Token Creek Review

A nice review of the recent concert at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival that included four of my songs with singers Sarah Yanovitch and Ryne Cherry:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/token-creek-chamber-music-festival-ripe-and-ready-for-the-29th-time/

(The picture is of me at a rehearsal in the Festival Barn – thank you to Ashley York for this shot.

Vocalisms

Vocalisms, the new two-CD set featuring my music as well as works by Harbison, Rorem, and Daniel Crozier, has been released by Albany Records. Soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Heidi Louise Williams perform my Shadow Memory (text by Susan Orlean), Waltzing the Spheres (Susan Scott Thompson), Three Folk Hymns (based on How Can I Keep From Singing?, Be Thou My Vision, and What Wondrous Love is This?), and the first recording of the piano version of Holy the Firm, (various authors) the 1999 cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. There’s a complete track listing at the Albany website.

The album makes a fine survey of contemporary American piano-and-voice song, with a mix of pieces by two senior composers (Rorem and Harbison) along with music by two mid-career types (Dan and myself.) The title comes from the opening piece, Harbison’s Vocalism, a Whitman setting that was commissioned by SongFest, the same organization that commissioned Shadow Memory.

I met Mary when she did my Three Sacred Songs about ten years ago, and she has been a wonderful advocate for my music ever since. Heidi came to my attention through her collaboration with Mary, and, as with Mary, I’ve been thrilled to hear her performances. It’s a wonderful combination of two smart artists who each have a gorgeous sound and superb musicianship. Their partnership is impeccable and they command every mood, whether serene or playful, mysterious or exuberant, often with no small emotional wallop, whether it’s the melancholy of Shadow Memory or the devastating deathbed scene that closes Holy the Firm. I’m profoundly grateful for their work.

I am delighted with the quality of the recording as well, as realized by producer Peter Henderson and engineer Paul Hennerich.

This is Mary’s fourth release on Albany, which says something for their well-justified belief in her merit. I can’t provide a direct link, but go to the Albany website and do an artist search to see her complete list of Albany albums, including the 21st Century Consort’s Cathedral Music, featuring my Sacred Songs and Meditations. And do the same for Heidi, whose Albany releases include a wonderful disc of contemporary American piano music called Drive American. You’ll want to browse the Albany catalog in general – the firm is admirable for its commitment to new music.

While there is a brief soundclip from the new album at the Albany page, you can see videos of Mary and Heidi doing two of the songs from the album here. That page also includes material from the Cathedral Music cd.

The score of Holy the Firm is available from the Theodore Presser Co., while the other songs are available from me directly – just send me a message.

Here are the three of us – Mary on the left – after a 2015 coaching session.

Report from Token Creek

At the moment I am focussed on completing my new motet for The Crossing (about which more soon), but I want to take a minute to report on my recent visit to John and Rose Mary Harbison’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. This year’s edition was a set of three programs, the first of which included four of my songs, juxtaposed with vocal and instrumental music of Bach. I covered the piano parts, and the excellent young singers were soprano Sarah Yanovitch and baritone Ryne Cherry. Sarah did two of the five songs that make up my cycle Holy the Firm; It gives one pause to realize that she was probably about 7 when Dawn Upshaw and Gil Kalish premiered the piece. Ryne did one old song, From Psalm 116, which predates even H the F, and a quite recent piece, the Melville setting called A Catskill Eagle that I wrote in honor of John Harbison’s 80th birthday, and premiered at SongFest in late spring of this year. There were two Bach cantatas, some cantata excerpts, string arrangements of three chorale preludes for organ, and Contrapunctus VII from The Art of Fugue, played by John himself on the portative that he used for the continuo in the cantatas. The  fine string players were Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, violin; Jen Paulson, viola; Mark Bridges, cello; and Ross Gilliland, bass.

