“I fixed my eyes on something out there firm…”

Many musicians are offering their performances and compositions online during this time of isolation, so I want to make my small contribution.

Here is a setting of a poem by Susan Scott Thompson called “Waltzing the Spheres”. I first encountered it when I heard it read on a PBS broadcast at the time of 9/11. I knew immediately I wanted to set it, but never got around to it until years later when I set it on a commission from Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest. You can read Lyric Fest artistic director Suzanne DuPlantis’s blog post about the piece here, and the entire poem is posted here.

The crisis we are in feels somewhat like 9/11, so it seems like the right piece to offer now.

I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful singers do the piece. Kiera Duffy (famous for her performance in Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves”) gave the premiere with pianist Laura Ward; Kelly Ann Bixby has performed it; Meredith Lustig sang it on a New York Festival of Song program; and Mary Mackenzie recorded it for her album Vocalisms. Here Mary sings it with pianist Heidi Williams:

It may be at this challenging moment that the best way we can “hold each other closer in the turn” is by keeping our physical distance from one another – at the same time we cling to one another with our hearts.

Viral Cancellations

It will come as no surprise that performances of my music are being affected by the present crisis. My Variations on a Hymn Tune was to have been performed by the Delaware all-state high school orchestra March 14, but the illness of the conductor preparing the work means it will be delayed until next year. The entire Bach Festival of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea, OH has been cancelled. It would have included the April 24 premiere of the work they commissioned from me, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” for chorus and string quartet. I am told the hope is to reschedule the Festival for this fall. And I think the March 29 performance of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus at Emmanuel Church is by no means certain, though no decision has yet been made on that. I’ll let you know when I get definite word.

UPDATE: not only has the performance of my Mass at Emmanuel been canceled, but all worship services at the church have been cancelled through April 5 at least.

Good wishes for the safety and health of all my readers.

Vocal Music Highlights

With the announcement that I have received the Virgil Thomson Award for vocal music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I thought it would be a good idea to post about my music for voice, and point out some highlights.

Work titles given as links will take you to either an online perusal score or to the Theodore Presser Company’s webpage for that piece.

You can find all my vocal music listed here (use the links near the top of the page to get to the vocal section) and there are videos and audio clips here.

I think two of my very best pieces in any medium are the two song cycles I wrote for the Chicago Symphony: From a Book of Hours (Rilke texts), and Songs for Adam (Susan Stewart). The Rilke set is for soprano and was premiered by Lisa Saffer, with Antonio Pappano conducting.  The recording on the video/audio page is with Susan Narucki, soprano and Sarah Hicks conducting the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute. Given the near impossibility of any but a very few composers receiving repeat performances of their orchestral music, I made a version of the piece for soprano and chamber ensemble. A recording of that version is on Sacred Songs, a disc of my vocal music on Bridge. Susan Narucki is again featured, with the 21st Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall. Here’s a track from the Rilke cycle:

Songs for Adam is for baritone and orchestra, and was premiered by Brian Mulligan, with Sir Andrew Davis leading the CSO. Susan Stewart, whose poetry I’ve set several times, wrote a set of texts specifically for this project. I’ve started sketching a version for piano quintet, since the original has yet to be performed a second time.

The Sacred Songs cd also includes 3 other pieces for voice and chamber ensemble. I want to mention the baritone cycle on that record. Dark the Star sets texts by Rilke, Susan Stewart, and a psalm verse in a set of nine short movements that play continuously. Here’s a sample, with William Sharp, baritone:

A recent cycle with chamber ensemble was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, and premiered by soprano Mary Mackenzie with Collage New Music in Boston. Called A Sibyl, the texts that Susan Stewart wrote specifically for the project speak of the mysterious prophet-like figure written about in The Aeneid. The ensemble is pierrot ensemble plus percussion.

