Heartfelt thanks to the Imani Winds for their beautiful first performance of my Four Sketches for woodwind quintet this past Friday. This is a group of virtuosi who not only can play anything, but deeply understood my music, grasping its expressive intent and using their formidable chops to project it powerfully to the audience. It was a thrill to be part of their program, featuring music by members of the ensemble present (Jeff Scott) and and past (Valerie Coleman) as well as music by Ligeti, Harbison, and Schifrin – a thrill because of the group’s palpable connection with the sellout audience. Thank you as well to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society – the organization that presented the concert and commissioned the piece. Here’s hoping Imani gets more chances to play the work – I’ll of course keep you informed about that. Read Peter Dobrin’s review of the concert from the Philadelphia Inquirer here. (Unfortunately, I didn’t see a group press picture with the ensemble’s new flutist – Brandon Patrick George – on their website just yet. That’s the Imani’s original flutist, Valerie Coleman, seated in the picture at left. Photo credit: Matt Murphy)
I’m grateful for two recent performances that I traveled to hear: Matins was done by Peggy Pearson, oboe, and the Cantata Singers, conducted by David Hoose, in Boston’s Jordan Hall; A Sibyl was performed at the opening concert of the Florida State University Festival of New Music.
The Cantata Singers rehearsed in a hall in a suburb called Melrose:
which did not come close to the gorgeous acoustic of Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory:
Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture with Peggy, but here I am with David Hoose and an oddly glowing stage behind us:
I had time to do a few other things while in Boston, including my first visit to the Gardner Museum in many years:
May I say that the food at the cafe was excellent:
On Friday I heard my first Boston Symphony concert in Symphony Hall (having previously only heard them at Tanglewood):
The orchestra sounded fabulous as did pianist Martin Helmchen. The Saariaho was consistent with my impressions of much of her work – very beautiful and a little too static for my taste. The Sibelius symphonies continue to baffle me and doing two in a row didn’t help much. The famous acoustics of Symphony Hall actually seemed to me to be a little too rich – good for the Saariaho and Sibelius, but a little blurry for the Mozart.
I lingered in Boston to attend an Emmanuel Music celebration of John Harbison’s 80th birthday. It was good to have another chance to hear his Sixth Quartet, and the evening also included a set of John’s pop songs, with the composer at the piano.
In Florida, the featured guest composer was Georg Friedrich Haas, and I heard a number of his pieces throughout the festival. The music struck me as uneven, severe at times and sensuous at others, a strange mix of fascinating and dull.
My own work, the song cycle A Sibyl was performed by soprano Marcía Porter, and and ensemble of faculty and grad students, with Alexander Jiménez conducting. One festival highlight was a concert by the Meitar Ensemble – guests visiting from Israel – who offered a blazing performance of Grisey’s Talea among other works.
I’m grateful to all who made these performances of my music possible. Next on the schedule is a premiere with the Imani Winds, on February 15 in Philadelphia.
This has been quickly making the rounds, but in case you missed it:
A brief post to note the passing of poet Mary Oliver, days before the Cantata Singers performance of my Matins, which includes a setting of her poetry. Like so many readers, I have found deep nourishment in her work, and if you don’t know her writing, I commend it to your attention.
Two significant performances of my vocal music are coming up in the next several weeks:
- The Cantata Singers are reviving my Matins later this month, a piece for oboe, strings and chorus that they co-commissioned along with Winsor Music 15 years ago. (This is just the second performance of the piece; here’s hoping somebody takes up the piece for its third performance sooner than 2033.) The fabulous Peggy Pearson, who has been a wonderful champion of my music, commissioning and performing my Oboe Quartet and Oboe Quintet, will be the soloist. I first got to know Peggy and her playing through her work with Emmanuel Music, with whom she masterfully plays the prominent oboe parts in the Bach cantatas performed at Emmanuel Church. Matins, which sets poems of Hopkins and Mary Oliver, will be heard at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, with David Hoose conducting, January 25 at 8 pm. I will give a pre-concert lecture on the whole program, which includes the Bartók Divertimento and the Pärt Te Deum, at 7 pm.
- A Sibyl, my song cycle on texts written expressly for the project by Susan Stewart, will be on the first concert of the 2019 Florida State University Festival of New Music on January 31. Among the splendid musicians performing my piece are soprano soloist Marcia Porter, conductor Alexander Jiménez, Deborah Bish, clarinet; Nina Kim, violin; Evan Jones, cello; Justin Ball, percussion; a flutist whose name I don’t yet know; and pianist Heidi Louise Williams, who is at the keyboard for the recent Albany cd featuring my music, Vocalisms, with Mary Mackenzie, soprano. It was Mary who was soloist in the premiere of A Sibyl, performed by Collage New Music and conducted by David Hoose – funny how threads of connection weave together in this business.
Though some deadlines kept me working very hard over the holidays, I still found some time to read. My recent reading has included:
- David Schiff’s new book on Carter. This is a welcome update to Schiff’s earlier books on the composer, insightful and well-written, but rather different in character from the earlier books, delving less into technical matters. There are no musical examples, save for a curious page with a few signature musical motifs Carter has often employed. Who would read a book about Elliott Carter yet be put off by the presence of score notation? The book is not the full biography that Carter deserves, something like Howard Pollock’s book on Copland – for that, someone will have to, as Schiff notes, go through the 10,000 letters in the Carter files at the Sacher Foundation, as well as do much more. Sometimes the book reads like a series of uncommonly elegant program notes, but it is hard to fault Schiff for not digging deeper; Carter was unbelievably productive in his late years and there is a huge amount of material to discuss. I suppose a book that went into detail about every single piece would become unreadable, more like an encyclopedia or catalog. I was a bit taken aback by how strongly Schiff dislikes the libretto for Carter’s opera What’s Next? – I need to go back and listen to the piece again with his comments in mind.
