence.
Both poet and composer share an ability to contemplate how basic elements of existence might feel for the first time, and the duo know how to capture that in their respectively cultivated vocabularies, with an emotional rightness that never becomes too analytical.
In fact, Primosch enters the Korngold zone when describing Adam’s intoxication with the word. Though words are set dramatically and in ways that are well written for the voice, the best moments are in the masterly orchestration, which gives an extra percussive spark to moments of discovery and unflinchingly confronts the agony of Adam’s expulsion from Eden.
The pale strings capture his disappointment in the real world in an overall dramatic arc that’s almost epic, going from the unimaginable (the beauty of Eden) to the unthinkable (the world’s first children, Abel and Cain, and the world’s first fratricide).”
-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2010
“[conductor David Alan] Miller had another good idea in suggesting the Hudson River School of painters as inspiration for a new work by James Primosch. Coming after the Garrop and Rautavaara, his Luminism felt audaciously understated and detailed. Shimmering strings and long gently rocking lines for the horns characterized much of the writing.” [on Albany Symphony first performance]
-Joseph Dalton, Albany Times Union, May 23, 2010
“As with the 2002 premiere of his From a Book of Hours, [Songs for] Adam is the work of a skilled melodist and orchestrator.”
-Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times, October 31, 2009
“The Chicago Symphony performed Primosch’s From a Book of Hours in 2002, and that setting of Rainer Maria Rilke poems motivated the orchestra’s administration to sign up the American composer for another commission. This time Primosch chose a living poet, Susan Stewart, who penned six settings for the cycle. Her words are simple, but varied in expression, at times impressionistic, evolving from child-like simplicity to romantic yearning, wry irony, and despair.
Songs for Adam is scored for solo baritone and large orchestra with Brobdingnagian percussion (including vibraphone, crotales, bell-tree, temple blocks, two tam-tams, etc.). Yet Primosch releases the full fury of his vast forces only in a few places, and much of the scoring is strikingly luminous and transparent.
The first song depicts Adam’s stammer as he learns to “open his mouth to sing.” Ensuing sections reflect his naming of objects in the world, and his discovery and longing for Eve. The fourth setting is more dramatic, painting the expulsion from the garden. A melancholy exile follows, and the cycle concludes with a lamentation on Abel’s murder also noting the violence that continues down through the centuries.
Primosch has a real gift for vocal writing, and his predominantly tonal style skillfully reflects the texts, with a striking variety of expression in this 30-minute work. In addition to Davis’s superb direction and the first-rate playing of the CSO, much of the success for this premiere is due to the sterling advocacy of Brian Mulligan. The young baritone possesses a burnished, evenly produced instrument and his sensitive singing and exemplary diction made the greatest possible case for Primosch’s cycle. Mulligan brought impassioned fervor to the names, a sense of romantic yearning to the fourth setting and just the right sense of desolate expression with a ray of hope to the coda.
This was not quite the world premiere of Songs for Adam, since four of the six songs were “previewed” by the Civic Orchestra in March (isn’t that the same as “performed”?). The scale of the orchestration may mitigate against future performances in this cost-conscious era, but Primosch’s Songs for Adam is a rich-textured, moving and effective song-cycle that deserves to be heard. The audience clearly enjoyed the new work as well, enthusiastically applauding the composer and poet along with the musicians.”
-Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review – October 30, 2009
” …there was the world premiere of James Primosch’s intriguing and beautiful new song cycle, “Songs for Adam,” to lift the evening beyond the ordinary.
It’s unusual for an orchestra to commission both the music and poetry for a vocal work, but that’s what the CSO did when it invited Primosch, a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, and Susan Stewart, a prize-winning poet and English professor at Princeton, to create a sequel to Primosch’s 2002 song cycle, “From a Book of Hours,” which the CSO also commissioned and premiered.
The six poems follow the biblical story of Adam, from his first stammering words to the creation of Eve to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden to a meditation on the death of Abel. Stewart’s poetic imagery — simple yet elusive, given to repetition and internal rhymes — melds comfortably with Primosch’s lyrical, essentially tonal harmonic grammar. The vocal writing for baritone ranges from introspective musings to angry declamation, bestriding a large orchestra that is used with acute subtlety, sensitivity and evocative instrumental color, never covering the singer.
I cannot imagine a more compelling interpreter than Brian Mulligan, a young American baritone who has sung with the Metropolitan and San Francisco operas. He brought a burnished, pliant sound and gripping expressive penetration to the cycle. Especially memorable was the poignant regret of the final song, violins dying away softly, leaving the last notes to the singer. Davis and the orchestra surrounded the vocal part with telling atmospheric detail. Primosch and Stewart were present to share in the audience’s warm reception.”
