“Journey” premieres at Emmanuel Church

It’s hard for me to believe that the first piece I wrote for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church, Boston dates from 1994! I am so grateful for my ongoing relationship with this church, which has included my music in their liturgies many times in the years since that first piece. (Check out my work list page for a complete list of my choral music, including the pieces written for Emmanuel.) There will be a new work done at Emmanuel this coming December 21 at 7:30 pm, a Meister Eckhart setting called Journey. The piece sets a text by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows which is a poetic rendering of a text by the German mystic. You can read more about my setting here. The premiere will be at a special service, Blue Christmas on the Longest Night. A recent e-mail from Emmanuel described the service this way:

Recognizing that the Christmas holidays are not a time of cheer for everyone, Emmanuel Church with the clergy and congregation of Church of the Covenant, reaches out to the those who are grieving the death of a loved one or dealing with other kinds of loss. The reflective service offers prayers for healing and quiet meditation. Emmanuel Music will present James Primosch’s Journey on this evening.

Emmanuel is making a tremendous commitment to my music this year in that not only will they premiere this new piece, but they will perform my big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, programming individual movements on several Sundays, and then performing the entire piece in lieu of their customary Bach cantata on March 29, 2020. Go to the performances page for details. Here is The Crossing, the group that commissioned my Mass, giving the first performance of the piece:

Chou Wen-Chung in memoriam

It feels like the end of an era for me because my two mentors at Columbia University have both died within a few months of each other. First Mario Davidovsky passed in late August, and now Chou Wen-Chung has died at the age of 96. The New York Times obituary is here. Wen-Chung was not as important a figure in my life as was Mario, but I did have a year of lessons with him, and there are things he said that I ponder to this day. One of them – “This will sound well, but I am concerned about the structure…” – I resented at the time, feeling that not everyone can make music that sounds well. But I have come to realize that there are too many composers who simply make the music “sound well”, and it is the combination of both appealing sonic surface and deep patterning that make for music that you want to live with.

Here are some samples of his work. first, the early Landscapes from 1949:

Yü Ko, uncanny in its emulation of the sounds of Chinese music by Western instruments:

And a late work for percussion ensemble:

Finally, here is a documentary detailing Wen-Chung’s extraordinary life:



Crumb @ 90

Tomorrow George Crumb turns 90 years old. (I’ve heard him joke that he was born the day the stock market started to go down in the crash of 1929.) I’ve been involved with a number of performances of his music in celebration of this birthday. Earlier this month I played the Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979 and accompanied Meg Bragle in the Three Early Songs as part of a three-concert survey of George’s music held at Penn in collaboration with Bowerbird, the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and the Penn Music Department. And this past Sunday I joined Xak Bjerken to play George’s four-hand piano piece Celestial Mechanics at Cornell University. I’ll be playing again with Xak when we reprise our performance at National Sawdust next week. This will be part of an evening of George’s music curated by Chris Grymes – details above.

Xak played solo pieces on the first half of the concert at Cornell, including a cleverly devised group of short pieces pairing works by three composers with pieces written by three other composers in homage to the first three. The six pieces:

Elegy, in memory of Steven Stucky – Joseph Phibbs
Chorale – Steven Stucky
Étude No. 10: For opposing sonorities – Debussy
Improvisation, Op. 20, No. VII: in memory of Claude Debussy
Minuet from Sonata in G, Hob. XVI:5 – Haydn
Minuet on the name HAYDN – Ravel

Broadly speaking, all six pieces were French in flavor, something of a stretch for Haydn of course, though its ornamentation and clarity helped it fit in.

George will be there in NYC next week, so it’s a chance to both see and hear him.

There will be more concerts of George’s music coming up in the Philadelphia area. Swarthmore College will present a program on the evening of November 2, while November 10 there will be a program at Haverford College. In both programs important advocates for Crumb’s music will perform, including Marcantonio Barone, James Freeman, and Gilbert Kalish. I’ll be part of a panel discussing George and his work at the Haverford program.

Jay Reise Retirement Concert

Earlier this month I played the first performance of The Inland Sea (Piano Sonata No. 3) by my Penn faculty colleague Jay Reise. This was part of a program entirely of Jay’s music in honor of his retirement from Penn. Here are a few pictures from the occasion:

Penn faculty, current and emeritus. Seated, L to R: George Crumb, Thomas Connolly, Richard Wernick, Lawrence Bernstein; standing, L to R: Jay Reise, current department chair Timothy Rommen, Anna Weesner, myself:

Jay with Penn alums Ke-Chia Chen, Melissa Dunphy, and Scott Ordway. Penn Music’s Director of Sound and Music Technology Eugene Lew is in the background:

Here I am presenting a gift to Jay – an album containing letters from over three dozen former students, colleagues, performers, congratulating him on his retirement:

And here is Jay with the performers of his work for string trio and shakuhachi: L to R: James Shlefer, shakuhachi; Irena Muresanu, violin; Jay Reise; Eliana Razzino Yang, cello; and David Yang, viola. Huge thanks to David Yang who took care of programming the concert and lining up the performers.

