Blog: Secret Geometry

Catching Up on CDs, Recent and Not

This is not a “best of 2019” list, and some of these CDs have been waiting patiently for a mention on this blog for quite a while. But they are all items that I think are worthy of your attention.

  • Richter in Wien Prokofiev: Sonata Nr. 2; Stravinsky: Piano-Rag Music; Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues in E-flat major and C minor; Webern: Variations; Bartok: 3 Burlesques; Szymanowski: two pieces from Metopes; Hindemith: Suite ‘1922’. London. This appears to be a bootleg from a 1989 recital. The piano is terrible, there is a fair bit of audience noise, but it is fascinating to hear this artist in an all 20th century program of little-heard works. Richter playing the Webern Op. 27? Yes, and very well indeed.
  • Hummel: Piano Sonatas Stephen Hough. Hyperion. This album makes a fine case for this late-18th, early 19th century composer, and is gorgeously played and recorded. The music is a little like Beethoven in its mix of classical and romantic features.
  • Harbison: Requiem Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. His music steeped in Bach, Harbison is a master of choral writing. This is a mostly sober setting of the Latin texts, without interpolations, but no less moving for avoiding the theatrical.
  • Convergences. Works by Brahms and Andrea Clearfield. Barbara Westphal, viola; Christian Ruvolo, piano. Bridge. Featuring arrangements of the Brahms E minor cello sonata and the G major violin sonata, this album offers some welcome additions to the viola repertoire. I felt the violin adaptation was more successful, maybe because the original version of the cello piece is in my bones from playing it many years ago in college. The Brahms works are smartly complemented with a well-crafted 2008 work by Philadelphia-based Andrea Clearfield.
  • Lounge Lizards works by Fred Lerdahl, John Musto, Charles Ives, Arlene Sierra, and Michael Daugherty. Quatro Mani (Steve Beck, Susan Grace, pianos). Bridge. These folks are masters of the unforgiving two-piano medium, where the least bit of imprecision is painfully obvious. My favorite pieces were the Ives, of course, and the elegant Lerdahl work, simply called Quiet Music – quiet, perhaps, but packed with thought, wit, and imagination.
  • The Way Things Go works by Randall Woolf, Steven Mackey, John Halle, Eric Moe, Belinda Reynolds, Richard Festinger, and Laura Kaminsky. Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Margaret Kampmeier, piano. Bridge. Brilliant playing in a program including nicely diverse idioms. Favorites for me were an early Steve Mackey piece called Crystal Shadows, and Eric Moe’s All Sensation is Already Memory – the title is from Henri Bergson – and the piece is as elegant as its title.
  • R. Murray Schafer: The Love that Moves the Universe Vancouver Chamber Choir,  Jon Washburn, conductor. Grouse. I think of Schafer as more of an experimentalist, but these pieces are direct in expression and varied in character, ranging from a children’s fairy tale to a setting of Dante. Fine performances.
  • American Trombone Concertos Works by Paul Creston, George Walker, Gunther Schuller, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Christian Lindberg, trombone; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; James DePriest. Bis. This album, dating from the 1990s, presents works by important composers who should be better represented on record. In a healthier musical climate, these pieces would have been recorded by a first-rate American orchestra, one as fine as Lindberg is a soloist.
  • The Purity of the Turf  Ethan Iverson, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Criss Cross Jazz. The Iversonian imagination in all its freshness is evident throughout this 2016 mix of standards and originals. Especially striking is a treatment of Darn That Dream; by truncating the form, Iverson creates a sense of claustrophobia that makes this dream a compelling nightmare.
  • Shi-Hui Chen: Returning Souls. Various performers. New World. Elements from Asian and Euro-American musics are successfully melded, not just juxtaposed in these chamber pieces. Fantasia on the Theme of Plum Blossom, played by the Formosa String Quartet, is especially impressive. More than just a presentation of varied materials, it’s what Chen does with that material that makes this music matter.

