Blog: Secret Geometry

Recent Listening: Adams and Ellington

Ellington: Such Sweet Thunder. I pulled out this album, surely one of the most distinguished of the master’s output for Columbia Records in the ’50’s, because I was re-reading David Schiff’s The Ellington Century, which includes a movement-by-movement discussion of the title work. As always with Ellington, the individuality of each player’s contribution, perfectly framed by the composer, makes up an astonishing orchestral palette. The CD version of the album includes a lot of bonus tracks, not all of which are at as high a level as the suite itself, but, of course, anything by Ellington is of interest. Do check out Schiff’s book, which is an intriguing take on 20th-century music history that puts Ellington at the center, rather than Stravinsky or Schoenberg, in addition to having lots of great insights on Ravel, Berg and more. I look forward to reading Schiff’s new book on Carter which has just come out.

Adams: The Chairman Dances. San Francisco Symphony; Edo de Waart, conductor. This is a collection of orchestral pieces by John Adams, which I missed when it was released by Nonesuch in the late ’80s. In addition to the title piece, it includes Christian Zeal and Activity, Tromba Lontana, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Common Tones in Simple Time. I had only heard the widely-performed Short Ride and The Chairman Dances before. Short Ride is one of those perpetual motion concert openers that became a widely cultivated genre at one point; I think Chris Rouse’s The Infernal Machine is a more more finely shaped example of such a piece. My favorite piece on the album was Common Tones in Simple Time. The style of this 20-minute piece resembles that of the grand canvases of Harmonielehre and Naive and Sentimental Music, those symphonies in all but name that constitute Adams’ full integration of post-minimalist (maybe post-post-minimalist) materials with those of the romantic and early 20th century repertoires. Adams’ music plays such a prominent role in the American symphonic world; I think the interest on the part of younger composers in extended performance techniques and edgy idioms is in part a reaction against his work. It will be interesting to see if the pendulum swings the other way any time soon.

Summer Sonata Reading

There’s nothing like getting to know pieces through your fingers. I try to be doing a little bit of reading through new pieces all through the year, but summer naturally affords more time at the piano. My project this summer has been to go through as many as I can of the Ralph Kirkpatrick edition of 60 Scarlatti sonatas as published by Schirmer.  I hardly need to remind you of the delights of this music, with its quirky keyboard textures and unexpected harmonic moves. But maybe not everybody who uses that Schirmer edition is aware that Kirkpatrick recorded the same 60 pieces for Columbia Records. He used what he describes as a “frankly modern harpsichord” by John Challis. I am no lover of the harpsichord, much preferring to hear Bach, for example, on the piano. But Kirkpatrick’s instrument strikes me as having an exceptionally mellifluous sound, and I find his recordings delightful. Give these early sonatas a try:

Upcoming in August

You can hear my music at two festivals coming up next month. The first is the Portland Chamber Music Festival in Portland, Maine. On Saturday, August 11, an all-star ensemble will convene for my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano. Here’s the personnel:

Peggy Pearson, oboe
Sunghae Anna Lim, violin
Christine Grossman, viola
Thomas Kraines, cello
Diane Walsh, piano

The ensemble is like a standard piano quintet, but with oboe replacing one of the violins. This is the third piece I have written at the request of Peggy, having previously done an Oboe Quartet and a work for oboe, chorus and strings called Matins. (The latter will receive its second performance on a Cantata Singers program this coming January.) You can read more about the Quintet here.

I’ll be playing piano at two concerts of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, August 25 and 26. These programs include four of my songs with two marvelous young singers. Soprano Sarah Yanovitch will do two songs from Holy the Firm, the cycle I wrote nearly 20 years ago (!) for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. Baritone Ryne Cherry offers two independent songs: From Psalm 116 dates from 1995, and sets a single psalm verse in Latin; A Catskill Eagle is the Melville setting that I premiered with baritone Kyle Ferrill at SongFest earlier this year. Token Creek is directed by Rosemary and John Harbison, and takes place in a barn on a lovely property not far from Madison, Wisconsin.

As a preview, here’s the Bridge recording of one of the songs Sarah will sing, this in an orchestrated version performed by Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort, with Christopher Kendall conducting.


Quick CD Comments

Persichetti: Symphony for Strings, Piano Concerto. Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Symphony), Charles Dutoit (Concerto) New World Records. It’s been a long time since I first encountered the music of Persichetti by playing his wind ensemble music, which is probably the way most American musicians first get to know his work. (The Symphony for Band is one of the great classics of the medium.) Less frequently encountered is Persichetti’s orchestral music. The harmonic idiom is a bit darker than I recall from the band music, but consistently attractive. Like so much mid-20th century American music, this is repertoire that really should be more widely played. The performances are excellent, as one would expect from the Philadelphia, though the last movement of the concerto is ill-served by the overly rapid pace set by Dutoit.