If I am counting correctly, I have written 29 songs for voice and piano, some grouped into cycles, some independent pieces, and some existing in orchestrated versions with chamber ensemble. I think my most widely performed piece is “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm. This was my first Susan Stewart setting. Mary Mackenzie sings it on Vocalisms, an Albany release, with Heidi Williams, piano:

Vocalisms also includes the complete Holy the Firm, the Three Folk Hymns, and some independent songs. Holy the Firm was written for Dawn Upshaw, and she toured with the cycle and subsequently with “Cinder” as part of a set of pieces by American composers roughly of her generation. I orchestrated Holy the Firm for soprano and chamber ensemble, and Susan Narucki sings it on the Sacred Songs album:

There are two piano and voice sets based on pre-existing melodies. The Three Sacred Songs use chant melodies plus an early Renaissance carol, with Latin texts; the Three Folk Hymns are in English, and use the popular tunes “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, “Be Thou My Vision”, and “What Wondrous Love is This”. Here’s the first of the Folk Hymns, again with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams:

None of these cycles need be performed complete. Excerpts from Holy the Firm beyond “Cinder” can work well; I’ve played piano for performances of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” paired with “Cinder”.

Turning to choral music, I’ve written a number of motets for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday services of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The first, Meditation for Candlemas, on a Denise Levertov text. This is the only a cappella piece of mine that is available from the Theodore Presser Company – contact me directly for any of the others. While several of these short a cappella works are virtuosic in their demands, others would be accessible for high school, college, or community choirs. For example, Alleluia on a Ground was written for the Mendelssohn Club here in Philadelphia, and the recently premiered Wind, Carry Me was written for a choir of high school students. Note that among these motets are some two-voice pieces: one for treble voices – One With the Day, One With the Night, on a Wendell Berry text – and one for male voices – Journey, on a Meister Eckhart text.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory for chorus and orchestra was also written for the Mendelssohn Club, and is featured on a Innova disc. Here is the second movement, setting Denise Levertov’s “Of Rivers”:

I have two other pieces for chorus and instruments. Matins sets texts by Hopkins and Mary Oliver, and was written for the Cantata Singers. The piece calls for a small complement of strings and features a concertante oboe part, written for Peggy Pearson. Set for a premiere next month is a piece based on a Bach chorale, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”. Commissioned by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Bladwin-Wallace University, the piece is scored for chamber chorus and string quartet.

There will be two CDs featuring my vocal music coming out in the next few months. First, The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, has recorded an entire album of my choral music, including the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for the group. This piece interweaves the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems reflecting on the Mass texts, again by one of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov. My Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, also written for The Crossing, is included and gives its name to the album. Settings of e. e. cummings, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry round out the disc. Second, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough perform five of my songs on an Albany Records disc to be called Descent/Return. That’s also the name of the pair of songs from the soprano and ensemble cycle A Sibyl that I arranged for soprano and piano which are included on the album. Three individual songs – The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams), The Pitcher (Robert Francis), and Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris) complete the disc, which also includes solo piano pieces by myself and John Harbison as well as returning Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight to the active catalog.

I’ll end this survey with video from the premiere of the St. Thomas Mass:

Virgil Thomson Award Announced

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced that I am the recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music for 2020. The press release is here.

Needless to say, I count myself very lucky indeed, and am greatly touched that the distinguished jury (listed in the release) would consider my work worthy of this recognition.

I submitted two choral works to be considered by the jury: Carthage (a setting of a text by Marilynne Robinson – she’s an Academy member, maybe I’ll get to shake her hand at the Academy Ceremonial) and my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, my setting of the Latin Mass interwoven with poems reflecting on the Mass texts by Denise Levertov. The latter will be performed by Emmanuel Music at Emmanuel Church in Boston on March 29 at their 10 am Sunday liturgy, and can be heard on a forthcoming CD of my choral music by The Crossing.

The award is for vocal music, so I will survey that part of my catalog in a subsequent post.

“Variations on a Hymn Tune” at Penn

University of Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra

I took the above picture last night at a rehearsal of my Variations on a Hymn Tune with the University of Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Hong conducting. They will be performing the piece this coming Saturday night, 2/22, at 8 pm in Irvine Auditorium on the Penn campus. There have been a few performances of the piece, both in the Philadelphia area and in the Midwest, but this is the first time it will be heard at Penn. Here’s a program note on the piece:

Composed at the request of the Council Rock School District in Bucks County, PA, 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! I tried to write a piece that would include a variety of moods, and would give each orchestral section a chance to shine.

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.

