Early May Miscellany

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–  Anna will be playing my Piano Variations. She was one of the students who shared in a performance of the piece in 2016, having had the work brought to her attention by Temple U professor Lambert Orkis. More about the piece here.

– there was a very strong performance by the Lark Quartet at their 30th anniversary concert in NYC this past Monday. After urgent, authoritative playing in the Debussy Quartet, they offered a premiere for string octet by Andrew Waggoner in which the original members of the Lark joined the current members. The piece, called Ce morceau de tissu, was striking for its fierce antiphonies and roiling textures. It was impressive how Andrew was able to maintain high energy in the piece; sustained fast music is no small challenge to write. After intermission, the Harbison String Quartet No. 6 had its NYC premiere. In four movements, the piece begins with the first violin placed some distance from the rest of the quartet, gradually arriving at a conventional playing location, and the “3 + 1” conception returns later, though the positioning of the player remains normal. It was interesting to hear this quartet and Harbison’s Presences two weeks apart; two chamber works for strings featuring concertante writing for a member of the ensemble, though Presences is mostly at a higher dramatic temperature than the quartet with its lyrical and dancing textures. Both works linger in the mind.

No less intriguing was a chance to hear the Harbison Sixth in close juxtaposition with the recent Mario Davidovsky Sixth Quartet as played by the Juilliard Quartet on Sunday here in Philadelphia.  Both memorable pieces by senior masters, but with very different languages, of course. Mario’s piece is called Fragments, and its essentially athematic discourse relies on the careful deployment of characterful elements that, in Mario’s words: “do not offer the necessary pitch/rhythmic information to denote them clearly as motives, but can be described in basic ‘expressive’ terms as being very fast, percussive, or lyrical, etc.” These fragments are combined, juxtaposed, and transformed, with the result being mercurial, dramatic, playful and poetic by turn. The writing is animated by vividly alert textures that retain the influence of Mario’s days in the electronic music studio; at times it is as though an electronic component is embedded in the purely acoustic piece. The work was brilliantly played by the Juilliard on a program that also included the Mendelssohn a minor quartet and Beethoven Op. 130, with the Grosse Fuge – whew!

Here’s John Harbison with Andrew Waggoner and Kathryn Lockwood of the Lark after the concert:

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and Andy with his wife Caroline Stinson, cellist in the Lark:

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– I visited the Guggenheim the morning after the Lark performance, and I strongly recommend their current show, filled with myriad strong pieces! I lingered at works by Pollock, Klee, many Kandinskys, a Bonnard (not normally one of my favorites), Mondrian, and many more. I found this Picasso especially moving, spending a long time looking at the supremely elegant curving lines:

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You might complain that this is an “easy” work to like, compared with, for example, some of the Kandinskys in the show. But “easy” in art is never easy.

“Presences” in NYC

This is a belated note on last Monday’s Weekend of Chamber Music program in New York at the Bathhouse Studios. Yet another fine young string quartet (there seem to be so many these days) – this one called the Verona – opened the program with Haydn’s Op. 50, Nr. 1, transparent and articulate. This was followed by the NYC premiere of John Harbison’s Presences. The piece is a chamber concerto for cello and five additional strings, in this case the Verona joined by Jeremy McCoy, double bass. Caroline Stinson of the Lark Quartet was the cello soloist. Commissioned as a memorial work for a cellist, it was the passionate moments of the piece that struck me the most, which is not to overlook the playful aspects. The inclusion of the double bass gives the music a three-dimensional quality, a certain heft and weight. I must admit Verklarte Nacht crossed my mind during the performance; not the vocabulary, but the richly ardent character of the discourse. The second half of the program was the Schubert Quintet in an eloquent performance notable for some tempi that were a bit more brisk than usual.

I plan to be back in New York on May 1 when the Lark plays the NYC premiere of Harbison’s Quartet Nr. 6 and a premiere by Andrew Waggoner at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall – tickets here.

Here’s a shot from last Wednesday. Left to right: Abigail Rojansky, Dorothy Ro, John Harbison, Caroline Stinson, Warren Hagerty (obscured), Jonathan Ong, and Jeremy McCoy.

“Variations” in Missouri

UntitledMy former student, Luke Carlson – an outstanding composer – is conducting my Variations on a Hymn Tune tonight at the College of the Ozarks in Point Hollister, Missouri. Luke joined the faculty there last fall.

The Variations were written for the Council Rock school district in Bucks County, PA, for their high school orchestras. Here’s a program note on the piece:

These variations are based on a 19th century hymn tune called “Ebenezer”, written by Welsh composer Thomas J. Williams. I came to know the tune with the text “Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow”, but my music does not reflect that somewhat lugubrious title! After a short introduction, the hymn is heard in the violins. Variations 1 and 3 treat the tune contrapuntally, with the tune sometimes played at different speeds simultaneously. Variations 2 and 4 change the rhythm of the hymn more dramatically. The extended ending of the 4th variation recalls some of the gestures of the introduction.

I tried to write a piece that would include a variety of moods, would appeal to young players, and would give each orchestral section a chance to shine.

Although the piece was written for a high school orchestra, and was most recently played by the Philadelphia Sinfonia, a youth orchestra, it can also be appropriate for college orchestras. It’s in the Presser catalog, and you can find a perusal score here.

