Houston’s new music group Musiqa has programmed my Short Stories for saxophone quartet on their October 1 concert. Go here for info, and go here to hear Musiqa’s Anthony Brandt talk with Houston Public Media’s Joshua Zinn about the concert. Here’s my program note on the piece:

My title was suggested by a volume of stories by Sam Shepard that my wife gave me as a Christmas gift. I wanted to emulate that collection by writing a set of brief, powerfully characterized musical narratives that shared some common themes while contrasting highly in expressive type. The tales told here are, by turns, reflective, manic, declamatory, and ebullient, with the opening reflective music recurring in various guises to bind the set together. Written at the request of the Prism Quartet, the composition of Short Stories was supported by a Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

There was a terrific concert last night presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: music by Philip Maneval and Richard Wernick as played by the Daedalus Quartet and pianist Charles Abramovic. This was, as Miles Cohen, the Society’s artistic director put it in his pre-concert remarks, the “exclamation point” to last season’s celebration of the Society’s 30th anniversary, with the impetus being the presentation of music by Philip, the executive director of the Society. Philip suggested adding music by Richard Wernick to the program; Dick was  one of Philip’s teachers when studying at Penn, and the Society has long championed Dick’s music with commissions and performances.

Philip’s pieces – a piano sonata and a string quartet – were both substantial multi-movement works. I was particularly taken with the piano piece, not least because of the superb playing of Charles Abramovic: exquisitely balanced chords, a multitude of colors, the long line of the piece elegantly projected. It’s interesting to compare Philip’s compositional voice with that of his teacher. Both are working with a mostly dissonant post-tonal vocabulary, made coherent by the careful deployment of referential harmonies and motifs. But their gestural languages contrast. Philip’s voice is more rhapsodic, more directly related to older musics, while Dick tends to be more terse, with sharply etched shapes contrasting with lyrical music that often springs from an uncanny stillness. The music of both men is superbly crafted, and richly satisfying.

The Daedalus was its usual shining self in Philip’s new string quartet, and quartet members Min-Young Kim and Thomas Kraines joined Abramovic for a sizzling performance of Dick’s Piano Trio Nr. 2. (I linked to a video of the trio in this post.) The characterful epigrams of Pieces of Eight, a set of brief piano pieces by Dick, rounded out the program. It was nice to see a full house in the Curtis Institute’s Field Hall to celebrate the Society and two eloquent composers.

I have lately been demonstrating Robert Benchley’s observation about productivity in that I have a commission for a work for oboe and piano quartet, but instead I have been writing songs (click here and here) for which I do not have a commission. The latest is a setting of Christina Rossetti’s Sleeping at Last. I used some of the sketches for this song in my recent piece for saxophone quartet and piano, Stratigraphy, but it is more a matter of shared motifs and phrases, rather than the one being a strict transcription of the other. You can see a page from the piece on the score excerpts page, and like all the voice and piano songs there (except Cinder from Holy the Firm), it is available as a PDF directly from me: jamesprimosch at gmail dot com.

I think I have got this series of songs out of my system, and will now try to focus exclusively on the commission mentioned above, for oboist Peggy Pearson and her colleagues in the La Fenice ensemble.

“I want to sing with my spirit and with my mind as well”
– 1 Corinthians, 14:15

paul-mosaic-ravenna-275x272x72OK, so Paul was writing about liturgy, not composition.* But the equilibrium he seeks is one for which I strive as a composer. I’ve sat through too many new pieces that favored one element and neglected the other. The sweet spot is going to vary for different pieces, different composers. But some kind of balance we must seek.

*) Of course, it is good advice about liturgy as well, and not always followed, in my experience.

BBC Music Magazine recently posted a list of “Forgotten Piano Concertos”, and most of them are news to me. But I want to supplement the list with some concertos by American composers that very much deserve greater attention.

Richard Wernick’s Piano Concerto was written for Lambert Orkis and recorded for Bridge with the composer conducting Symphony II, an ensemble originated by musicians from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s orchestra. There are exceedingly few American composers who are not underappreciated, but Wernick’s tautly constructed and passionately heartfelt music truly should be more widely recognized. Lambert Orkis is best known as a superb chamber musician, but acquits himself brilliantly as a concerto soloist, and Symphony II is highly impressive. The piece is not on YouTube, but the following offers a sample of a recent Wernick chamber work.

Richard Goode is one of our most distinguished pianists in the standard repertoire, but earlier in his career he played and recorded several pieces by the late George Perle, including his Concertino for Piano, Winds and Timpani, and the Serenade Nr. 3 for piano and orchestra. Along with Perle’s solo Ballade, these pieces were recorded by Goode for Nonesuch, with Gerard Schwarz conducting his Music Today Ensemble. That album is available through Arkiv Music, but the Serenade performance was re-issued on a two-disc Bridge compendium of Perle’s music, along with a recording of the Concerto No. 2 with Michael Boriskin and the Utah Symphony under Joseph Silverstein that was originally released on Harmonia Mundi. Perle was a leading music theorist, explicating a variety of 20th century musics, with special emphasis on the Second Viennese School, but he should be no less renowned for his compositions. His piano writing is always attractive, with plenty of lyricism, but, most characteristically, fleet toccata-like textures. (Previously I wrote about Perle’ piano music here.) I nominate the Serenade No. 3 for revival. Here is the first movement:

Melinda Wagner’s Extremity of Sky is a piano concerto that was written for Emmanuel Ax. This is a grandly-scaled four-movement work by a master of the orchestral medium. The piano writing is no less eloquent, idiomatic but fresh, and harmonically rich, with perhaps some Messiaen influence. The slow movement, contemplative and dramatic by turns, is deeply touching. The piece is not yet commercially recorded, but as an example of her music, here is the opening movement of her Trombone Concerto:

