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: email@example.com.
David Patrick Stearns, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer (his writing still appears there, I assume on a free lance basis) wrote about the recent premiere of my Carthage by The Crossing on his blog, Condemned to Music. Read the whole post here, but here is the relevant portion:
Not having anything close to a comprehensive view of composer James Primosch, I find it hard to characterize how his voice has evolved. But I can say the composer I heard around 2000, when I first started sampling Philadelphia’s local compositional talent, is extremely different from what I heard on Saturday in the piece Carthage, set to an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.
Previously, I had thought of Primosch as a post-George Rochberg composer, tonal but with some sharp edges and a taste for complexity; maybe writing for the voices of The Crossing has led him into something more essential. This piece (also a world premiere) uses something resembling plainchant as a starting point, taking from that world a sense of a religiously concentrated melodic line. There’s plenty of harmonic sophistication, and some blue notes – some of the bluest notes this side of Coltrane – that tell you this music is very much a product of our time.
The Crossing has big plans for Primosch in future months and seasons. We’ll talk more about him when I have a critical mass of his music to contemplate.
- First things first: I hope you are either planning to go vote tomorrow, or are perhaps reading this while waiting in line to do so.
- Thank you to The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally for the beautiful first performance they gave of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage. In a ten minute piece, I asked a lot of the group in terms not only of vocal virtuosity, but in variety of expression. They certainly delivered, as they always seem to do. I am very grateful. Unfortunately, no review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- I am struggling hard to make progress on my new piece for the Imani Winds, set for a February premiere in Philly, but to be rehearsed for the first time in December, so there is much to do on the piece this month. At the same time I have been polishing the performance materials for Matins, the work for oboe, strings and chorus that Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers will perform in January. Conductor David Hoose has helped me improve the notation – there are a lot more cautionary accidentals in the score than there used to be, for example – and some re-spellings that I am not sure I always agree with. But I have accepted 98% of David’s suggestions and corrections, and am happy to do what I can to make sure the performers can give their best.
- Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward will perform two of my songs on upcoming Lyric Fest concerts: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm sets a Susan Stewart poem and is my most performed piece; and Bedtime, a Denise Levertov song from nearly 30 years ago, which was later memorably sung by Dawn Upshaw at her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Check the Performances page for more info on all the concerts I am mentioning.
- Recent and not so recent listening has included:
- some old George Shearing sides from the 1940s from a Proper box set. I’m afraid this was disappointing, with saccharine ballads and frantic bop solos, though he sometimes hits a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
- A 1982 DG disc of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic in his Divertimento (forgettable), Halil with Rampal (colleagues I respect speak well of this piece, but it didn’t hold me), the Dance Episodes from “On the Town” (delightful) and Rostropovich playing the Three Meditations from “Mass” (it’s not really a cello and orchestra piece. However, like Anne Midgette who wrote about Mass in the Washington Post, I had the piece from which this cello work is extracted memorized before I knew any better, so I find it hard to judge the music now. (I wonder if she was raised Catholic as was I?))
- A Recital of Intimate Works, which is an album of varied keyboard pieces performed by pianist Andrew Rangell on a 1996 Dorian disc. I am not sure that these pieces all qualify as intimate – not all the movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles, for example – but it is very freshly programmed. A piano album that includes Froberger, Sweelinck, Messiaen, and Enescu, plus Mozart (the sublime Rondo in A minor) and transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven certainly gets my attention. Beautifully played and recorded.
- I’ve been greatly enjoying The Library Book by Susan Orlean – it’s great reporting, it’s great writing, it’s great fun, and, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s greatly touching. But this is the writer whose work gave me the text for a moving song, Shadow Memory:
The video is with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, who are the fabulous performers on Vocalisms, the new disc from Albany that includes Shadow Memory plus nine more of my songs.
Coming soon, this Saturday, October 27, will be the premiere of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, with The Crossing, Donald Nally conductor. The concert will be at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church here in Philadelphia, at 8 pm, with a pre-concert chat at 7. I heard a recording from a rehearsal of the piece, and it is going to be another fabulous Crossing performance. I am very grateful. More on the concert here.
My text comes from Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. Here is my program note and the text:
I first came upon the text for Carthage, from the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, when it was quoted in Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss. Wiman rightly speaks of the text as being “of consummate clarity and beauty”, going on to say how it “so perfectly articulate[s] not only the sense of absence… but also bestow[s] on it an energy and agency, a prayerful but indefinable promise: ‘the world will be made whole’”. It was this combination of absence and promise, lack and fullness, that attracted me and led me to music of sober reflection and wild joy.
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water — peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweet as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
Excerpt from HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 1981 by Marilynne Robinson. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Vocalisms, the new album with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, has been submitted for a Grammy in a couple of different categories – if any one reading this is a Grammy voter, please consider this marvelous anthology of contemporary song with music by Rorem, Harbison, Daniel Crozier and myself. Read more here.
(The picture is of me at a rehearsal in the Festival Barn – thank you to Ashley York for this shot.
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.
Here are the three of us – Mary on the left – after a 2015 coaching session.
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.
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.