The piece is in the Theodore Presser rental catalog, and Presser has posted an online perusal score of the piece here. While the work was written for a high school ensemble, it is certainly appropriate for college or community orchestras. The Penn Orchestra is doing a great job, and I am grateful to the players and conductor Thomas Hong for their work on the piece.


New York Festival of Song at the DiMenna Center

Thank you to pianist Michael Barrett and baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco for their eloquent performance of my From Psalm 116 as part of the New York Festival of Song “NYFOS Next” program at the DiMenna Center last week. There’s a thoughtful review of the program from Brin Solomon here on the National Sawdust Log. A review of an NYC performance is a rare thing, (not that it is common anywhere these days) and I am grateful to have a reflection in print about a concert in which I was involved.

From Psalm 116 is published by Theodore Presser and you can find it at their website here. The piece works well for mezzos as well as baritones – I had the privilege of performing it with Janice Felty a number of years ago.

I made a version of the song for baritone and chamber ensemble as part of the cycle Dark the Star, which includes settings of Rilke and Susan Stewart in addition to the psalm text. The song’s text is a psalm verse, sung in Latin, that may be translated as “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his beloved.” Here’s a recording of the ensemble version of From Psalm 116, with William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort, conducted by Christopher Kendall. It comes from an album with four of my vocal cycles on the Bridge label.

P.S. – there was also a review by Sherri Rase  in Q on Stage.

Remembering Peter Serkin

I was sad to hear that one of the great master pianists has passed, one who understood as all too few performers of his stature do, that a deep commitment to the music of our time is perfectly consistent with the most profound relationship with the masterpieces of the past. I’m grateful for Peter Serkin’s Bach, but also for his Carter and Wuorinen and Wolpe and Lieberson and more.

The first time I heard the late Peter Serkin was in Cleveland’s Severance Hall in 1976. Charles Wuorinen had written a piece for Tashi, the mixed chamber ensemble that I believe Serkin and his colleagues had put together to play Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Wuorinen made a version of his piece (also called Tashi) for the ensemble and orchestra, and I heard the premiere, with the composer conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. Many years passed before I heard him again, but each time was memorable: Brahms 2nd with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw in Carnegie Hall; the Goldberg Variations at a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert; a program of short contemporary pieces, again for PCMS; and a Tanglewood performance of Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars. I also heard him play some Peter Lieberson at a benefit event for Philadelphia’s Network for New Music. This was the occasion for a modest epiphany on my part. I had performed on the piano in the hall where the benefit took place, and I felt it was not such a great instrument. Hearing Serkin play it, I knew the piano was just fine. The problem had been the pianist.

Serkin playing a short piece by one of the contemporary composers he championed, Toru Takemitsu:

and a touching rendition of a Bach invention on a street in Maine:

Books about Rochberg and Hagen

I recently re-read Amy Lynn Wlodarski’s George Rochberg, American Composer: Personal Trauma and Artistic Creativity, and I highly recommend it. Perhaps it was of special interest to me because Rochberg is part of my own history – I took two courses with him when I was a student at Penn, and have played his music on several occasions. (I am briefly quoted in the book, having spoken with Dr. Wlodarski as she was working on it.) But I think the volume is of interest to anyone involved with American music and recent music in general. The book is not the thoroughgoing life and works (like Howard Pollack’s book on Copland) that Rochberg deserves and I wish existed, though there is plenty of biographical information and insightful discussion of several of his pieces. Rather, it is a series of essays on various aspects of his life, with his traumatic experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II as an overarching theme. Dr. Wlodarski has dug deeply into the Rochberg archives at the Sacher Foundation and discovered the facts about Rochberg’s wartime experience that he rarely, if ever, talked about. Rochberg served approximately 250 days in active combat duty, was wounded twice, and was even jailed briefly for insubordination when he refused an order to lead his men into what he felt would have been certain death. The book’s chapters deal with Rochberg’s wartime experience, his creative path to what he called Ars Combinatoria (his use of wide-ranging styles and materials in his work, encompassing both pre-20th century and modernist idioms), his identity as a secular Jew, and his work as a teacher. Much of the book is taken up with Rochberg’s own prose writings, and Dr. Wlodarski is helpful in elucidating and providing perspective on that aspect of his work. I mean no criticism of the book when I point this out, but I have to say I value a piece like the Symphony Nr. 2 or Serenata d’Estate more than all his essays put together. Bravo to Amy Wlodarski for an elegantly written book that provides vital information about an important American artist.