The Festival’s concerts take place in a handsomely renovated barn, not too far from Madison, Wisconsin. There was an exceptional Steinway at hand, a pleasure to play for its beguiling beauty of sound but also (for this composer/pianist) ease of control. Here are a few pictures taken in and around the barn. First, the string players working on a chorale prelude, with John listening:

 

Ryne, Sarah, and the ensemble:

The Harbison’s dog Rudi is very much present at all times. You can see him in the rehearsal pictures where he rests on the stage, apparently enjoying the vibrations as he stretches out behind Rose Mary’s chair, but here is a better view, with one of his toys that looks a little like him:

There’s a verdant garden on the grounds:

I was enjoying the very kind hospitality of the Festival’s Managing Director, Sarah Schaffer, and her husband John while I was there. They are in Middleton, not far from Madison or from the Festival grounds. I walked around a little bit and went to Mass at the local parish, which had a remarkable stained glass window:

And I enjoyed the straightforward approach to listing hours of operation taken by a Middleton shop:

Here I am with Ryne and Sarah after the show:

And there was time later that evening for a little jazz, with the Harbisons (John doing his best to emulate Jimmy Smith on the portative) and John Schaffer on bass:

I’m deeply grateful to the Harbisons for the invitation to participate in the Festival; to my young colleagues who sang my songs so sensitively; and to the Schaffers for making all the practical aspects of the trip smooth and easy.

Recent Listening: Adams and Ellington

Ellington: Such Sweet Thunder. I pulled out this album, surely one of the most distinguished of the master’s output for Columbia Records in the ’50’s, because I was re-reading David Schiff’s The Ellington Century, which includes a movement-by-movement discussion of the title work. As always with Ellington, the individuality of each player’s contribution, perfectly framed by the composer, makes up an astonishing orchestral palette. The CD version of the album includes a lot of bonus tracks, not all of which are at as high a level as the suite itself, but, of course, anything by Ellington is of interest. Do check out Schiff’s book, which is an intriguing take on 20th-century music history that puts Ellington at the center, rather than Stravinsky or Schoenberg, in addition to having lots of great insights on Ravel, Berg and more. I look forward to reading Schiff’s new book on Carter which has just come out.

Adams: The Chairman Dances. San Francisco Symphony; Edo de Waart, conductor. This is a collection of orchestral pieces by John Adams, which I missed when it was released by Nonesuch in the late ’80s. In addition to the title piece, it includes Christian Zeal and Activity, Tromba Lontana, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Common Tones in Simple Time. I had only heard the widely-performed Short Ride and The Chairman Dances before. Short Ride is one of those perpetual motion concert openers that became a widely cultivated genre at one point; I think Chris Rouse’s The Infernal Machine is a more more finely shaped example of such a piece. My favorite piece on the album was Common Tones in Simple Time. The style of this 20-minute piece resembles that of the grand canvases of Harmonielehre and Naive and Sentimental Music, those symphonies in all but name that constitute Adams’ full integration of post-minimalist (maybe post-post-minimalist) materials with those of the romantic and early 20th century repertoires. Adams’ music plays such a prominent role in the American symphonic world; I think the interest on the part of younger composers in extended performance techniques and edgy idioms is in part a reaction against his work. It will be interesting to see if the pendulum swings the other way any time soon.

Summer Sonata Reading

There’s nothing like getting to know pieces through your fingers. I try to be doing a little bit of reading through new pieces all through the year, but summer naturally affords more time at the piano. My project this summer has been to go through as many as I can of the Ralph Kirkpatrick edition of 60 Scarlatti sonatas as published by Schirmer.  I hardly need to remind you of the delights of this music, with its quirky keyboard textures and unexpected harmonic moves. But maybe not everybody who uses that Schirmer edition is aware that Kirkpatrick recorded the same 60 pieces for Columbia Records. He used what he describes as a “frankly modern harpsichord” by John Challis. I am no lover of the harpsichord, much preferring to hear Bach, for example, on the piano. But Kirkpatrick’s instrument strikes me as having an exceptionally mellifluous sound, and I find his recordings delightful. Give these early sonatas a try:

Upcoming in August

You can hear my music at two festivals coming up next month. The first is the Portland Chamber Music Festival in Portland, Maine. On Saturday, August 11, an all-star ensemble will convene for my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano. Here’s the personnel:

Peggy Pearson, oboe
Sunghae Anna Lim, violin
Christine Grossman, viola
Thomas Kraines, cello
Diane Walsh, piano

The ensemble is like a standard piano quintet, but with oboe replacing one of the violins. This is the third piece I have written at the request of Peggy, having previously done an Oboe Quartet and a work for oboe, chorus and strings called Matins. (The latter will receive its second performance on a Cantata Singers program this coming January.) You can read more about the Quintet here.

