Blog: Secret Geometry

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:


Recent Listening

Not new recordings, just items that have passed through my CD player in recent weeks.

Schubert: The Piano Sonatas. András Schiff. It’s a safe bet that there are pieces here that will be new to you. One that was new to me was a tantalizing opening fragment of a sonata in f-sharp minor, exquisite in its delicate melancholy. Schiff plays a Bösendorfer with myriad colors, orchestral grandeur, and a touch of harshness in the loudest moments. He makes teasing reference to players of fortepianos in his program note – a judgement he seems to have changed since he has recently recorded Schubert on a fortepiano for ECM himself.

Bernard Rands: Now Again. It’s the vivid harmony that most often strikes me about Rands’s music; certainly there are scintillating gestures and plentiful lyricism, but the pitches in the music always feel right. Wonderful performances by Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, featuring the superb mezzo Janice Felty.

Amy Williams: Cineshape & Duos. I love the intensely characterful writing in this music, so vivid and clear in expressive intent. The pitches matter, the phrases are elegantly shaped, and the timing is just right, things never outstay their welcome. And the performances are splendid, Williams herself is the superb pianist for six of the titles, including the dramatic and virtuosic piano solo Cineshape 4. In a program note, Williams explains the title, saying that it is part of a series of works “based on a close and selective reading of an existing film”, in this case the German film Run Lola Run. The piece certainly does “run”, but you don’t need to know the film to enjoy the musical shape.

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.