Blog: Secret Geometry

Sticky post: “Sacred Songs” CD

CD coverThis CD is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and has been released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music. Scroll down for several more posts about the album. A review by Christian B. Carey on the Musical America website is here; another is at Audiophile Audition, by Steven Ritter. Composer Daniel Asia discusses the album at the Huffington Post here.

Music After the Fall

I recently finished reading Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s excellent Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989. (The “fall” in question is that of the Berlin Wall.) Instead of being organized around styles or “-isms”, the book’s chapters are thematically organized around, as Rutherford-Johnson puts it:

 

a series of quasi-psychological states… There are five of these: permission, fluidity, mobility, excess, and loss.

One benefit of this intriguing organization is that it lets Rutherford-Johnson bring into close proximity works that might not otherwise be discussed together in a stylistically organized book. A book that has insights about Ferneyhough and David Lang in the same paragraph (in the chapter on excess) offers a fresh perspective. Rutherford-Johnson is a virtuoso at weaving together a coherent narrative from diverse strands.

The number and range of pieces discussed is astonishing, with a great many artists mentioned whose work was new to me. This was partly because of the experimentalist bent of the book. That emphasis is not unreasonable; there is more music discussed here in which, so to speak, man bites dog instead of the other way around since the former is news in a way that the latter is not. However, much of the music described here strikes me as more interesting to read about than to hear, and a lot of music that is of interest to hear is left out. This is inevitable, given a book of finite length, and Rutherford-Johnson acknowledges the book’s limitations. Still, there must be a theoretical framework for a book on recent musical history in which conceptual art would be a bit less prominent while music of composers from my own generation like Augusta Read Thomas, Melinda Wagner, or Eric Chasalow, as well as that of senior figures like Mario Davidovsky, Richard Wernick, or John Harbison would also find a place.

There is much to learn from Music After the Fall, and the book is gracefully written. I hope at some point someone writes a book of music history that encompasses even more of the new music I admire and love.

Reviews from Boston

Nothing from the Globe so far, but the Boston Musical Intelligencer had reviewers at both the Collage and Winsor concerts from last Sunday. From Mark DeVoto’s review of the A Sibyl premiere:

Rich expressiveness that cries out for more performances infused all of these intense but not expansive poems. Other groups should take note of this gratifying premiere.

“A Sibyl” and “Quintet” in Boston

At the moment I am on the Amtrak coming home from a busy and marvelous trip to Boston for performances of two works. Collage New Music, with soprano Mary Mackenzie and conductor David Hoose premiered my new song cycle on text by Susan Stewart, called A Sibyl. It’s a demanding and varied challenge for the soloist, and Mary brought terrific intensity and subtle nuance to the piece. The instrumentalists were no less fine, partly on their individual merits, partly because of the ESP that develops among long-term colleagues. I had been impressed in rehearsals by the detail David Hoose gave to expressive details, and it paid off beautifully.

There was a similar sense of commitment from Winsor Music when they played my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano yesterday evening. The piece is highly varied in expressive character, and many of the comments I received focussed on the third movement, an instrumental version of my song Who Do You Say That I Am. The movement is warmly lyrical and quite tonal (you could probably make a lead sheet of it), standing in strong contrast to the preceding severely dissonant movement. I was worried as to whether the contrasting voices heard in the piece would hang together, but the fiercely committed performance overcame any doubts.

I’m deeply grateful to both ensembles for their passionate advocacy of my music.

Here are a few pictures from the trip. I wish I had a shot with Mary Mackenzie from the Collage concert, but I had to get going to the Winsor event, so I only got the one picture, this with conductor David Hoose:

Here’s a shot from after the Winsor concert. L to R: Kendra Colton, Peggy Pearson, Rafael Popper-Keizer, JP, Gabriela Díaz, John Harbison, Rane Moore:

More on “A Sibyl”

  • David Hoose speaks about the Collage New Music season, including this Sunday’s concert, featuring the premiere of A Sibyl, in this Boston Musical Intelligencer interview.
  • There are a number of YouTube videos featuring soprano Mary Mackenzie, who will be the soloist for A Sibyl. These include several of my own music. Here’s Mary singing two songs with pianist Heidi Louise Williams; the first is on a text by Susan Scott Thompson, the second sets words by Susan Orlean.

Mary and Heidi have recorded these songs and several others for a CD to be released later this season on Albany Records.

  • here are some excerpts from Sacred Songs and Meditations, a big set of vocal and instrumental pieces based on plainchant and other ancient melodies. The ensemble is the 21st Century Consort led by Christopher Kendall, with members of the Folger Consort and choirs of the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C.

  • Read about Susan Stewart, author of the texts for A Sibyl, here and here. Susan published a volume of new and selected poems this year, entitled Cinder. The title poem is the first of her texts that I set, some 18 years ago. Listen to Susan Narucki sing it, again with the 21st Century Consort and Christopher Kendall.