Daron Hagen’s memoir, Duet with the Past, was fascinating to me, partly because – like the Rochberg book – his history and my history overlap a bit; for example, we were both in New York in the 1980’s. (I think it was maybe at Daron’s apartment that Christine Schadeberg and I tried out a performance of Book of the Hanging Gardens that we were preparing). But apart from this egocentric reason for enjoying the book, I was intrigued by it because of Daron’s experience with what feels like an earlier part of American musical history. Daron studied at Curtis and Juilliard. His mentors and musical touchstones include Rorem, Diamond, and Bernstein. Though Rorem is still alive and was not particularly connected with Copland, I don’t know another composer roughly of my generation (Daron is a bit younger than myself) of comparable prominence who has those connections with important figures who in turn connect with Copland; this contrasts with my own connections with teachers of a later era like Crumb and Davidovsky (though now that I think of it, Mario himself had a thread of connection with Copland, as it was through Copland that he came to Tanglewood and thence to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.) Also, Daron worked as a music copyist in New York, which again feels like an experience from an earlier era, after decades of composers relying on computer engraving software.

The book reveals that Daron has survived more than his share of trauma as well, though it sprang from his family experience, not wartime service. There is material here about productions of his operas and performances of his concert works, his affectionate relationship with the artist colony Yaddo, and his redeeming second marriage and fatherhood. The book is a brave, revealing, and touching enterprise.

Four Performances This Weekend

Sometimes there is a dry spell when there are no performances of my music for an unpleasantly long time, and then there are moments when a cluster of performances congregate within a short period. This coming weekend is one of the latter. Two pieces: one from a few years ago, receiving three performances; and one being performed for the first time. Here are some details.

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, an organization based in L. A., has included my Oboe Quartet on three concerts set for this weekend in Santa Monica, Pasadena, and Santa Barbara. Find all the details here. I wrote the Quartet at the request of oboist Peggy Pearson who gave the first performances with members of the Apple Hill Quartet back in 2015. I met Peggy through my work with Emmanuel Music, the group with which she has played Bach cantatas for decades as part of the liturgy at Boston’s Emmanuel Church. Winsor Music programmed the piece that season, and there is an interview with me in connection with that performance here. Read more about the piece in this blog post. Theodore Presser Company has posted a perusal score of the piece here, and you can listen to the piece here – scroll down past the videos or use the link at the top of the page to go to the sound clips.

The other piece being done this weekend is a premiere, a short work for SATB chorus called Wind, Carry Me. Here’s my program note on the piece:

When invited to compose a new work for the PMEA District 11 Chorus, I immediately turned to my friend Susan Stewart, a distinguished poet whose words I have set in several pieces. I asked Susan to write a new poem for the project. She responded with a text that speaks of challenges and yearning, but also of capability. While my setting uses conventional chords, these are often juxtaposed in an unconventional manner. Throughout the piece, sections of the choir call to one another, finally coming together in unison at the climax, and ending with determination and strength. 

The work will be sung by about 160 high school students selected from a number of schools in the region in a concert at Springfield High School, Montgomery County, not far outside Philadelphia, conducted by Cristian Grases. This is by far the biggest group of people to perform my music! The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia has done my music a number of times, and is a big choir with roughly 80 to 100 singers, but the size of this high school group is something extraordinary.

Here are a few lines from Susan’s beautiful text, ending with what I hear as the climax of the poem:

I said to the moon
turn to me, turn to me

I said to the star
send for me, send for me 

I said to the night
harbor me

Then I said to my love
I’ll come to you, wait for me

The commission for this piece came about through the advocacy of Andrew Puntel, who teaches at Springfield High School. I came to know Andrew through my work as a church musician at St. Genevieve’s in Flourtown, PA, where he directed the music ministry until recently. I’m grateful to Andrew for proposing the piece and finding the funding for the commission.

This is not the first piece I have written specifically for young musicians. My Variations on a Hymn Tune was written for Council Rock South High School (outside Philadelphia) a number of years ago. Completely by coincidence, that piece will be done twice this season, both by the University of Pennsylvania Orchestra and by an all-state ensemble in Delaware – there is more information at the performances page.