Rhythms of the Cross

It was an honor to be part of an unusual Good Friday event at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia last week. My Penn colleague Dr. Guthrie Ramsey and the St. Paul’s pastor Dr. Leslie Callahan devised a series of reflections on the Seven Last Words that drew on the gifts of various spoken word artists and singers, the church’s own liturgical dancers and choir, and, binding it all together, the musical gifts of Dr. Guy’s Musiqology, featuring Guy at the piano. It was called Rhythms of the Cross: Seven Good Friday Movements. We heard the voices of Tulani Kinard (of Sweet Honey in the Rock), Clarence E. Wright, Valerie Bridgeman, Greg Corbin, Tyler Brown, and Charisse R. Tucker. At Guy’s invitation, mezzo Teresa Washam and I performed my version of the plainchant melody “Christus Factus Est”, from my Three Sacred Songs. When Bridget Ramsey (Guy’s daughter) opened her solo performance with a wordless vocalise over blues changes, I sensed a musical connection with the long melismas of my plainchant-based piece: two musics separated by a thousand years, but bound together in the grace-filled gift we call melody. I was also privileged to perform with the band on one number – thanks for the invitation to sit in, Guy!

Here are a few pictures. Liturgical dancers in action:

Here’s the whole company (that’s Teresa at my right, in the middle):

And here I am with a few of the other artists – that’s Guy, second from the right.

Contraption in Florida

When I visited Florida State University this past February, I was happy to meet a gifted pianist named Iris Cheng, a student of the marvelous Heidi Louise Williams in the graduate program there. I had a fine coaching session with Iris on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and am pleased to report she has programmed two movements from the piece – “Nocturnal Obsessions” and “Contraption” – for an upcoming recital. The concert will take place on Tuesday, April 18, in Longmire Recital Hall at FSU at 7:30 pm. Thanks to Iris and to Heidi for calling her student’s attention to the piece!

“Nobody is Meant to Clap”

“Nobody is meant to clap, and the music is not presented to an audience for approval; rather, it is meant to guide the mind out of the building into unseen heights and depths”

– from Nico Muhly’s piece in the NY Times on choral music.

This is a big part of why I so love the Emmanuel Music performances of my motets in the context of the liturgy at Emmanuel Church.

There’s a second performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Emmanuel tomorrow, 4/2 at 3 pm. (Probably OK to clap.) Check out this preview video:

Oboe Quartet in Philly, “Come Brothers All…” in Boston

Brilliant musicians who had previously played my music in other contexts separately came together to play my Oboe Quartet at Penn last Friday. Oboist Peggy Pearson, who commissioned the piece, collaborated with members of the Daedalus Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at Penn. The result was superb, richly shaded, strongly shaped. The premiere of an oboe quintet by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, the intensely strange Janáček first quartet, and a Haydn quartet arranged with oboe substituting for one of the violins rounded out the program. Anna’s piece was wonderfully varied and imaginative. She conjures memorable musical images that sound the way life feels. Peggy’s playing here, as throughout the evening, was extraordinary for her ability to subtly blend with the strings.

I traveled on to Boston the next day and attended the Cantata Singers benefit that evening:

This was held at the Liberty Hotel, which served as a jail until surprisingly recently.

Now some touristy pictures taken while walking from the subway to the benefit. Beacon Hill does look a little like some of the smaller streets in Philadelphia, though the buildings are typically three stories in Philly, not four: IMG_1912

 

The St. Gaudens memorial to Colonel Shaw and his African-American Civil War regiment:

IMG_1910(“Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat…” – from “For the Union Dead”, Robert Lowell) which is right across from the State House:

The next morning I went to Emmanuel Church, looking in on John Harbison before the service as he rehearsed a Victoria motet and a movement from his own And Mary Stood.

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Sunday afternoon – this 11th century corpus was a favorite piece:

 

Then Sunday evening was the first performance of my little contribution to Winsor Music’s “Songs for the Spirit” project, Come Brothers, All; Come Sisters, Too on a text by Georgia Douglas Johnson. Kendra Colton demonstrated the tune, then the audience joined in a reprise, with satisfying energy. Just before the performance:

It was great to have another chance to hear Anna’s quintet, plus the Haydn from Friday. The Winsor program closed with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, with clarinetist Rane Moore joining the Daedalus in a powerful rendition of this profoundly melancholy piece.

Thank you to all these musicians for your beautiful performances! I look forward to coming back to Boston for a Winsor Music concert next season that will feature a performance of my recently completed Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano.

Anna Weesner’s New Quintet

I mistakenly tweeted yesterday about the new work by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner as an oboe quartet, but it’s actually a quintet – string quartet and oboe. This is the piece of hers we will hear on the upcoming concert at Penn (this Friday, 3/24) with Peggy Pearson and the Daedalus Quartet – go here for more details on the concert. Read an interview with Anna at the Winsor Music website (in connection with the Boston performance of the piece on Sunday, 3/26). Here’s Anna’s program listing and note for the new quintet:

Love Progression: A Personal Essay
for oboe and string quartet

The personal essay strikes me as a mode for exploring a chosen topic in a way that might be equal parts reflective, studious and cheeky.  By ‘love progression’ I mean to refer to one of the common four-chord progressions on which a million and a half pop songs are based.  Because why not?  Common currency, my currency, history’s currency.  The mix of it. ( . . . or by ‘love progression’ did I mean the progression of love?)

The piece falls into six sections and is played without pause.

I. the flight
II. the timelessness
III. the questions
IV. the pop song
V. the mad scene
VI. the love coda

–Anna Weesner