Honoring Jay Reise

jayThis Thursday, October 3, at 8 PM, the Music Department of the University of Pennsylvania will honor retiring Penn faculty composer Jay Reise with a concert of his chamber music. The venue is Rose Recital Hall, which is on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, on the southeast corner of 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia.

The program will include two first performances: Barcarola Reminiscencia for cello and piano; and The Inland Sea (Piano Sonata No. 3). I’ll be playing the latter. It’s a big-boned single movement work, with a lot packed into about 17 minutes. The music does not feature the counterpointed rhythms, influenced by Indian classical music, that appear in other of Jay’s pieces, although it is intricate with regard to accents and stresses and particular notes that are to be brought out in a rich harmonic texture. Pianistically the piece is at times an etude in voicing, an aspect I am finding even more challenging that the moments when I have to get around quickly.

Also on the show will be The Gift to Urashima Taro for shakuhachi and string trio; Semblances for string trio, and Yinyuè (Berceuse-Nocturne) for piano quartet. Performing will be Irina Muresanu, violin; David Yang, viola; Eliana Razzino Yang, cello; and Amy Yang, piano. Big thanks to David for lining up the players and curating the program.

A note on the Music Department’s website about the concert appears here.

(Photo Credit: Marina Garcia Burgos)

Heat Wave Miscellany

Actually the heat wave is in its last day today in Philadelphia, with more reasonable weather coming tomorrow. Perspiring or not, here are a few notes on recent listening and more.

I’ve been greatly enjoying Brian Mulligan’s new album on Bridge Records, called “Old Fashioned”. Brian was the soloist in my Songs for Adam back in 2009 with the Chicago Symphony. He continues to sound marvelous, with a rich and powerful baritone. His program for the CD features songs from the turn of the 20th century, items that perhaps your grandparents loved – “Because”, “I Love You Truly”, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, “Roses of Picardy” and the like. There is no hint of parody or camp, these are sincere and honest interpretations of genuinely touching material. Perhaps these songs mean a lot to me because my parents knew and loved some of them, and because I got to know them from the sheet music I inherited from various aunts and uncles. My father used to sing/hum the odd phrase from a couple of them. These family connections reinforce for me the sentiments expressed in the songs. Craig Rutenberg is the elegant pianist.

Awaiting their turn in my CD player: Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit (Wet Ink Ensemble, New World Records); John Harbison’s Requiem (Nashville Symphony, Naxos) and an album of orchestral music of George Perle (Seattle Symphony, Bridge Records).

Philadelphia musical organizations are announcing their coming seasons. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society did this a while ago; the programs I find of interest are too numerous to mention, but some new music highlights include a program with the Jack Quartet with percussionist Colin Currie and, on various concerts, works by Brett Dean, Christopher Cerrone, Iva Bittová and more. There will also be lots of Beethoven, including a complete cycle of the piano sonatas, the majority handled by Jonathan Biss. A brochure from the always thoughtfully programmed Lyric Fest just came in the mail; an evening-length premiere by Daron Hagen is of special interest. Orchestra 2001’s season is modest, but performances of works by George Crumb and Rene Orth deserve attention.

Lastly, August Read Thomas sent me a link to a short video about her new opera, featuring the astonishing Nicole Paris:


Recent Listening

Not new recordings, just items that have passed through my CD player in recent weeks.

Schubert: The Piano Sonatas. András Schiff. It’s a safe bet that there are pieces here that will be new to you. One that was new to me was a tantalizing opening fragment of a sonata in f-sharp minor, exquisite in its delicate melancholy. Schiff plays a Bösendorfer with myriad colors, orchestral grandeur, and a touch of harshness in the loudest moments. He makes teasing reference to players of fortepianos in his program note – a judgement he seems to have changed since he has recently recorded Schubert on a fortepiano for ECM himself.

Bernard Rands: Now Again. It’s the vivid harmony that most often strikes me about Rands’s music; certainly there are scintillating gestures and plentiful lyricism, but the pitches in the music always feel right. Wonderful performances by Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, featuring the superb mezzo Janice Felty.

Amy Williams: Cineshape & Duos. I love the intensely characterful writing in this music, so vivid and clear in expressive intent. The pitches matter, the phrases are elegantly shaped, and the timing is just right, things never outstay their welcome. And the performances are splendid, Williams herself is the superb pianist for six of the titles, including the dramatic and virtuosic piano solo Cineshape 4. In a program note, Williams explains the title, saying that it is part of a series of works “based on a close and selective reading of an existing film”, in this case the German film Run Lola Run. The piece certainly does “run”, but you don’t need to know the film to enjoy the musical shape.