I’ll be playing piano at two concerts of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, August 25 and 26. These programs include four of my songs with two marvelous young singers. Soprano Sarah Yanovitch will do two songs from Holy the Firm, the cycle I wrote nearly 20 years ago (!) for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. Baritone Ryne Cherry offers two independent songs: From Psalm 116 dates from 1995, and sets a single psalm verse in Latin; A Catskill Eagle is the Melville setting that I premiered with baritone Kyle Ferrill at SongFest earlier this year. Token Creek is directed by Rosemary and John Harbison, and takes place in a barn on a lovely property not far from Madison, Wisconsin.

As a preview, here’s the Bridge recording of one of the songs Sarah will sing, this in an orchestrated version performed by Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort, with Christopher Kendall conducting.

 

Quick CD Comments

Persichetti: Symphony for Strings, Piano Concerto. Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Symphony), Charles Dutoit (Concerto) New World Records. It’s been a long time since I first encountered the music of Persichetti by playing his wind ensemble music, which is probably the way most American musicians first get to know his work. (The Symphony for Band is one of the great classics of the medium.) Less frequently encountered is Persichetti’s orchestral music. The harmonic idiom is a bit darker than I recall from the band music, but consistently attractive. Like so much mid-20th century American music, this is repertoire that really should be more widely played. The performances are excellent, as one would expect from the Philadelphia, though the last movement of the concerto is ill-served by the overly rapid pace set by Dutoit.

Shelly Manne and His Friends, Vol. 2 (Andre Previn, piano; Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Shelley Manne, drums) Contemporary Records. The centrality of the Broadway musical to the American musical scene in the middle of the last century was such that there developed a fad for jazz interpretations of the scores from the shows – not just individual tunes, but entire albums devoted to the shows. I believe the present 1956 album of songs from “My Fair Lady” is the first of its kind. All the players are brilliant, the arrangements are charming, but there is something a little superficial here; it’s a sort of highly sophisticated piano lounge music.

“A Sibyl” in the Garden

(photo courtesy of Alycia Kravitz and Museum of Modern Art)

I’m very grateful for the superb performance of A Sibyl last Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden with Anneliese Klenetsky, soprano; members of the New Juilliard Ensemble; and Joel Sachs, conductor. Anneliese’s singing displayed beauty of sound, great musicianship, and vivid expression. All the musicians truly “got” the piece – you could tell by their characterful singing and playing that they understood what I was trying to say. No less important, they had formidable gifts with which to convey the musical message.

Of course, I am very grateful to my friend Susan Stewart for giving me such powerful texts to set.

Also on the program was Leonora Pictures by Philip Cashian. This was my first encounter with the music of the British composer, and I was very impressed: a cogent harmonic language, imaginative textures, and a strong sense of drama. I’d like to hear more of his work.

Here are some pictures from last Sunday, taken by the gifted Alycia Kravitz, and included here with her kind permission and that of the Museum of Modern Art. The exception is this shot of the evening’s program:

The clips on the music stands are to help the music not fly away in the breeze; Alycia managed to catch a momentary appearance by one of the other singers of the evening.

The BVM was taking care of video:

A good-sized crowd attends these SummerGarden concerts:

 

The indefatigable Joel Sachs who has performed an incredible amount of new music over the years:

Sae Hashimoto:

Reiko Tsuchida:

Shen Liu, clarinet, and Emily Duncan, flute:

Julia Glenn:

Yu Yu Liu:

Anneliese Klenetsky:

 

That’s Susan Stewart taking a bow with me:

Thanks are also due to Melania Monios of the MoMA for her kind hospitality as she made sure all ran smoothly. As Susan remarked in an e-mail, it was a magical evening.