-John Van Rhein, Chicago Tribune, October 31, 2009
“The real weight of the concert, though, came in two contrasting works: James Primosch’s brooding Dark the Star and Bruce MacCombie’s Color and Time. Built around poems by Susan Stewart and Rainer Maria Rilke, Dark the Star is a low-voiced journey through shadows, suffused with night and death, and received a suitably uncompromising performance from baritone William Sharp.”
-Stephen Brookes, Washington Post, April 8, 2008
“Cleveland-born composer James Primosch drew texts from the writings of three 20th-century American women and a seventh-century Sinai desert monk for his luminous songs, Holy the Firm. The poetic words are sensitively matched to music that evokes images of fire, Jacob’s ladder, an everyday god and deathbed sensations. The vocalist frequently sings in a high range, and the piano part, too, reaches toward the heavens. Soprano Tony Arnold drew listeners into the score’s rapturous atmosphere with singing of tonal beauty and dramatic truth. Pianist Jacob Greenberg played his collaborative role with clarity.”
-Wilma Salisbury, Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 22, 2005
“In Matins, which received its first performance, Primosch unites poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Mary Oliver. The result is a text that moves from Hopkins’s intimations of God’s presence in a broken world to Oliver’s plainspoken affirmations of God’s simple love. It’s a fine piece, beginning with a series of delicately ambiguous chords high in the strings, Pearson’s oboe twisting quizzically underneath. The work succeeds largely because of the variety of textures employed, from dense contrapuntal figures to a blaze of sound when dawn breaks at the end of Hopkins’s poem. …the oboe lines lent the music a welcome and crucial depth. Primosch showed a particular gift for choral writing: The a cappella parts were beautiful.
-David Weininger, Boston Globe, January 27, 2004
“… a tour de force for piano and synthesizer by James Primosch.
Though it sounds fairly accessible, Primosch’s Sonata-Fantasia is a stretch in more ways than one. The unusual sounds from the Kurzweil synthesizer expand the timbral possibilities of the piano and the horizons of the listener. And the piece requires the player to literally leap back and forth between the instruments, often playing both simultaneously, striking their keyboards as well as the control panel on the Kurzweil. Orkis managed the physical feats quite admirably, even awesomely, especially in the energetic final section, “Daddy-O’s New Groove,” which brought out the jazz spirit in composer, performer and synthesizer.”
-Gail Wein, Washington Post, December 15, 2003
“…a composer whose music deserves wider exposure…Primosch reveals both his sensitivity to the texts and to orchestral color as a means of extending and enhancing the dramatic possibilities of the human voice… scoring, rich in atmosphere…Even so, the orchestra is so carefully deployed that the solo vocal part is never obscured.” [on From a Book of Hours]
-John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, January 11 , 2002
“Rilke’s poems have a distinctly modern sensibility that was beautifully reflected in Primosch’s austere but profoundly thoughtful settings.” [on From a Book of Hours]
-Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 2002
“The second half of the program was a beautiful performance of Sacred Songs and Meditations by Primosch, a reverent but vivid treatment of ancient Latin texts, alternating simple plainchant with elaborate instrumental interludes.”
– Joseph McLellan, Washington Post, January 15, 2000
“She [Dawn Upshaw] began the second half with songs by six living composers who either have written on commission from her or tickled her artistic fancy. They are composers worthy of the attention, especially James Primosch (whose Cinder is a haunting essay about destiny based on a poem by Susan Stewart)…”
– Donald Rosenberg, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 7, 1999
“The two brand-new works, both commissioned for her [Dawn Upshaw], were particularly exhilarating. The more substantial was the five-song cycle Holy the Firm by the Pennsylvania-based James Primrosch [sic] (born in 1956). The title and two of the texts are taken from the writer Annie Dillard; the other sections are by poets Denise Levertov and Susan Stewart, as well as a seventh-century Sinai monk. Cumulatively they evoke the mysteries of existence and faith, concluding with a long sequence, “Deathbeds”, which begins with harrowing bewilderment and anxiety but then resolves itself — as does the cycle as a whole — in transcendent, rapt acceptance. Dawn Upshaw’s searing performance was a journey that felt tactile both physically and spiritually.”