Shelly Manne and His Friends, Vol. 2 (Andre Previn, piano; Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Shelley Manne, drums) Contemporary Records. The centrality of the Broadway musical to the American musical scene in the middle of the last century was such that there developed a fad for jazz interpretations of the scores from the shows – not just individual tunes, but entire albums devoted to the shows. I believe the present 1956 album of songs from “My Fair Lady” is the first of its kind. All the players are brilliant, the arrangements are charming, but there is something a little superficial here; it’s a sort of highly sophisticated piano lounge music.

“A Sibyl” in the Garden

(photo courtesy of Alycia Kravitz and Museum of Modern Art)

I’m very grateful for the superb performance of A Sibyl last Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden with Anneliese Klenetsky, soprano; members of the New Juilliard Ensemble; and Joel Sachs, conductor. Anneliese’s singing displayed beauty of sound, great musicianship, and vivid expression. All the musicians truly “got” the piece – you could tell by their characterful singing and playing that they understood what I was trying to say. No less important, they had formidable gifts with which to convey the musical message.

Of course, I am very grateful to my friend Susan Stewart for giving me such powerful texts to set.

Also on the program was Leonora Pictures by Philip Cashian. This was my first encounter with the music of the British composer, and I was very impressed: a cogent harmonic language, imaginative textures, and a strong sense of drama. I’d like to hear more of his work.

Here are some pictures from last Sunday, taken by the gifted Alycia Kravitz, and included here with her kind permission and that of the Museum of Modern Art. The exception is this shot of the evening’s program:

The clips on the music stands are to help the music not fly away in the breeze; Alycia managed to catch a momentary appearance by one of the other singers of the evening.

The BVM was taking care of video:

A good-sized crowd attends these SummerGarden concerts:


The indefatigable Joel Sachs who has performed an incredible amount of new music over the years:

Sae Hashimoto:

Reiko Tsuchida:

Shen Liu, clarinet, and Emily Duncan, flute:

Julia Glenn:

Yu Yu Liu:

Anneliese Klenetsky:


That’s Susan Stewart taking a bow with me:

Thanks are also due to Melania Monios of the MoMA for her kind hospitality as she made sure all ran smoothly. As Susan remarked in an e-mail, it was a magical evening.

“A Sibyl” at MoMA

I’ll be heading to NYC soon for rehearsals and a performance of A Sibyl, my cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble on texts by Susan Stewart. This will be on Sunday, July 8 at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of their Summergarden series. The concert is at 8 pm and admission is free. The performers are members of the New Juilliard Ensemble, with Joel Sachs conducting. The soloist will be Anneliese Klenetsky.

I wrote here and here about A Sibyl in connection with the premiere last fall with Mary Mackenzie and Collage New Music, conducted by David Hoose.

That’s the Sibyl of Cumae from the Sistine Chapel above.

“A Catskill Eagle” at SongFest

I am way overdue in posting about this, but realizing that June will be over in a few hours motivates me to try to catch up and write about my visit to SongFest this past May.

SongFest is a remarkable training program for young singers, with an exceptionally fine faculty and gifted students. It is based at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. In addition to master classes and coachings, SongFest presents a number of concerts open to the public. I was there for one of those concerts because the program’s director, Rosemary Hyler Ritter, invited me to write a new song in honor of John Harbison’s 80th birthday. John has regularly been on the SongFest faculty, coaching his own work and conducting each year a concert of Bach cantatas. My new song was premiered at a performance honoring both John and William Bolcom, another 80th birthday celebrant and SongFest faculty member (they are part of that class of ’38, the birth year of an unusual number of  important American composers). A Catskill Eagle sets a passage from Moby Dick; I wrote about the song here. Kyle Ferrill was the baritone for my premiere, and I played piano. Kyle gave a beautiful performance, with gorgeous sound and expert musicianship. The concert also included an exquisite performance of my Shadow Memory by soprano Victoria Browers and pianist Javier Arrebola. This is a setting of a text by Susan Orlean that was commissioned by SongFest a few years ago. Throughout the concert there were superb performances of wonderful pieces; Bolcom’s haunting Jane Kenyon settings, Let Evening Come, and Harbison’s searing Simple Daylight were standouts for me, but I enjoyed everything I heard. Here’s the program:

And here are a few pictures from my visit. There was a pretty great view of Disney Hall from the window of my Colburn dorm room:

some very smart posters in the Colburn practice rooms:

Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris at a coaching:

Victoria and Javier at the Shadow Memory run-thru in Zipper Hall:

John Musto, Amy Burton, Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris at a post-concert meal at which we stayed up past midnight so as to celebrate Bill’s actual birthday that day:

The Greek Orthodox cathedral where the Harbison-led Bach concert took place, with the BVM looking like a ’20’s movie star:

and with Jesus watching you from the dome:

I also visited the Catholic cathedral. I was a bit disappointed by the interior; the light fixtures make the space visually too busy. But I was greatly moved by the tapestries of saints old and new; my pictures of these didn’t come out well, go here to get some sense of these.

I’m very grateful to have had a chance to be part of SongFest this year. Congratulations to Rosemary for her ongoing commitment to this important program, and for making new music an integral part of it.

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?