Heat Wave Listening

Pretty hot here in Philly, and I am trying to progress on my song cycle for Collage New Music (October 15 premiere!). But still, I am always trying to do some listening. A few discs I’ve heard recently:

Haydn: Piano Sonatas II – Marc-André Hamelin. Hyperion.
It’s a safe bet you don’t have enough Haydn in your life, particularly the piano music. Here’s an excellent way to rectify that deficiency, part of a series of superbly performed and recorded albums by Hamelin surveying the piano sonatas. Known as a hyper-virtuoso, I didn’t find Hamelin’s skills intrusive. The uncannily glassy smoothness of the runs, the exquisitely balanced and articulated chords, the occasional exceptionally fleet tempo- all this seemed to serve the music rather than draw attention to itself. To very roughly generalize: Haydn’s sonatas are about intimacy and wit, rather than being pocket-sized opera arias or concerti, like some of Mozart’s sonatas, or heroically symphonic works like some of Beethoven’s. A tougher sell perhaps, but deeply rewarding.

By the way, at one time Hamelin played new music in a way that he has not for some time – a pity. But I am interested to see that he is releasing an album of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, maybe this portends a repertoire shift.


All Rise – Jason Moran. Blue Note.
Subtitled “A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller”, I felt that this album honors the pop side of Waller’s legacy as much or more than the jazz component, with vocals by Meshell Mdegeocello and arrangements that include virtuosic instrumental work but also have a few moments where, forgive me, the words “smooth jazz” came to mind. Sometimes it felt like he was simply referring to the source material rather than deeply engaging with it. I preferred the edgier moments when Moran’s playing takes flight. The album is brilliantly executed, but the jazz nerd in me prefers Moran albums like Ten and Modernistic.


Notes Aligned in Boston

It’s a little ways off, and I don’t have all the details, but I want to let you know about a happy coincidence has taken shape on my schedule of performances. On the afternoon of October 15, Collage New Music with soprano Mary Mackenzie, will premiere my current project, a song cycle called A Sibyl on Susan Stewart poems, at the the Longy School of Bard College in Cambridge, MA. David Hoose will conduct. And that evening, Winsor Music will present the second performance of my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano, this at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA.

Mary Mackenzie, who has done a fabulous job with my music on several occassions, including this CD, will be the soloist for A Sibyl.

I’ve put in a request with Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music to do one of my motets at Emmanuel Church that morning – maybe there will be three performances of my music in Boston that day!

UPDATE: Ryan has confirmed that he will include my music at Emmanuel’s 10 am service that day – it’s a Primosch festival in Boston!

“Shadow Memory” video

SongFest has posted a video of their June 24 concert that included my song on a Susan Orlean text, Shadow Memory. Go to the SongFest Facebook page, and scroll down to the video posted on June 26. My song begins at about 1:05:30. It’s a fabulous performance, with Bahareh Poureslami, soprano, and Shane McFadden, piano. I used the last paragraph of this Susan Orlean piece for the song’s text. A picture of the program for the concert, listing the all-American repertoire, can be found in the SongFest Facebook photo stream.

Recent Listening

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3; Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2; David Diamond: Symphony No. 4. New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein.
I think most of my students these days don’t know the name Roy Harris. Yet in my own undergraduate days, the Harris Symphony No. 3 was on the syllabus in my 20th century music history class as an example of American symphonic writing. (I think Appalachian Spring was on the list as well, but if you wanted an American symphony, the Harris was the go-to piece, unless you substituted the Copland Third for Appalachian Spring.) The Harris remains convincing, with vivid gestures and an unusual single-movement formal plan. The Thompson is more neo-classical; a little predictable at times, but charming. (Did it really get the enormous number of performances mentioned in the letter to Bernstein I cited here? Bernstein’s advocacy probably helped.) I found the melodic material in the Diamond Fourth to be more compelling than in other works of his that I have heard, with less of the aimless contrapuntal bustle that he can fall into.