– Urjo Kareda, Toronto Globe and Mail, April 21, 1999
“The juxtaposition of Holy the Firm and the Messiaen – both concerning various aspects of spiritual ecstasy – made for absorbing listening. Primrosch’s [sic] brief cycle gathers verse by three women – Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard and Susan Stewart – and the seventh century monk, John Climacus. The settings are expansive, with lots of busy figurations in the piano, yet the words remain paramount. Upshaw rendered it with a glowing integrity.”
– Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner, April 12, 1999
“These four terse, resonant chamber works transform brusqueness into poetry. A faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, James Primosch has found outlets in Philadelphia for music ranging from choral works to a clangorous celebration written for 44 pianos (88 hands) [sic] to mark the anniversary of the Settlement Music School.
His music arises from the heart of the Western tradition, and in the four works here, there are evocative references to other parts of that tradition, including virtuosity, jazz and the spiritual.
The Piano Quintet is emblematic of his work. The big first movement — in which he is the dauntless pianist — builds relentlessly with craggy rhythmic patterns and melodic strength.
In the next movements, the weight lightens until the spiritual “Motherless Child” is played and varied with the lightest textures. Jazz echoes through the final section as the composer keeps alive moods of great seriousness and primal fun.
The early Icons (1984) for piano, clarinet and tape, uses taped sound to shuttle between the sounds of piano and clarinet. Its air of mystery is unflagging, as if the two instrumentalists hold the key to riddles behind almost every bar.
The Fantasy-Variations for piano trio soars as the climax of this recording. Members of the Leonardo Trio meet the pieces’s virtuosic demands and at the same time find the poetry in its writing, which is sometimes no more than a wisp of high violin tone. Primosch has synthesized the skills of the working instrumentalist with the high vision of the composer. [on Icons cd for New World Records]
-Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1998
“James Primosch’s Meditation for Candlemas… has tremendous rewards in store for everyone. In addition to Primosch’s ability to spin an atmosphere into art, it has the solid foundation of Denise Levertov’s remarkable poetry…”
-Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, November/December, 1997
“Essentially lyric in its impact, James Primosch’s Quartet No. 2 was inspired by painter Francisco de Zurbaran’s The Holy House of Nazareth, whose painterly tone it echoes with suggestions of austerity and stillness. High treble passages for the violin are sustained by sterner chords. Primosch, who is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, works his tonal and atonal materials with sensitivity and elegance, concluding with an evocative quietness.”
-Lesley Valdes, Philaelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1995
“Though this free concert offered its share of tense and dissonant moments, the evening’s melodic direction was never in question, and all in all, its musicality proved remarkably high…
“Strongly recognizable melodic sequences unfold and overlap in Primosch’s piece, whose musical images he likened beforehand to a series of dream sequences. The music builds and accelerates with almost a Brahmsian fervor, and sometimes even its melodies remind listeners of Brahms, seen through a 20th century scrim.” [on Fantasy-Variations]
-Lesley Valdes, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 23, 1994
“Among the scheduled pieces were three world premieres: James Primosch’s three-movement Secret Geometry, an impressive sonata structure built up from an economical array of fourths and tritones, with electronic tape and Mr. Karis’ piano blending in fully notated synchrony…”
-Alex Ross, New York Times, November 25, 1993
“James Primosch’s Four Sacred Songs, performed locally for the first time, used plainsong and ancient church sources for the vocal line and built contemporary sonorities and rhythmic events around them…
“In Primosch’s Four Sacred Songs, the power of chant reasserted itself. Soprano Jody Kidwell sang the four texts with attention to the clarity of the intervals that made them sound fresh to modern ears. The songs were brightly colored by the ensemble of harp, percussion, flute, clarinet, cello, and violin. The second, “Corde Natus ex Parentis”, was written in an antique canon form in which the melody moved at different tempos within the instruments while the song itself moved expressively to provide the basis for the other lines.
“The final song, “O Filii et Filiae,” added a celebratory air to the serious songs, surrounding the voice with big bell-like chimes.”
-Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 1993
“Primosch’s Septet ranges in mood from a misty slow movement to a jazzy, exciting finale that exploits the clash between a string trio and a wind trio composed of flute, clarinet and oboe. [Orchestra] 2001 will play it during their Russian tour in September. They couldn’t have made a better choice.”
-Tom Purdom, Welcomat (Philadelphia), March 31, 1993
“Primosch’s piece, for three strings, oboe, clarinet, flute and piano, builds on some floating musical lines. The second movement, in which the instruments play at a whisper, summarizes the best of the writing. Intricate rhythmically, the music speaks clearly and poetically.” [on Septet]
-Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 20, 1993
“James Primosch’s 1987 chamber work, The Cloud of Unknowing for soprano and 20-piece orchestra, received its Chicago premiere. An astonishing piece, not only because its composer was only 31 when he wrote it, The Cloud dares to be a religious work in our excessively secular age.