Pianist Robert Miller died much too young, cutting short a career devoted to new music of many varieties, from Babbitt to Crumb, and including a 1978 Piano Concerto by the then 40-year old John Harbison. The piece was recorded for CRI with Miller, and the American Composers Orchestra, with Gunther Schuller conducting. Re-issued on CD by CRI as part of a disc of several early Harbison pieces, the album is now available through New World Records. Harbison’s concerto is one of the pieces that marked his turn toward a more direct and open idiom, sometimes characterized as neo-romantic, though jazz, Bach, and Stravinsky are perhaps more fundamental to his musical interests. The Concerto is not on YouTube, but as a sample of his orchestral writing, here is a later work, the Symphony No. 2.

I could continue this list for a while, with pieces by Peter Lieberson and Christopher Rouse among many others. Suggestions in the comments for additional pieces are, of course, welcome.

5f5b9a_8e64c22fa694466da99115b6f8fa0321A little over a year ago, the Tanglewood concert that began with my Dark the Star continued with an all-too-rare performance of Dallapiccola’s Concerto per la notte di Natale dell’anno 1956, for soprano and a chamber orchestra of 17 players. John Harbison ably conducted, and the extraordinary soprano was Suzanne Rigden. Thanks to her formidable musicianship and gleaming voice, Dallapiccola’s angular lyricism came across powerfully. I’ve stayed in touch with Suzanne, and next month she will be giving the first performance of a set of songs for soprano and piano that I completed this summer. Her recital will be September 18 in Sherbrooke, Canada at the Maison d’opéra et de concerts à Sherbrooke (Québec) Plymouth Trinity United Church, 380 Rue Durrerin, and her pianist will be Francis Perron.

Like the Dallapiccola, my new set works with sacred texts, in this case a group of traditional songs in English. Three Folk Hymns is based on some familiar tunes: What Wondrous Love Is This?, Be Thou My Vision, and How Can I Keep From Singing? There is a somewhat complicated history that led to the version of the settings that Suzanne will premiere. I originally wrote an arrangement of How Can I Keep From Singing? in connection with a 1996 concert of my music at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The soprano was Christine Schadeberg, and I played the piano part. I later made a flute, harp, and voice version of that arrangement, along with versions of Be Thou My Vision and Wondrous Love, but the piano settings are preferable to the trio versions. I also used Be Thou My Vision as the theme for the variation set that closes my A Flutist’s Sketchbook (flute and piano, 2012) and I incorporated some material from that instrumental piece in my recent piano and voice arrangement. My first plan for Wondrous Love was to draw upon some material from my organ piece, Meditation on What Wondrous Love Is This?, and I tried that in the trio version, but this recently completed arrangement with piano seemed to call for its own gestures.

There are sample pages for all three of the Folk Hymns available on this page. No need to do the entire set if you want to program just one or two of the arrangements. Be in touch (jamesprimosch at gmail dot com) if you’d like to purchase PDFs of any or all of these.

If you are an artist the problem is to make a picture work whether you are happy or not.

-Willem de Kooning, from Modern Artists in America, edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt; quoted in de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.

Unknown-3I’ve greatly enjoyed reading this splendid biography over the past few weeks. The book is more than a highly detailed picture of a life that stretched from Rotterdam to Manhattan to eastern Long Island; it offers a history of American Art in the mid-20th century. de Kooning’s life rotated around painting, women (you may need a sizable scorecard to keep track), and alcohol. Like all good scholarship about the arts, the book makes you want to re-engage with the artist’s work. The book includes some color reproductions, as well as good commentary about a number of individual pieces.

I remember fondly a de Kooning show at the Whitney in the mid ’80s, but was saddened to read it described in the book as “poorly selected… packed tightly into claustrophobic rooms…” It was an overwhelming show, and not necessarily in a good sense. But you do want to remember the big artistic experiences of your student days as being uniformly splendid – yet another way of fooling yourself, I guess.

UnknownThe book got me  thinking about what it would mean to write music that speaks, as de Kooning’s work does, in the languages of both cubism and expressionism, both figuration and abstraction. How to write music that somehow manages to be exquisitely crafted, yet always askew?  As Stevens and Swan write:

…that unstable quality was also one sought by de Kooning. “It all fits real good, don’t you think?” de Kooning once asked his assistant Tom Ferrara, who was with him from 1980 to 1987, as they stood before a painting. “Fantastic,” said Ferrara. “That’s the whole problem,” de Kooning answered. “There’s no contradictions.”

Wolpe comes to mind as an artist comparable to de Kooning, not only in outward circumstances (an immigrant who came to New York City), but in his goals, writing a kind of abstract expressionist music, yet never choosing a purist path, preferring to be inclusive, whether it be the figure and landscape in de Kooning or jazz in Wolpe. Find one of my favorite examples of Wolpe’s work here; the de Kooning Foundation’s home page, with images of his work, is here. One of my favorite de Koonings is Ruth’s Zowie.

Melanie Monios, the assistant director for special programming at the Museum of Modern Art, passed along some pictures from the recent Summergarden performance of my String Quartet Nr. 3. The photographer was Will Ragozzino.

The members of the Cavatina Quartet (left to right): Randall Goosby, Mariella Haubs, Jia Kim (guest artist) and Jameel Martin. Thanks to the splendid players and to Melanie – the concert was a wonderful experience.

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