- I finally finished Proust’s À la recherche, over 30 years after purchasing the three volume set at Bookforum on Broadway, near Columbia, during my student days. I know it’s a cliché to say “one is never finished reading Proust”, but I do feel that if I returned to Swann’s Way now, it would be with much greater appreciation and understanding. On the other hand, I could certainly use a break. Derwent May’s short volume on Proust increased my enjoyment of the novel, and I recommend it.
- I loved Everyone at This Party Has Two Names by Brad Aaron Modlin, a volume of poems that made me wince in recognition, smile at its wry humor, and pause thoughtfully over its poignant insights. There’s a text in this volume I want to set before too long, it’s that kind of book.
It’s back to the day job this week, but I managed to finish a couple of projects during the Christmas break that is coming to an end. I Heard You, for tenor and piano, is my contribution to Lyric Fest’s Walt Whitman celebration this spring. Whitman calls the poem “Music”, but that seemed an awkward title for a song, so I used the first words of the text. Here is the poem (WordPress is determined to keep me from displaying the proper lineation for the poems – sorry Walt!):
I heard you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last Sunday morn I passed
Winds of autumn!—as I walked the woods at dusk, I heard your
long-stretched sighs, up above, so mournful;
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I heard the
soprano in the midst of the quartette singing.
—Heart of my love! you too I heard, murmuring low, through one of the
wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last night
under my ear.
I took full advantage of the imagery in the text, using a polytonal harmonization of “O God Our Help In Ages Past” for the organ; rapid figures for the winds of autumn; references to Verdi and Wagner for the opera singers; and the Westminster Chimes motif for the last lines. My plan is to add another short song to this setting, making a pair of two Whitman love songs. Here is the other text:
Sometimes with One I Love
Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs).
The other project where I reached the double bar was a set of Four Sketches for the Imani Winds. These are brief movements with titles referring to different things music can do:
I could have called it “Four Ings”, but I figured it better not to lean on the playful title Cowell used for a set of six piano pieces called Six Ings. (Don’t you wish you had written a piece called “Scooting”?)
The Four Sketches will be premiered on a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this coming February 15.
Darn it, it’s not Christmas until it’s Christmas. Don’t tell me it’s the “Christmas Season”. It’s Advent, and it’s a shame to lose this beautiful time for quiet contemplation.
- Thank you to Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward for the intensely touching performances of my “Cinder” and “Bedtime” last month as part of a Lyric Fest program. “Cinder”, to a Susan Stewart text, is the most often excerpted piece from Holy the Firm, while “Bedtime” is an independent item, a Denise Levertov setting. Suzanne is an uncannily charismatic performer who connects strongly with listeners, and Laura has no limitations at the piano.
- Thanks as well to Kristina Bachrach and Daniel Schlosberg for their powerful performance of my “Every Day is a God” (also from Holy the Firm) earlier this month. This was part of the celebration marking the anthology of art songs for soprano and piano being issued by New Music Shelf. Thanks as well to the curator for the collection, Laura Strickling for including me in the volume. The entire Holy the Firm cycle is available from the Theodore Presser Company.
- I’ve received word that my work for soprano and six instruments, A Sibyl, also on texts by Susan Stewart, will be performed at the Florida State University New Music Festival which runs January 31 through February 2. Marcia Porter will be the soloist, and Alexander Jiménez will conduct.
- Recent listening has included:
- The complete Mozart piano sonatas with Mitsuko Uchida on Phillips. What can I say, I adore her sound, her phrasing, the airborne joy of her playing. More of these sonatas are worth programming than the 4 or 5 that are commonly done.
- Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins. One of the supreme classics, of course. I do wish Tommy Flanagan was more forward in the mix. “Blue 7” famously elicited a Gunther Schuller analysis, included in this volume.
- Tiptoe Tapdance – Hank Jones. Oh, for some small fraction of the harmonic wisdom on display in this solo album, the imagination, the fluency. I hear hints of Teddy Wilson at times. Jones’s version of “It’s Me Oh Lord” included here was reprised on his beautiful album with Charlie Haden, Steal Away.
- Faure – the Nocturnes – Paul Crossley. CRD Records. Superb playing, but I just don’t get these pieces. The harmony is sometimes conventional, but often manages to be strange yet boring. The rhythmic stasis doesn’t help, inducing a state of claustrophobia. Friends tell me this is great stuff; I will give it another try at some point.
- A blessed Christmas to all – see you in the New Year.
“This is why I wanted to write this book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.”
This is from The Library Book, the superb new book from Susan Orlean – very highly recommended.
This Saturday, Dec. 1, at 7 pm, Kristina Bachrach will sing one of the songs that makes up my cycle Holy the Firm as part of a program celebrating the launch of New Music Shelf’s anthology of songs for soprano and piano. My contribution to the anthology of 20 songs by as many composers is “Every Day is a God”, which sets a text by Annie Dillard, an excerpt from the book whose title I borrowed for my cycle. Daniel Schlosberg will be the pianist. It’s a weird coincidence, but Daniel played two other songs from the cycle with soprano Jamie Jordan at the Sacramento State Festival of New American Music earlier this month. Jamie will also be performing on Friday’s concert. New Music Shelf’s website is being worked on at the moment, it appears; I will come back to this post with a link when it is functional. However, you can reserve tickets by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org.