Blog: Secret Geometry

Take Another Chorus

Although I have a catalog of more than a dozen choral pieces, I don’t think of myself as a choral composer, at least not the way some folks are who work almost exclusively in the choral medium. Yet I seem to be in the midst of a time very much focussed on choral music. My most recently completed piece is from this past April:  Journey, a Meister Eckhart setting for men’s chorus written for inclusion on a CD of my choral music being recorded by The Crossing. The album will include a short piece for women’s voices, setting a Wendell Berry text, so I thought a piece for just the men would balance the Berry setting and offer a welcome variation in texture in the context of the whole CD which is mostly for mixed chorus.

In late June, I attended the annual meeting of Chorus America, which took place here in Philly. I’ve never been to a conference of this kind, not Chorus America, not Chamber Music America, nor the League of American Orchestras. My hope was to connect with conductors and try to get them to consider my music for possible performance. I did meet some folks, all quite gracious, but it remains to be seen whether anything will come of it. I’m glad I went to the conference, though I don’t think I would have gone to it in another city, what with the cost of travel and lodging. But because the meeting was here in Philly, I would have been annoyed with myself if I did not give it a try. The conference featured amazing performances by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia (Tan Dun’s Water Passion – some striking ideas but essentially tedious and thin) and The Crossing (Kile Smith‘s big Robert Lax piece, rich-textured and imaginative, at times a bit on the minimalistic side – and just issued on CD.)

This past week there were five days of recording sessions for the CD mentioned above. The Crossing is extraordinarily virtuosic, both as individual singers ( Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus calls for a schola of four soloists, and there are many smaller solos in most of my choral pieces – click the link for video of the premiere), and as a group, with stunning unanimity of articulation, timing and intonation. Donald Nally, the conductor and artistic director of the group, has truly exceptional ears, and was constantly challenging the group to greater refinements of detail. Paul Vasquez, the recording engineer, was a pleasure to work with, and I am grateful to Kevin Vondrak and everyone else who made the recording process go smoothly.

We recorded in a handsome renovated barn on the campus of St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley, an Episcopal church in Malvern, PA.

 

The fabulous soloists for my Levertov Mass (L to R: Dimitri German, Steven Bradshaw, Rebecca Oehlers, Elisa Sutherland)

The choral focus continues for me with my current projects. I am working on a short piece for the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District 11 Chorus, an honor choir of high school students selected from various schools in southeast Pennsylvania. This will be premiered next January 18. I am working with a text written specifically for the occasion by my friend Susan Stewart, who texts I have set in four previous pieces. I am also sketching a piece in response to a commission awarded by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin-Wallace University to honor the Institute on its 50th anniversary. This is set for a first performance in April of 2020. My plan is to use a chorale tune employed by Bach, “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”,  as the basis for a chorale fantasia. I am researching the secular roots of the tune, and the many pieces based upon it by various composers. In fact, I used the tune myself in my work for sextet and tape, Sacra Conversazione, and I suspect the post-tonal harmonization it received in that piece will find its way into this new work.

Lily Arbisser and Jason Wirth in Sarasota

Soprano Lily Arbisser and pianist Jason Wirth have taken the top prize at the National Federation of Music Clubs Young Artist Competition, held in Jacksonville FL. They included “Deathbeds” from my cycle Holy the Firm as part of their program. I heard them do the piece in NYC not that long ago, and I am not surprised that their performance of it helped bring them this recognition – they pull off that challenging piece with passion and precision. They offered the complete cycle as part of a post-contest program in Sarasota, and will be including my music on upcoming performances  booked as part of their competition prize. It means so much to me for these gifted young artists to be taking up my music – a piece that is now 20 years old, though I find that very hard to believe. Here is Lily’s NYC performance.

The Crossing and Aniara

My friends at The Crossing embark on a remarkable adventure starting tonight here in Philadelphia. Aniara: Fragments of Time and Space is a big new work of what you might call choral theatre. Rob Maggio (a U Penn alum) is the composer, and you can read more about the collaborators here. The good news – given that the performances are sold out – is that there will be livestreams of the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon performances – go here for those.

I feel I can say “my friends at The Crossing” because I have been privileged to have the group perform my music on several occasions. We will be recording an album of my choral music later this summer. Here is the premiere of the big Mass I wrote for the group, combining the traditional Latin texts with poetry of Denise Levertov reflecting on those texts.

Recent Reading and Listening

  • I’ve been browsing in the collections of program notes by Michael Steinberg. These are in three books: The Concerto, The Symphony, and Choral Masterworks. Steinberg’s prose is elegant and companionable, but more importantly, his writing makes me want to revisit some older favorites, as well as get to know some pieces unfamiliar to me – the Violin Concertos by Britten and Sessions, and works by Frank Martin and Franz Schmidt, among others. The best writing on music points you toward the music itself.
  • Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories are admirable for their craft, for their humor, for their unique conjunction of the ordinary and the strange. But I am struck most by the incredible range and variety of the pieces – something I wish for in my own work. Go here to read a fine essay on Davis’s stories by Mary Kenagy Mitchell.
  • When I was a grad student at Penn, the audio portion of the Music Library had open stacks. I remember seeing a forbiddingly large box of LPs on the shelf, daring me to take it down and listen.The box contained Julius Katchen’s recordings of the complete Brahms works for solo piano. (Well, he does leave out the pieces based on Chopin and Weber, as well as the left-hand version of the Bach Chaconne.) I never got to the LPs, but I recently made my way through all six discs of the CD reissue. Katchen plays superbly, though perhaps he lacks the last degree of inwardness that Radu Lupu brings to the late collections of short pieces. If, like me, those late collections – Op. 117, 118, and 119 – are the Brahms piano music you know best, then the extroverted virtuosity of works like the early piano sonatas will come as surprising news.