“A 30-minute Lenten meditation on five poems by Hopkins, Donne, Merton and others, the work follows Varese in creating unique and beautiful sound pictures for each poem.”
-Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times, March 2, 1993
“Words and music have a lot to say to each other in James Primosch’s Weil Alles Unsagbar Ist (Because Everything is Unsayable), played Sunday afternoon by the New York Camerata at the Van Pelt Auditorium of the Philadelphia Musuem of Art.
The three movement work for flute, violin, soprano, cello and piano is stunning in its ability to illuminate texts taken from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Pictures and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
“Primosch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a master of text painting that can be subtle or obvious. Listening to the music while following the German words (a translation was provided in the program) was a fascinating exercise in finding examples of both kinds.
“Pianist Meg Bachman Vas leaned into the piano in “Klage” (Lament) to dampen the string of a hit note, making a sound remarkably like a striking clock where soprano Eleanor Clark sang Uhr, the German word for clock. Stars mentioned in the text were evoked by the piano’s pointillistic gestures in the upper register.
The music builds to an Angst-ridden pitch, which both ends the first movement and sets the mood for the second, “Angste” (Fears).
“Here, Rilke’s nightmares run loose. After praying to rediscover his childhood, he seems surprised that it returns with what he recalls as all its attendant fears.
“The fact that his fears are irrational makes their impact no less felt. Rilke and Primosch collaborate to make us fear that a “small woolen thread sticking out of the hem of my blanket may be hard, hard and sharp as a steel needle,” that “some number may begin to grow in my brain until there is no more room for it inside me.” The greatest fear may be the one expressed at the end, that “growing older has served no purpose at all.”
“‘Herbst’ (Autumn) uses a descending two-note idea to represent falling leaves.”
-Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 15, 1992
“James Primosch is a composer whose name should be familiar to anyone who pays attention to Philadelphia’s new music circuit”
-Tom Purdom, Welcomat (Philadelphia), December 9, 1992
“An experiment by James Primosch in electronic accompaniment working with clarinet and piano duo was a pleasure to hear…” [on Icons]
-Hans G. Schürmann, General-Anzeiger, Bonn (Germany) November 3, 1992
“James Primosch’s Icons for clarinet, piano and tape however, was impulsive, warm and emotional music. The first-rate clarinetist Jean Kopperud explored the electronic sounds, while amid bell crashes and hollow murmurs she shaped the beauty of darkness. Quite near the close, after heavy electronic attacks, a harmony bloomed in the piano, whose resolution, however, in either tonic or dominant was denied the listener.”
-Elbe-Jeetzel Zeitung (Germany), November 2, 1992
“James Primosch’s ‘String Quartet No. 2 (After Zurbarán)’ began the program. It is a handsome, somewhat elegaic work, built around a hymn tune, written in a language that is both harmonically diverse and emotionally unified. I am impressed by the lack of self-consciousness with which many of the younger composers use dissonance – neither to “shock” or to prove their spurious modernism, but rather as one more component in a larger musical language. Primosch’s debts to Shostakovich, Britten and Schoenberg are clear, and the quartet breaks no radically new ground in a technical sense, but it remains a satisfying and personal statement.”
-Tim Page, New York Newsday, July 29, 1992
“Particularly striking…Mr. Primosch’s quartet was inspired by the Zurbarán painting “The Holy House of Nazareth”, and draws its musical raw materials from the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”. The hymn tune is serene, melancholy and medieval, and it makes a strong effect when Mr. Primosch brings it back unadorned between imaginative variations that range from the violent and harsh to the grandly romantic.”
-Allan Kozinn, New York Times, July 29, 1992
“James Primosch’s Three Sacred Songs for soprano and piano are tonal and ardent. And their Latin texts are distinguished by a variety of musical language: the first has a near-Victorian romanticism, the second an austere modality, the last song brings to mind a joyous medieval dance.”
-Lesley Valdes, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1992
“James Primosch’s Icons (1984) for clarinet, piano and tape effectively integrates its electronic soundscape with live action dove-tailing lines and matching colors and attacks.”
-Timothy Mangan, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1991
“Drawing on Latin texts and using in each case a traditional setting of the hymn or chant, Mr. Primosch has framed these liturgical pieces – or better said, enfolded them – in his own sparse musical style.