Quintet for oboe, strings and piano with Winsor Music

The third of the three performances coming up for me in and around Boston this coming Sunday, October 15, will be Winsor Music’s program at St. Paul’s in Brookline (pictured) at 7 pm. The piece is scored for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano – sort of a piano quintet, but with oboe instead of one of the violins. It was premiered last summer at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival. Peggy Pearson, who requested the piece, will be the oboist, with Winsor Co-Artistic Director Gabriela Diaz, violin; Mark Berger, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; and Sally Pinkas, piano. It will be wonderful to work with these splendid players, some of whom I have known for a long time. The fabulous Peggy Pearson first played my music when I wrote Matins for her, a work for oboe, strings and chorus that was premiered by Cantata Singers back in 2003, with David Hoose conducting. (It’s David who will conduct the premiere of my new song cycle, A Sibyl, with Collage New Music and soprano Mary Mackenzie earlier in the day on the 15th.) Peggy later commissioned and premiered my Oboe Quartet with Winsor Music – you can hear the result by going here and scrolling down. (The strings in that recording are members of the Apple Hill Quartet; the score is available for online perusal here.) I met Sally many years ago when we both played on a concert, the exact location of which I no longer recall, though I think it was in the Boston area. I do remember that I played a work by the superb Israeli composer Yinam Leef. Years later I had contact with Sally and her husband Evan Hirsch when Penn presented them playing George Rochberg’s huge cycle for two pianos called Circles of Fire. Sally never had a chance to play my music until now, and I am delighted that she has taken on this piece. I’ve heard Gabby Diaz and Rafael Popper-Keizer perform with Emmanuel Music, and Rafael tells me he played my Four Sacred Songs a number of years ago, though I missed that performance. Mark Berger is new to me; he joined the Lydian Quartet in 2014. In short, it’s an all-star group!

Here’s a program listing and note on the Quintet:

I. Variations
II. Dirge
III. Poem (after Kathleen Norris)
IV. 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.

“A Sibyl” Premieres in Boston

sibyl1

the Sibyl of Cumae in the Sistine Chapel

Written on a Fromm Foundation commission, A Sibyl is a cycle of six songs on texts by Susan Stewart, whose poetry I have set in several other pieces – Holy the Firm, Dark the Star, and Songs for Adam. Susan wrote the poems specifically for this new project. Collage New Music will premiere the piece at the Longy School in Cambridge, MA on October 15, 2017 at 3 pm. (There will be a pre-concert chat at 2 pm.) Mary Mackenzie will be the soprano soloist and David Hoose will conduct. Here’s my program note on the piece:

When I asked my friend Susan Stewart to write a set of poems for a new work for soprano, she responded with reflections on the mysterious prophetess spoken of in Virgil and Ovid. The sibyl sings of her prophecies written on leaves, and of how the god possesses her; she warns Aeneas before his descent to the underworld; she celebrates the moon. Having been granted eternal life, but failing to ask for eternal youth, she is reduced to no more than her voice. I understand the sibyl as an archetype of the musician who sings for us of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love; who guides us in moonlit and shadowy places; and whose prophetic voice resounds unendingly, in power, and in vulnerability.

A Sibyl was written for Collage New Music on a commission from the Fromm Music Foundation. I am grateful to the Foundation, to Collage, and to Mary Mackenzie for making this work possible, and to Susan Stewart for words to sing.

Mary has performed many pieces of mine, and she recorded Sacred Songs and Meditations with the 21st Century Consort, led by Christopher Kendall.

She has also recorded a big 2-CD collection of songs by various composers with pianist Heidi Williams that will include four pieces of mine, to be released on Albany later this season.

Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa published an interview with me on the Collage website – I talk there about working with Susan’s poetry and my history with Collage.

 

“The Avowal” at Emmanuel

Emmanuel_Church_(Boston)_-_DSC08191

UPDATE: due to a scheduling issue, this performance of The Avowal has been postponed.

Back in the late 20th century, John Harbison conducted my solo cantata, The Cloud of Unknowing, with Lucy Shelton and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. After the concert, John floated the idea of me writing something for Emmanuel Music, (with which John was, and still is, long affiliated) to be sung at an Emmanuel Church Sunday Eucharist. I responded with a setting of Denise Levertov’s poem called “Candlemas”, calling my piece Meditation for Candlemas. The late Craig Smith conducted the premiere. I was told that it was a nice coincidence to have chosen Levertov, as she had attended services at Emmanuel at one time. When I wrote a sequel to the Candlemas piece, I again chose a Levertov poem, “The Avowal”. This 1997 setting will be performed again at Emmanuel, with Ryan Turner conducting, on Sunday, October 15, 2017, as part of the 10 am liturgy. It’s the first event in the triple-header of performances of my music in the Boston area that day. Next week I’ll be posting about the other concerts of that day – the premiere of A Sibyl with Collage New Music, and the Boston premiere of my Quintet for oboe, strings and piano by Winsor Music.