Miles Davis Quintet: Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. This is a very strong set offering tunes associated with earlier Davis recordings – Autumn Leaves, So What, Stella by Starlight, and Walkin’ – but from the perspective of a later ensemble, including George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, that treats the material much more freely than Davis’s groups of a few years earlier. It’s certainly trickier to follow the form on this version of Autumn Leaves as compared with the one on the Cannonball Adderly album Somethin’ Else. There’s gorgeous low register open horn playing from Miles on Stella, and a couple of bowed Ron Carter solos, not something I associate with that master. Do I hear passing references to the original version of So What in Coleman’s solo on this piece?

Summer Solstice Miscellany

– my Shadow Memory, a voice and piano song on a text by Susan Orlean, will be performed at 7:30 pm this coming Saturday, June 24, 2017 at SongFest. The concert takes place in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School. Soprano Bahareh Poureslami and pianist Nathan Cheung will perform. You can read more about the piece here and here.

IMG_2336– I went to see the National Orchestral Institute’s concert at the University of Maryland last Saturday. This is a training orchestra, in existence for 30 years now, and the playing is at a very high level. It has to be at that level to take on a program like last Saturday’s: Sun-Treader of Carl Ruggles, Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, and the John Harbison 4th Symphony. David Alan Miller, director of the Albany symphony, conducted. This was a program of pieces that I never expected to hear in person. (I’m afraid there is an awfully long list of very good pieces that fall into that category.) Sun-Treader – not exactly a light-hearted concert opener – sounded rather like a Second Viennese School work in its expressionist grandeur, probably not what Ruggles had in mind, except for the grandeur part. The Stucky Concerto is full of the orchestral brilliance one associates with that composer, but there is emotional heat as well, notably in the big variations set that forms the second movement. John Harbison’s 4th Symphony is in five movements, ranging widely over a varied expressive terrain. It thinks, it’s playful, and in the remarkable Threnody that constitutes the fourth movement, it looks into an abyss. Throughout the piece there is an overarching intelligence, expressed in the unexpected but logical formal shapes.

It was terrifically impressive to hear the young players tackle this challenging program. You will be able to hear for yourself, as the program was recorded for eventual release on Naxos. All praise to David Alan Miller, who continues to be an extraordinary champion of American music – at one point on Saturday, John Harbison referred to him as the Koussevitzky of our time.

Here is John, along with Will Robin, at a pre-concert chat:


– It wasn’t on my summer reading list (that was only a partial list anyway), but I picked up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day at the recommendation of my friend Guthrie Ramsey, and am enjoying it greatly. This is partly for the familiarity of its Philadelphia setting, but more importantly for being touching and funny and thought-provoking. The NY Times review puts it well: “cerebral comedy with pathos.”

Upcoming in Charleston and Easton

Two performances coming up: my little piece for sax quartet, Straight Up, will be on a program played by Clifford Leaman, soprano saxophone; Neal Postma, alto saxophone; Robert Young, tenor saxophone; and Jonathan Kammer, baritone saxophone at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC on June 7. The venue is St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 67 Anson Street, and the show is at 6 pm. The piece was written at the request of the Prism Quartet and recorded by them on Innova. (So sorry to have missed Prism’s concerts with Joe Lovano this past weekend!)

In a sense this is my return to the Piccolo Spoleto, because nearly 40 years ago I played George Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics for piano four-hands there with Lambert Orkis as part of a 20th Century Consort performance (now the 21st Century Consort). (Hmm, that Innova page I linked to for the Crumb recording doesn’t credit me – nor Jan Orkis who plays the page-turner’s notes. Well, it is mostly Lambert playing solo on that disc.)

The second performance this week is a premiere, a quintet to be played by Peggy Pearson, oboe; Catherine Cho, violin; Dimitri Murrath, viola; Edward Arron, cello; and Diane Walsh, piano at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival. The concert is Friday, June 9, at 5:30 pm at Christ Church in Easton, MD. This will also be a return for me to Easton because Peggy and colleagues played my Oboe Quartet on a Chesapeake program a couple of years ago. Here is a program note on the new quintet:

Quintet (2017)

1. Variations
2. Dirge
3. Poem (after Kathleen Norris)
4. Signals and Dances

The variations of the first movement of my Quintet are not on a melody but on a chord progression first proposed by the strings and piano. Four variations and a coda follow, increasingly rapid in their surface. Next come two slow movements, the first very dark, marked “wailing” at its climax; the second consoling, inspired by a poem by Kathleen Norris called “Who Do You Say That I Am?” that offers increasingly ecstatic responses to the Biblical question. The finale opens with a raucous call to attention, and the various dances that follow are sometimes bluesy and sometimes folk-like. Late in the game, some fragments of the previous movements unexpectedly return, and what was left open at the end of the first movement now finds affirmation.