“Though the predominating feeling is modal, as might be expected given the source of the materials, there are also far-Eastern, mystical sounds that tingled and bristled. The score is very approachable, handsomely made and austerely beautiful.” [on Four Sacred Songs]
-John Ardoin, Dallas Morning News, November 6, 1991
“Icons (1984), an attractive work with contrastingly driven and introspective sections…”
-Allan Kozinn, New York Times, May 18, 1991
“Primosch’s song called Bedtime left the strongest impression; it is imbued with a languorous, evanescent poetry, heightened by the gentle gonging of sustained notes from the piano”
-Tim Page, New York Newsday, April 5, 1991
“Primosch’s The Dark Encounter sounded marvelously pure, clean and precise. An expressive excerpt from a cycle of sacred songs [The Cloud of Unknowing], the piece imbues a text by Thomas Merton with musical darkness and mystery. Initially, the orchestra sets the mood with deep rumbles and dramatic gestures. Once the soprano voice enters, however, the orchestra becomes subordinate to and illustrative of the poet’s contemplative words about Christ’s encounter with death. The voice begins and ends quietly, singing small intervals in a narrow range like a chant.
“As the poetry intensifies, however, the range expands and the intervals grow wide and craggy. In verses that address the silence of the tomb, the instruments are silent. In references to the sepulchre, night and the locks of time, the orchestra effectively colors and punctuates the voice.
“The song was given a powerful performance by [soprano Christine] Schadeberg, [conductor Edwin] London and the ensemble [the Cleveland Chamber Symphony]. Primosch, a Cleveland native who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, was warmly applauded for his impressive piece.”
-Wilma Salisbury, Cleveland Plain Dealer March 19, 1990
“In the hands of these performers, it was a compelling work, asking to be heard again.” [on The Dark Encounter from The Cloud of Unknowing]
-Philippa Kiraly, Akron Beacon Journal, March 21, 1990
“Icons uses imaginative instrumental techniques to explore the coloristic relationship among the sonic forces… The resulting mix was a fascinating multilayered texture that brought forth many stimulating combinations.”
-Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 1989
“One could revel… in the network of finely textured connections woven in the inner movement…” [on Septet]
-Nancy Miller, Boston Globe, March 23, 1988
“James Primosch’s Dappled Things the latest of the New York [Youth] Symphony commissions in its First Music series, was played in Carnegie Hall last week. It is a short (seven-minute), attractive, and well-written piece of music – an orchestral version of Primosch’s setting, for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Pied Beauty’ (which praises God for ‘skies of couple-colour’, stippled trout, finches’ wings, ‘all things counter,original, spare, strange’). This was composed as the first movement of a cantata, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. In the orchestral version – the composer said in a program note – the singer’s musical material has been included. The work sounds not like a transcription but like a tone poem with a lively, variegated surface, an alert rhythmic progress, and a trim structure. It’s a buoyant, joyful, imaginative piece. Primosch scores with a light, sure hand… he has a fresh voice of his own, and ‘Dappled Things’ should soon find a place in symphony concerts through the country.”
-Andrew Porter, The New Yorker, June 8, 1987
“James Primosch’s Septet (1985) was probably the most substantial work of the evening. This very fine piece is in three untitled movements: a forceful first section that builds with quickening intensity; a hazy, quietly urgent middle section, and an impulsive, syncopated, driving final movement that finishes with a murmur.”
-Michael Kimmelman, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1986
“In James Primosch’s piano recital Sunday at Curtis Institute, the rhythmic virtuosity of four composers was explored and explained in his high – energy playing. Primosch, himself a composer, may have been best placed to understand the forces propelling music by Donald Martino, George Perle, Olivier Messiaen, and Jay Reise in his program, sponsored by the Penn Contemporary Players. Martino’s detailed writing asks about all that a pianist can shape at the keyboard. Simultaneous events go on at breakneck speed, rhythms and meters collide and cross in a calculated placement of notes… A single part of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur lEnfant-Jesus demonstrated the composer’s color palette with its bird songs and ecstatic bell sounds…Primosch played the work with obvious relish.”
-Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer Nov. 24, 1992
“George Crumb’s Little Suite for Christmas, A.D 1979, moved well past the novelty of intrapiano sounds…to create richly evocative scenes… James Primosch was the adept and daring pianist.”
-Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer
“The Washington Square Contemporary Music Series offered some fiercely serious music Thursday at New York University’s University Theater. There were impressive moments and even a few noble ones. Luciano Berio’s piano piece Sequenza IV, for example, played reticent chordal passages against skittering unstable interludes and created in the process a solemn yet exciting experience…The Berio’s stylish and very successful performer was James Primosch.”
-Bernard Holland, The New York Times, May 23, 1982