DeGaetani, Prokofiev, Mennin

There is a big pile of CDs stacked on a corner of my desk, items that I’d like to mention on this blog, but rarely get around to writing about. Here’s a first installment, some brief comments on recent and not so recent listening.

Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été, Mahler: Five Wunderhorm Songs, Five Rückert Songs; Jan DeGaetani, The Eastman Chamber Ensemble, David Effrom, conductor. This is a precious document, the last recording by the beloved mezzo for whom Carter, Crumb, Maxwell Davies, and Wernick, among others, all wrote pieces. She made this record in the midst of treatments and surgery for the leukemia that took her life at only 56. DeGaetani’s husband, oboist Philip West, made the chamber ensemble arrangements for these pieces, so elegantly done that you would never think they were anything other than the original version if you didn’t know better. DeGaetani’s voice retains its warmth, flexibility and tremendously affecting expression throughout.

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Suites 1 and 2; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti. The dazzling splendor of the Philadelphia is not well served by this early digital recording (1981) that sounds a bit harsh. I do believe this score is one of the great 20th century masterpieces; I prefer it to any of Prokofiev’s symphonies, and to a lot of Shostakovich’s orchestral music as well.

Peter Mennin: Concertato “Moby Dick”, Symphony No. 5, Fantasia for String Orchestra, Symphony No. 6; Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller. Nobody is a more committed advocate for American music past and present than David Alan Miller. Here is a 1997 album featuring music by one of the mid-20th century American symphonists who is so unjustly neglected. Attractive, often polytonal harmonies, and thoroughly contrapuntal textures pre-dominate. The counterpoint can sometimes be a bit boxed in rhythmically, but there is great energy here. The Albany sounds very well, aided by the superb acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The album includes intelligent program notes by Walter Simmons, an expert on this repertoire.

String Quartet #2 Video

Although the performance was last fall, I just came across this video of an excerpt from a performance of my String Quartet #2, after Zurburán, given by Access Contemporary Music in Chicago. There is a CD with a performance of the entire piece by the Cavani Quartet available on New World Records. The piece is published by the Theodore Presser Company.

Into The Mystic 2017: String Quartet No 2 (After Zurbarán) – James Primosch from ACM on Vimeo.

Recent Reading and Listening

The River of Consciousness – Oliver Sacks. Described on the jacket flap as the “last book he would oversee”, this volume collects 10 essays, mostly about science rather than the unusual case histories for which Sacks is best known. But his elegant prose and fascinating insights are no less compelling.

 

Live-Evil – Miles Davis. I actually prefer this 1975 electro-funk outing to the more famous Bitches Brew. Astonishing energy, and a spaciousness in the calmer moments that I wish I could find a place for in my own music. What were my parents thinking when I brought this home from the public library in about 1977 and put it on the family Magnavox?

 

Orchestra of the League of Composers

 

Given the near impossibility of getting a second performance of an orchestral work, the League of Composers/ISCM is doing noble work to put on an annual concert of music for small-ish orchestral forces each spring. In last month’s latest iteration, with composer Louis Karchin conducting, an excellent array of New York free-lancers performed a program of pieces nicely varied in style. These weren’t premieres (though the Adler was new to NYC), but why should they have to be? Conventional orchestras are too fixated on the éclat that accrues from a first performance. Would that this ensemble could perform as frequently as the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (as well as issue CDs the way BMOP does) – it would be a welcome complement to the American Composers Orchestra.

The soloists Chloë Schaaf and Michael Brown were both superb. Schaaf was new to me, but I had previously heard Brown’s fine album of George Perle’s piano music which I wrote about here.

Here are a few pictures from that evening (I wish I could include a picture of Du Yun, but none of the ones I took of her came out well.) Sam Adler (on left) and Mario Davidovsky:

Hayes Biggs with Mario:

and Lou Karchin (on left) with John Harbison:

Bass and Voice

Two blogs I enjoy reading are those of bassist Michael Hovnanian and baritone Kyle Ferrill. Both performers offer interesting technical comments on performing, whether it be bass fingerings in standard repertoire or larynx positioning and its impact on vocal timbre. I am neither a bassist nor a singer, but these insights are helpful to me as a composer. Every bit of information like this helps me ground my work in the physical realities of music making.

Hovnanian is also very funny regarding life as an orchestral musician. In a more serious vein, he offers in this post some interesting stats on the near impossibility of getting a second performance of your orchestral piece, and the disappearance of repertoire from the recent past.

I will have the privilege of working with Kyle next week on my new Melville setting called A Catskill Eagle, which we will premiere at SongFest in Los Angeles on May 25.

“A Catskill Eagle”

I’ve finished a short song for baritone and piano, setting a Melville text. I’m calling the piece A Catskill Eagle, and the words are taken from chapter 96 of Moby-Dick:

And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

I must say that while I find much of the chapter is obscure, this is a fine passage, speaking of idealism and the need to soar above sorrow. I can’t claim to have remembered this bit from sophomore American Literature class in high school; rather I came upon it in a handsomely illustrated children’s book that I shared with my children.

My setting is for baritone and piano. The piece is set for a premiere at SongFest on May 25, a program honoring SongFest composers-in-residence William Bolcom and John Harbison. This will take place at 7 pm in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. I will accompany baritone Kyle Ferrill; it’s a nice coincidence that Kyle tried out a song of mine several years ago when he was a student at SongFest, and now he is returning as faculty. I’m afraid I’ve given myself a lot of rapid scale passages in the piece, reflecting the soaring eagle – I better post this and get back to practicing!

Notes of Thanks in Review

I was happy to be part of the celebration this past Sunday in honor of Network for New Music’s outgoing artistic director Linda Reichert. Here’s what was on the program:

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It was an honor to share a program with a lot of very distinguished colleagues; an honor as well to perform with some very fine players, who did a great job on my piece.

Click here for the Philadelphia Inquirer review. As Peter Dobrin wrote,

For complexity and subtlety of message, James Primosch’s Two Sketches captured quite a lot. Scored for piano, violin, cello, clarinet, and flute/piccolo, the work’s first movement lurked. The second announced itself with a four-note figure that grew into other ideas. It was a capstone of the best kind, conveying the feeling of freedom and ease, an innocent sense of discovery — coveted ideals for any artist headed off into the scary free-form of reinvention.

On Your Metronome Mark…

I’ve have been practicing a lot in preparation for this coming Sunday’s Notes of Thanks concert in honor of Network for New Music’s Linda Reichert. That concert will feature the premiere of my Two Sketches (scroll down), and I will be covering the piano part. Some of that practicing has involved a metronome, so it seems a good time to review this excellent piece by Nathan Cole on metronome usage, inspired by the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony, Robert Chen. I think the essential point is to not use the metronome in a passive way.

“Notes of Thanks” is Coming

Go here for tickets to the upcoming “Notes of Thanks” concert in honor of Network for New Music’s outgoing artistic director Linda Reichert on April 29 at 1:30 pm. The concert features 10 premieres, including my Two Sketches. (Scroll down for the portion of that post about the new piece.) There’s a nice article by Linda about her experiences with Network on New Music Box.