With her request for this piece, Peggy Pearson granted me a third opportunity to write for her profoundly eloquent oboe, this time alongside the comparably gifted voices of her colleagues in La Fenice. I am deeply grateful.

The Norris poem referred to is “Who Do You Say That I Am?, found in this volume.

You can hear a recording of the earlier Oboe Quartet here and an online perusal score is here.

Summer Reading List

Some of the items on my bookshelf at the moment:

Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 – Tim Rutherford-Johnson

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson

Incarnadine – Mary Szybist

The Politics of Upheaval – Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Deeper Than Words – Brother David Steindl-Rast

The Bible and Proust are there as well, but the above items are ones I might actually finish at some point.

Bach, Mahler, Murail, Eastman

Alex Ross recently posted a list of concerts and operas he attended during a recent European trip. I haven’t been to Europe lately, but I did get to a memorable and varied series of concerts in Philadelphia recently. Here are some brief comments.



I was delighted to see the Church of the Holy Trinity filled for a program of Bach cantatas – it seats about 1100! Very fine performances, with the singers and obbligato players ably commanding Bach’s long lines. The second aria in BWV 170 is a contender for the strangest Bach aria ever, with the organ playing the obbligato while the violins in unison play the bass!


My favorite pieces here were the Murail works and the Messiaen. The latter was written on the death of his mother, while the former on the death of his teacher Messiaen; good to hear those in succession. The big hall at the Barnes is not ideal for every concert situation, but it worked for the spectralist pieces with their emphasis on resonance, sculpted in sensuous layers in Marilyn’s virtuosic performance. Here’s how the piano was set up, followed by a shot from the Q and A with Marilyn and Robert Whalen, co-artistic director, along with Katharine Skovira, of the concerts at the Barnes.



  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered the Mahler 3rd in its last subscription set of the season. I was there for the May 19 performance.


This was a magnificent performance of a staggering piece. Certainly hearing the orchestra in full cry was thrilling, but I was constantly struck by the intensely eloquent solo playing – trombone in the first movement, offstage “posthorn” (I assume played on trumpet?) in the third, to name just two of many. Karen Cargill’s voice was richly sonorous, and the choirs were splendid. Am I the only person who hears an echo of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” in the cello tune of the finale?

  • The last event in my recent bout of concert going was the final concert of the Julius Eastman retrospective presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda.






The ensemble pieces were intriguing, but the highlight for me was the a cappella solo performance of Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc by Davóne Tines. He was positioned at the lectern pictured above. His powerful bass-baritone cast an incantatory spell as he repeated the work’s few short musical phrases, a setting of this text:

Saint Michael said
Saint Margaret said
Saint Catherine said
They said
He said
She said
Speak Boldly
When they question you

The piece served as an invocation, and I sensed an unusual concentration in the audience; it was exceptionally quiet during the pauses between phrases, giving us a chance to attend to the reverberation The Rotunda offers.

Hear Davóne singing music of Caroline Shaw here, and Jerome Kern here.

Spring Cleaning

Jamesprimosch.com has been in existence for quite a number of years now, and despite the assistance the WordPress design options afford, I was feeling a need for outside help in cleaning up the site and organizing it more clearly. I tended to just add more stuff on top of the stuff already there, and the result looked cluttered with redundant elements and inelegant formatting. Thanks to Willa Rohrer, who brought strong coding chops, an excellent eye for design, and marvelous photography skills to the project (along with great patience in dealing with her not-so-tech-savvy client), the site you are visiting is  much improved visually and more tidily structured.

I will be adding additional content in future weeks – more audio and score excerpts, plus more frequent blog posts – so come back often, and let me know what you think of this new version of the site.