“Wozzeck” at the Met

Have you seen the current production of Wozzeck at the Met? It’s been generally favorably reviewed, but I was troubled, as was, to some extent, Alex Ross in The New Yorker. The Kentridge production is simply too visually busy. The projections – some animated, some slowly shifting, amidst a cluttered set full of ramps and junk – were a distraction from Berg’s intricately crafted score. Maybe this kind of thing worked for The Nose, the Shostakovich opera presented by the Met in a Kentridge production several years ago; with thinner music, perhaps there was room for such a flood of images. Specific moments troubled me as well. It added nothing to have Wozzeck fussing with a film projector in the opening scene instead of shaving the Captain, apart from the obvious point that the production was packed with projections. I agree with Ross that the projected explosion at the climax of the last interlude was cringe-inducingly obvious. Ross welcomed Kentridge’s choice to start the scene in the tavern after the murder of Marie during the second of the two crescendi on B-natural, but I disagree. Not only did this spoil Berg’s cinematic jump cut to the tavern scene and its out-of-tune upright piano, but it distracted from what would otherwise have been the overwhelming power of the crescendo, which should fill your consciousness at that moment, just as it fills every musical register. Kentridge’s preference for slowly shifting images throughout the evening went against Berg’s choice of an abrupt juxtaposition at that moment. All night there were haunting images, but too many of them. (Was one of the projected images of detached heads in a field supposed to look like Schoenberg? That would be a fine piece of Freudian patricide on Berg’s behalf.) The performance was very fine; do I remember Levine’s performances as more shattering because of their inherent properties, or because I was struggling to attend to the music last night?

“Journey” premieres at Emmanuel Church

It’s hard for me to believe that the first piece I wrote for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church, Boston dates from 1994! I am so grateful for my ongoing relationship with this church, which has included my music in their liturgies many times in the years since that first piece. (Check out my work list page for a complete list of my choral music, including the pieces written for Emmanuel.) There will be a new work done at Emmanuel this coming December 21 at 7:30 pm, a Meister Eckhart setting called Journey. The piece sets a text by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows which is a poetic rendering of a text by the German mystic. You can read more about my setting here. The premiere will be at a special service, Blue Christmas on the Longest Night. A recent e-mail from Emmanuel described the service this way:

Recognizing that the Christmas holidays are not a time of cheer for everyone, Emmanuel Church with the clergy and congregation of Church of the Covenant, reaches out to the those who are grieving the death of a loved one or dealing with other kinds of loss. The reflective service offers prayers for healing and quiet meditation. Emmanuel Music will present James Primosch’s Journey on this evening.

Emmanuel is making a tremendous commitment to my music this year in that not only will they premiere this new piece, but they will perform my big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, programming individual movements on several Sundays, and then performing the entire piece in lieu of their customary Bach cantata on March 29, 2020. Go to the performances page for details. Here is The Crossing, the group that commissioned my Mass, giving the first performance of the piece:

Chou Wen-Chung in memoriam

It feels like the end of an era for me because my two mentors at Columbia University have both died within a few months of each other. First Mario Davidovsky passed in late August, and now Chou Wen-Chung has died at the age of 96. The New York Times obituary is here. Wen-Chung was not as important a figure in my life as was Mario, but I did have a year of lessons with him, and there are things he said that I ponder to this day. One of them – “This will sound well, but I am concerned about the structure…” – I resented at the time, feeling that not everyone can make music that sounds well. But I have come to realize that there are too many composers who simply make the music “sound well”, and it is the combination of both appealing sonic surface and deep patterning that make for music that you want to live with.

Here are some samples of his work. first, the early Landscapes from 1949:

Yü Ko, uncanny in its emulation of the sounds of Chinese music by Western instruments:

And a late work for percussion ensemble:

Finally, here is a documentary detailing Wen-Chung’s extraordinary life:



Crumb @ 90

Tomorrow George Crumb turns 90 years old. (I’ve heard him joke that he was born the day the stock market started to go down in the crash of 1929.) I’ve been involved with a number of performances of his music in celebration of this birthday. Earlier this month I played the Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979 and accompanied Meg Bragle in the Three Early Songs as part of a three-concert survey of George’s music held at Penn in collaboration with Bowerbird, the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and the Penn Music Department. And this past Sunday I joined Xak Bjerken to play George’s four-hand piano piece Celestial Mechanics at Cornell University. I’ll be playing again with Xak when we reprise our performance at National Sawdust next week. This will be part of an evening of George’s music curated by Chris Grymes – details above.

Xak played solo pieces on the first half of the concert at Cornell, including a cleverly devised group of short pieces pairing works by three composers with pieces written by three other composers in homage to the first three. The six pieces:

Elegy, in memory of Steven Stucky – Joseph Phibbs
Chorale – Steven Stucky
Étude No. 10: For opposing sonorities – Debussy
Improvisation, Op. 20, No. VII: in memory of Claude Debussy
Minuet from Sonata in G, Hob. XVI:5 – Haydn
Minuet on the name HAYDN – Ravel

Broadly speaking, all six pieces were French in flavor, something of a stretch for Haydn of course, though its ornamentation and clarity helped it fit in.

George will be there in NYC next week, so it’s a chance to both see and hear him.

