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:

IMG_2334

– 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 it 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.

IMG_2158

IMG_2159

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!

IMG_2166

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.

IMG_2164

IMG_2167

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

IMG_2175

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.

IMG_2201

 

IMG_2202

 

IMG_2199

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
Joan
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.

Early May Miscellany

FullSizeRender-13-04-17-09-01

–  Anna will be playing my Piano Variations. She was one of the students who shared in a performance of the piece in 2016, having had the work brought to her attention by Temple U professor Lambert Orkis. More about the piece here.

– there was a very strong performance by the Lark Quartet at their 30th anniversary concert in NYC this past Monday. After urgent, authoritative playing in the Debussy Quartet, they offered a premiere for string octet by Andrew Waggoner in which the original members of the Lark joined the current members. The piece, called Ce morceau de tissu, was striking for its fierce antiphonies and roiling textures. It was impressive how Andrew was able to maintain high energy in the piece; sustained fast music is no small challenge to write. After intermission, the Harbison String Quartet No. 6 had its NYC premiere. In four movements, the piece begins with the first violin placed some distance from the rest of the quartet, gradually arriving at a conventional playing location, and the “3 + 1” conception returns later, though the positioning of the player remains normal. It was interesting to hear this quartet and Harbison’s Presences two weeks apart; two chamber works for strings featuring concertante writing for a member of the ensemble, though Presences is mostly at a higher dramatic temperature than the quartet with its lyrical and dancing textures. Both works linger in the mind.

No less intriguing was a chance to hear the Harbison Sixth in close juxtaposition with the recent Mario Davidovsky Sixth Quartet as played by the Juilliard Quartet on Sunday here in Philadelphia.  Both memorable pieces by senior masters, but with very different languages, of course. Mario’s piece is called Fragments, and its essentially athematic discourse relies on the careful deployment of characterful elements that, in Mario’s words: “do not offer the necessary pitch/rhythmic information to denote them clearly as motives, but can be described in basic ‘expressive’ terms as being very fast, percussive, or lyrical, etc.” These fragments are combined, juxtaposed, and transformed, with the result being mercurial, dramatic, playful and poetic by turn. The writing is animated by vividly alert textures that retain the influence of Mario’s days in the electronic music studio; at times it is as though an electronic component is embedded in the purely acoustic piece. The work was brilliantly played by the Juilliard on a program that also included the Mendelssohn a minor quartet and Beethoven Op. 130, with the Grosse Fuge – whew!

Here’s John Harbison with Andrew Waggoner and Kathryn Lockwood of the Lark after the concert:

IMG_2135

and Andy with his wife Caroline Stinson, cellist in the Lark:

IMG_2137

– I visited the Guggenheim the morning after the Lark performance, and I strongly recommend their current show, filled with myriad strong pieces! I lingered at works by Pollock, Klee, many Kandinskys, a Bonnard (not normally one of my favorites), Mondrian, and many more. I found this Picasso especially moving, spending a long time looking at the supremely elegant curving lines:

78.2514.59_ph_web

You might complain that this is an “easy” work to like, compared with, for example, some of the Kandinskys in the show. But “easy” in art is never easy.

“Presences” in NYC

This is a belated note on last Monday’s Weekend of Chamber Music program in New York at the Bathhouse Studios. Yet another fine young string quartet (there seem to be so many these days) – this one called the Verona – opened the program with Haydn’s Op. 50, Nr. 1, transparent and articulate. This was followed by the NYC premiere of John Harbison’s Presences. The piece is a chamber concerto for cello and five additional strings, in this case the Verona joined by Jeremy McCoy, double bass. Caroline Stinson of the Lark Quartet was the cello soloist. Commissioned as a memorial work for a cellist, it was the passionate moments of the piece that struck me the most, which is not to overlook the playful aspects. The inclusion of the double bass gives the music a three-dimensional quality, a certain heft and weight. I must admit Verklarte Nacht crossed my mind during the performance; not the vocabulary, but the richly ardent character of the discourse. The second half of the program was the Schubert Quintet in an eloquent performance notable for some tempi that were a bit more brisk than usual.

I plan to be back in New York on May 1 when the Lark plays the NYC premiere of Harbison’s Quartet Nr. 6 and a premiere by Andrew Waggoner at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall – tickets here.

Here’s a shot from last Wednesday. Left to right: Abigail Rojansky, Dorothy Ro, John Harbison, Caroline Stinson, Warren Hagerty (obscured), Jonathan Ong, and Jeremy McCoy.