Recent Listening

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano; Variations on themes from “The Magic Flute”. Pablo Casals, cello; Rudolf Serkin, piano. These are exalted performances, noble, penetrating, with beautifully shaped phrasing and intense characterization. Well, what did you expect, it’s Casals and Serkin. Casal’s tone can be a little scratchy at moments, and he adds a bit of vocalizing, but the recorded sound from the ’50’s is quite fine. In his book on the Beethoven piano sonatas, Charles Rosen points out the unorthodox formal scheme of both the piano sonata, Op. 101 and the cello sonata Op. 102, Nr. 1, both of which have four movements played attacca, and several of the cello sonatas have comparably unusual forms.

The Blues and the Abstract Truth; Oliver Nelson. Of the many performances you have heard of Stolen Moments, the first track on this classic, few have quite the right relaxed, slightly dragging lope of the original. The record features a starry “little big band”, with three saxes, trumpet and rhythm. The arrangements are brilliant – I noticed a brief Gil Evans-esque moment recalling “Miles Ahead” – and the soloists are comparably fine. I especially enjoyed Dolphy’s contributions, sounding very fresh coming in from deep left field.

Eckhart’s “Journey”

Sometimes Twitter is good for something. It was there that I came across an excerpt from Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows. The book consists of what you might call poetic realizations of excerpts from the writings of the great 14th century mystic. It wasn’t long after I got my hands on the book that I found a text I knew I wanted to set. Sweeney and Burrows title the poem Your Soul’s Delight:

There is a journey
you must take.
It is a journey without destination.
There is no map.
Your soul will lead you.
And you can take nothing with you.

This past Holy Thursday I finished setting the text for men’s chorus: just a two-part texture, very simple, quiet, intimate. Here’s how it starts:

There is no public performance of the piece planned yet, but The Crossing will include the work on its upcoming all-Primosch CD. This short piece for just the men of the choir will balance nicely with a two-part setting of a Wendell Berry text for just the women’s voices that will also be on the album. The remaining music will draw on the full group, and will include the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for The Crossing a few years ago. Here’s a video from the premiere of that piece:

“Times Like These” in DC

No ensemble has been a more committed advocate for my work than the 21st Century Consort with its artistic director Christopher Kendall. That advocacy continued with a brilliant performance of my Times Like These this past April 13, with Paul Cigan, clarinet, and Lisa Emenheiser, piano. The piece was written on a commission from clarinetist Jean Kopperud. Jean was looking for pieces that would be “extreme” in one way or another, and my piece is challenging in his shifting rhythms and intricate interplay between the instruments. Paul and Lisa handled the piece capably, not just putting notes in the right places, but making phrases, conversing with one another with meaningful musical shapes. I am very grateful.

Here are a few pictures, taken by H. Paul Moon.

21st Century Consort: April 13, 2019

21st Century Consort: April 13, 2019

21st Century Consort: April 13, 2019

And here is Jean’s recording of the piece, with pianist Stephen Gosling:

Shamefully, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has – at extremely short notice – decided to no longer present the Consort’s programs. After dozens of brilliantly performed and programmed concerts, keyed to the Museum’s exhibits, the group is being dumped at such a late date that it will be a scramble to find a new venue for next season. Here’s hoping the Consort finds a new home quickly and is able to continue its irreplaceable service to audiences and composers.

Recent Concerts in Philly and NYC

I’ve been lucky to be at a number of splendid concerts lately:

  • The March 27 Philadelphia Chamber Music society recital by Carolin Widmann, violin, and Gloria Chien was memorable for elegant Beethoven and Stravinsky, but especially for a hair-raising Prokofiev First Sonata and a spectacular little piece for unaccompanied violin by Widman’s brother, Jorg. It was a kind of fantasy (a “Paraphrase”, as the title put it) on the Wedding March from Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn. From the opening triplet – played by tapping on the body of the violin – to the witty harmonic detours and hairpin turns, this was brilliantly composed and played. The piece is not just a virtuoso turn, but also a piece about virtuosity.
  • Jason Wirth and Lily Arbisser did a wonderful job with songs from my cycle Holy the Firm at a program in Manhattan last week. Lily sang with uncommon passion, and the result was a powerfully touching performance. Jason partnered her beautifully, with alert and sensitive pianism.
  • This past Sunday Mimi Stillman’s Dolce Suono Ensemble presented a big program featuring important and neglected American repertoire, ranging from the Piston Flute Sonata (flutists, please program the Piston instead of playing the Poulenc or Prokofiev sonatas yet again!) to Richard Wernick’s piano suite called Pieces of Eight. Violinist Miranda Cuckson dazzled in an unaccompanied work by Ralph Shapey. Indeed, the performances were uniformly excellent. Every one of these composers richly deserves a more prominent place on our concert programs.

Here are Dick Wernick (on the right) and Jim Freeman at the panel discussion:

  • There was more Wernick at last night’s concert by the Daedalus Quartet with James Austin Smith, oboe and Michael Rusinek, clarinet, as well as works by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, Penn alum Philip Maneval, and myself. James and members of the Daedalus played my Oboe Quartet with a keen grasp of the work’s varied moods, clearly enjoying the jazzy moments in the last movement.