Chamber Music of Richard Wernick on Bridge

UnknownRichard Wernick: Sextet; Concerto for Cello and Ten Players; Piano Trio No. 1. Bridge Records 9480. Here are three masterfully crafted and powerfully expressive works from an exceptionally underappreciated American composer. (I say “exceptionally” because, as the late Steve Stucky once said to me, “we’re all underappreciated!”) Richly contrapuntal, the music is in a dissonant post-tonal idiom, finding coherence in its focussed use of striking motifs and economical harmonic vocabulary. The pitch language is nicely balanced between consistency and variety. When I was in the grad program at Penn, Wernick used to exhort my fellow students and I to “make your own tonality!” He does so in his own music and succeeds brilliantly.

The sextet is scored for strings and piano – a piano quintet plus bass. The addition of the bass gives a quasi-orchestral weight to the vigorous passages here. But Wernick can also deploy his forces in a beguilingly delicate, Webernesque texture, as in the work’s opening Arioso. The Chamber Concerto is the earliest piece on the album. I am taken aback to realize I was at the premiere of this piece some 37 years ago, with the 21st (then 20th!) Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall, with Barbara Haffner as the soloist, as she is on this recording. I find this earlier piece to be more expressionist in style, more rhapsodic in shape than the later music on the disc (the Trio is from 1994; the Sextet from 2003.) There is a somewhat neo-classical character to the later music, though Wernick’s idiom is very different from that of, for example, the music of Stravinsky that is normally associated with that term. I remember especially admiring at the premiere – and I continue to admire now – the second movement of the concerto, one of Wernick’s grandest conceptions, a sixteen-minute passacaglia that very gradually builds and builds in density and power. The terse and animated outer movements of the Piano Trio contrast nicely with the contemplative middle movement, centered around a still point of repeated piano harmonics. It’s an all-star group playing the Trio, with Gregory Fulkerson, violin; Barbara Haffner, cello; and Lambert Orkis, piano; the players for the concerto and the Sextet are from the Chicago area, including members of the Lyric Opera’s orchestra, and are no less fine. Robert Trevino conducts the concerto.

Here’s the opening of the Sextet:

Narucki and Berman at Tufts

43-231708452f2b1da7481ac1d67e2aecf6I just got word that the fabulous duo of soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Donald Berman is giving a program at Tufts this coming Sunday that will include my setting of a Kathleen Norris text, Who Do You Say That I Am?, and two songs from my set of Three Folk Hymns – the ones based on Be Thou My Vision and What Wondrous Love is This? The concert is at 3 pm at the Distler Performance Hall in the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University in Medford, MA – more info here. The program is an attractive one. Susan and Donald are calling it: “Stop Endings: Intimate Songs on Nature, Loss, and Spirituality”. Besides my own material there will be music of Schumann, Zemlinsky, and Kurtág. (Susan coached with the famously demanding Kurtág.)

There’s lots of great stuff from Susan on YouTube, including Carter, Crumb, Davidovsky, Vivier, etc. For a start, here’s her Bridge recording of the third song in my Rilke cycle From a Book of Hours for chamber ensemble and soprano (the piece also exists in the original orchestral version). Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. There’s a perusal score of the chamber version below and the orchestral version is here.  You can hear Donald play piano music of Scott Wheeler here; lots of Ives from Donald on YouTube as well.

(photo credit: Richard Bowditch)

 

Voices from the Morning of the Earth

Complete George Crumb Edition, Volume 17: Voices from the Morning of the Earth (American Songbook VI); An Idyll for the Misbegotten; The Sleeper. Bridge Records 9445. George Crumb’s profoundly American compositional voice is perfectly suited to the tunes and texts that form the basis of his huge American Songbook cycle, based on folk tunes of all kinds (plus a couple of folk-like tunes of his own devising) and scored for one or two solo voices, percussion quartet, and amplified piano. Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, has this repertoire deep in its bones, and all of Crumb’s meticulously detailed effects are realized with exquisite care. While baritone Randall Scarlata sings with affecting beauty, it’s the composer’s daughter Ann Crumb who is even more captivating with her highly characterful singing. Ann and pianist Marcantonio Barone offer a reading of Crumb’s Poe setting, The Sleeper that is full of misty atmosphere, and flutist Rachel Rudich, alongside three percussionists, is eloquent in the Idyll. It was surely no simple matter to capture for recording both the barely discernible rumbles and tremendous bass drum thwacks of this piece. The uncommonly wide dynamic range of Crumb’s music benefits greatly from the capabilities of digital sound.

With the country in the midst of both political and ecological catastrophes, the mournful songs that Crumb draws upon (the texts include dying children, dying cowboys, dying lovers, dying solidiers, and the dead in general), enveloped in the ghostly resonances of Crumb’s sound-world, struck me as especially poignant.