There will be more concerts of George’s music coming up in the Philadelphia area. Swarthmore College will present a program on the evening of November 2, while November 10 there will be a program at Haverford College. In both programs important advocates for Crumb’s music will perform, including Marcantonio Barone, James Freeman, and Gilbert Kalish. I’ll be part of a panel discussing George and his work at the Haverford program.

Jay Reise Retirement Concert

Earlier this month I played the first performance of The Inland Sea (Piano Sonata No. 3) by my Penn faculty colleague Jay Reise. This was part of a program entirely of Jay’s music in honor of his retirement from Penn. Here are a few pictures from the occasion:

Penn faculty, current and emeritus. Seated, L to R: George Crumb, Thomas Connolly, Richard Wernick, Lawrence Bernstein; standing, L to R: Jay Reise, current department chair Timothy Rommen, Anna Weesner, myself:

Jay with Penn alums Ke-Chia Chen, Melissa Dunphy, and Scott Ordway. Penn Music’s Director of Sound and Music Technology Eugene Lew is in the background:

Here I am presenting a gift to Jay – an album containing letters from over three dozen former students, colleagues, performers, congratulating him on his retirement:

And here is Jay with the performers of his work for string trio and shakuhachi: L to R: James Shlefer, shakuhachi; Irena Muresanu, violin; Jay Reise; Eliana Razzino Yang, cello; and David Yang, viola. Huge thanks to David Yang who took care of programming the concert and lining up the performers.

Honoring Jay Reise

jayThis Thursday, October 3, at 8 PM, the Music Department of the University of Pennsylvania will honor retiring Penn faculty composer Jay Reise with a concert of his chamber music. The venue is Rose Recital Hall, which is on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, on the southeast corner of 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia.

The program will include two first performances: Barcarola Reminiscencia for cello and piano; and The Inland Sea (Piano Sonata No. 3). I’ll be playing the latter. It’s a big-boned single movement work, with a lot packed into about 17 minutes. The music does not feature the counterpointed rhythms, influenced by Indian classical music, that appear in other of Jay’s pieces, although it is intricate with regard to accents and stresses and particular notes that are to be brought out in a rich harmonic texture. Pianistically the piece is at times an etude in voicing, an aspect I am finding even more challenging than the moments when I have to get around quickly.

Also on the show will be The Gift to Urashima Taro for shakuhachi and string trio; Semblances for string trio, and Yinyuè (Berceuse-Nocturne) for piano quartet. Performing will be Irina Muresanu, violin; David Yang, viola; Eliana Razzino Yang, cello; and Amy Yang, piano. Big thanks to David for lining up the players and curating the program.

A note on the Music Department’s website about the concert appears here.

(Photo Credit: Marina Garcia Burgos)

Heat Wave Miscellany

Actually the heat wave is in its last day today in Philadelphia, with more reasonable weather coming tomorrow. Perspiring or not, here are a few notes on recent listening and more.

I’ve been greatly enjoying Brian Mulligan’s new album on Bridge Records, called “Old Fashioned”. Brian was the soloist in my Songs for Adam back in 2009 with the Chicago Symphony. He continues to sound marvelous, with a rich and powerful baritone. His program for the CD features songs from the turn of the 20th century, items that perhaps your grandparents loved – “Because”, “I Love You Truly”, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, “Roses of Picardy” and the like. There is no hint of parody or camp, these are sincere and honest interpretations of genuinely touching material. Perhaps these songs mean a lot to me because my parents knew and loved some of them, and because I got to know them from the sheet music I inherited from various aunts and uncles. My father used to sing/hum the odd phrase from a couple of them. These family connections reinforce for me the sentiments expressed in the songs. Craig Rutenberg is the elegant pianist.

Awaiting their turn in my CD player: Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit (Wet Ink Ensemble, New World Records); John Harbison’s Requiem (Nashville Symphony, Naxos) and an album of orchestral music of George Perle (Seattle Symphony, Bridge Records).

Philadelphia musical organizations are announcing their coming seasons. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society did this a while ago; the programs I find of interest are too numerous to mention, but some new music highlights include a program with the Jack Quartet with percussionist Colin Currie and, on various concerts, works by Brett Dean, Christopher Cerrone, Iva Bittová and more. There will also be lots of Beethoven, including a complete cycle of the piano sonatas, the majority handled by Jonathan Biss. A brochure from the always thoughtfully programmed Lyric Fest just came in the mail; an evening-length premiere by Daron Hagen is of special interest. Orchestra 2001’s season is modest, but performances of works by George Crumb and Rene Orth deserve attention.

Lastly, August Read Thomas sent me a link to a short video about her new opera, featuring the astonishing Nicole Paris: