Blog: Secret Geometry

“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.

Lucy Shelton at 75

I have fallen behind in my blogging, but here’s a first step toward catching up.

I was at Merkin Hall for Lucy Shelton’s 75th birthday concert in February. All her musicality and a remarkably large fraction of her voice remain intact. I would not have thought her capable of portions of the cycles Carter and Knussen wrote for her, but she certainly was. An array of her students filled out the numbers she did not take on, including Kristina Bachrach, who has done my stuff. As an encore, Gil Kalish accompanied Lucy in Ives’s, “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, one in which Gil used to accompany Jan deGaetani – Lucy’s teacher. Not a dry eye in the house, I think, at least not mine.

Lucy means a lot to me, not just because of her excellent artistry, not just because she did my music on several occasions (Holy the Firm, The Cloud of Unknowing, Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”) but because she was a regular with what was then called the  20th Century Consort, and was accompanied regularly by my piano teacher, Lambert Orkis, who was that group’s pianist. Hearing her repeatedly early on in my compositional life taught me something about what singing could be. I played a four-hand Crumb piece with Lambert several times with the Consort, so heard Lucy a fair bit. I remember sitting in on rehearsals of Dick Wernick’s A Poison Tree at Penn when I was a student – that might be the first time I heard her.

Bravo, Lucy – and thank you.

“Listen to the slow movement”

“What we can say, a saying both exceeding and falling short of responsible knowledge, is that there is music which conveys both the grave constancy, the finality of death and a certain refusal of that very finality. This dual motion, instinctual to humanity but scandalous to reason, is evident, it is made transparent to spiritual, intellectual and physical notice, in Schubert’s C-major Quintet. Listen to the slow movement.”

– George Steiner in the book Real Presences.

Latest Recordings (pinned post)

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Vocalisms includes 10 of my songs for soprano and piano, performed by Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Louise Williams. The album also features songs by John Harbison, Ned Rorem, and Daniel Crozier. You can find it at the Albany Records website, or Amazon. 

CD cover

Sacred Songs is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and was 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.  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.

“Four Sketches” Premiere

Heartfelt thanks to the Imani Winds for their beautiful first performance of my Four Sketches for woodwind quintet this past Friday. This is a group of virtuosi who not only can play anything, but deeply understood my music, grasping its expressive intent and using their formidable chops to project it powerfully to the audience. It was a thrill to be part of their program, featuring music by members of the ensemble present (Jeff Scott) and and past (Valerie Coleman) as well as music by Ligeti, Harbison, and Schifrin – a thrill because of the group’s palpable connection with the sellout audience. Thank you as well to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society – the organization that presented the concert and commissioned the piece. Here’s hoping Imani gets more chances to play the work – I’ll of course keep you informed about that. Read Peter Dobrin’s review of the concert from the Philadelphia Inquirer here. (Unfortunately, I didn’t see a group press picture with the ensemble’s new flutist – Brandon Patrick George –  on their website just yet. That’s the Imani’s original flutist, Valerie Coleman, seated in the picture at left. Photo credit: Matt Murphy)

Report from Boston and Tallahassee

I’m grateful for two recent performances that I traveled to hear: Matins was done by Peggy Pearson, oboe, and the Cantata Singers, conducted by David Hoose, in Boston’s Jordan Hall; A Sibyl was performed at the opening concert of the Florida State University Festival of New Music.

The Cantata Singers rehearsed in a hall in a suburb called Melrose:

which did not come close to the gorgeous acoustic of Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory:

Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture with Peggy, but here I am with David Hoose and an oddly glowing stage behind us:

I had time to do a few other things while in Boston, including my first visit to the Gardner Museum in many years:

 

 

 

 

May I say that the food at the cafe was excellent:

On Friday I heard my first Boston Symphony concert in Symphony Hall (having previously only heard them at Tanglewood):

 

 

The orchestra sounded fabulous as did pianist Martin Helmchen. The Saariaho was consistent with my impressions of much of her work – very beautiful and a little too static for my taste. The Sibelius symphonies continue to baffle me and doing two in a row didn’t help much. The famous acoustics of Symphony Hall actually seemed to me to be a little too rich – good for the Saariaho and Sibelius, but a little blurry for the Mozart.

I lingered in Boston to attend an Emmanuel Music celebration of John Harbison’s 80th birthday. It was good to have another chance to hear his Sixth Quartet, and the evening also included a set of John’s pop songs, with the composer at the piano.

In Florida, the featured guest composer was Georg Friedrich Haas, and I heard a number of his pieces throughout the festival. The music struck me as uneven, severe at times and sensuous at others, a strange mix of fascinating and dull.

My own work, the song cycle A Sibyl was performed by soprano Marcía Porter, and and ensemble of faculty and grad students, with Alexander Jiménez conducting. One festival highlight was a concert by the Meitar Ensemble – guests visiting from Israel – who offered a blazing performance of Grisey’s Talea among other works.

I’m grateful to all who made these performances of my music possible. Next on the schedule is a premiere with the Imani Winds, on February 15 in Philadelphia.