Voices from the Morning of the Earth

Complete George Crumb Edition, Volume 17: Voices from the Morning of the Earth (American Songbook VI); An Idyll for the Misbegotten; The Sleeper. Bridge Records 9445. George Crumb’s profoundly American compositional voice is perfectly suited to the tunes and texts that form the basis of his huge American Songbook cycle, based on folk tunes of all kinds (plus a couple of folk-like tunes of his own devising) and scored for one or two solo voices, percussion quartet, and amplified piano. Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, has this repertoire deep in its bones, and all of Crumb’s meticulously detailed effects are realized with exquisite care. While baritone Randall Scarlata sings with affecting beauty, it’s the composer’s daughter Ann Crumb who is even more captivating with her highly characterful singing. Ann and pianist Marcantonio Barone offer a reading of Crumb’s Poe setting, The Sleeper that is full of misty atmosphere, and flutist Rachel Rudich, alongside three percussionists, is eloquent in the Idyll. It was surely no simple matter to capture for recording both the barely discernible rumbles and tremendous bass drum thwacks of this piece. The uncommonly wide dynamic range of Crumb’s music benefits greatly from the capabilities of digital sound.

With the country in the midst of both political and ecological catastrophes, the mournful songs that Crumb draws upon (the texts include dying children, cowboys, lovers, solidiers, and the dead in general), enveloped in the ghostly resonances of Crumb’s sound-world, struck me as especially poignant.

“A Sibyl”, Wagner, and Chopin

I wasn’t teaching at my day job this summer for the first time in a while, so I had a little more time than usual – but the unbridgeable gap between what one hopes to accomplish and what actually happens remained wide. Still, a few things got done.

The most important task accomplished was completing A Sibyl, my Fromm commission for Collage New Music. This is a cycle on texts by Susan Stewart that she wrote specifically for the project, and is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Mary Mackenzie will be the soloist. I estimate the piece will run about 25 minutes. There are six songs, setting poems that build on what can be found in Virgil and Ovid about the mysterious figure of the Cumaean Sibyl in somewhat the way Susan built her texts for my Songs for Adam (a work for baritone and orchestra) upon the Biblical stories. Collage has set the premiere of A Sibyl for the afternoon of October 15, the same day Emmanuel Music will do a motet of mine in the morning at Emmanuel Church, and Winsor Music will do my recent quintet for oboe and piano quartet in the evening. Three performances in Greater Boston in a single day is an amazing trifecta of good luck – more details to follow.

I spent many summer hours at the piano, working on the B-flat minor Scherzo of Chopin and playing through the piano score of Die Walküre. On the basis of playing that score, I can confirm a few things you already knew about the Wagner: yes, it really is very long;  yes, if you had a dollar for every diminished seventh chord in the piece you could retire today, and yes, the harmony in the Todesverkündigung is impossibly gorgeous. What I had not realized is how many passages throughout the opera are essentially recitative of a relatively straightforward kind – the “endless melody” you read about in your undergrad music history textbook is not quite so endless as Wagner fools us into thinking.

I still get bothered by the amount of literal repetition in the Chopin Scherzi; I suppose I wish the pieces were actually four more ballades. At least there is less literal repetition in the B-flat minor than in the B-minor, the other one I have practiced. Much of my time was spent on baffling questions of fingering – when it is better to stretch, when to cross…  Fingering remains a mystery to me – I often don’t realize when I am doing something unnecessarily awkward, or don’t see what could be a viable alternative. The cliché about the easiest fingering not necessarily being the best fingering is not terribly helpful when “easiest” and “best” seem to be moving targets that shift from day to day. Pianistic issues aside, engaging with pieces by playing them is essential nourishment for me – as a composer, but also as a person, and I was glad to have a little more time for that nourishment over this past summer.

Quartet No. 2 in Chicago

I just found out about this performance: Access Contemporary Music has included my String Quartet No. 2 on a program at the Davis Theater in Chicago on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 7:30 pm. More information here.

The quartet was written for the Cavani Quartet (based at the Cleveland Institute of Music) on a commission from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Here’s a program note on the piece:

String Quartet No. 2 (After Zurbarán)

 The concerts and exhibits of the Cleveland Museum of Art were an important formative influence for me during my student days.  So when the invitation came to create a new work celebrating this institution on its seventy-fifth anniversary, I was not only happy to accept, but knew immediately that I wanted to write a piece that would somehow relate specifically to the museum.  I decided to make the work a reflection on a painting in the museum’s collection: Zurbarán’s The Holy House of Nazareth.  My quartet is not program music in a narrative sense, but rather a kind of meditation that takes its tone from this painting’s remarkable integration of intense affect, mysterious repose and secret geometry.

Besides Zurbarán’s painting, the piece is occupied with a purely musical object of contemplation: the hymn tune “Picardy”, best known with the text Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.  This tune permeates the harmonic and melodic life of the quartet, sometimes appearing in a very simple, straightforward fashion, but often hidden amidst more complex structures.  I was attracted to the melody for its musical qualities, but later realized that the hymn’s text also resonates with the mood of the painting; the words speak of a reverent awe, of “cherubim with sleepless eye”, and of the mystery of the Incarnate Word who must suffer: “King of kings, yet born of Mary…”

And here is the Zurbarán painting:

The Cavani made a splendid recording of the piece for a New World Records cd.

Beethoven and the Daedalus in Philly

The Daedalus Quartet, which is in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, is embarking on a complete Beethoven quartet cycle. It’s hard to believe, but this seems to be the first time all the quartets will be heard in Philly as part of a cycle in a single season. I hope to be at as many of the events as possible, given the very high quality of the Daedalus’s playing and the rare chance to hear all the quartets in fairly close succession. Here’s a trailer, shot in West Philadelphia:

Daedalus Quartet – The Complete Beethoven Quartets from Christopher Andrew McDonald on Vimeo.

It’s a good moment to re-read Joseph Kerman’s book on the quartets, one of my all-time favorite books on music.

Heat Wave Listening

Pretty hot here in Philly, and I am trying to progress on my song cycle for Collage New Music (October 15 premiere!). But still, I am always trying to do some listening. A few discs I’ve heard recently:

Haydn: Piano Sonatas II – Marc-André Hamelin. Hyperion.
It’s a safe bet you don’t have enough Haydn in your life, particularly the piano music. Here’s an excellent way to rectify that deficiency, part of a series of superbly performed and recorded albums by Hamelin surveying the piano sonatas. Known as a hyper-virtuoso, I didn’t find Hamelin’s skills intrusive. The uncannily glassy smoothness of the runs, the exquisitely balanced and articulated chords, the occasional exceptionally fleet tempo- all this seemed to serve the music rather than draw attention to itself. To very roughly generalize: Haydn’s sonatas are about intimacy and wit, rather than being pocket-sized opera arias or concerti, like some of Mozart’s sonatas, or heroically symphonic works like some of Beethoven’s. A tougher sell perhaps, but deeply rewarding.

By the way, at one time Hamelin played new music in a way that he has not for some time – a pity. But I am interested to see that he is releasing an album of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, maybe this portends a repertoire shift.


All Rise – Jason Moran. Blue Note.
Subtitled “A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller”, I felt that this album honors the pop side of Waller’s legacy as much or more than the jazz component, with vocals by Meshell Mdegeocello and arrangements that include virtuosic instrumental work but also have a few moments where, forgive me, the words “smooth jazz” came to mind. Sometimes it felt like he was simply referring to the source material rather than deeply engaging with it. I preferred the edgier moments when Moran’s playing takes flight. The album is brilliantly executed, but the jazz nerd in me prefers Moran albums like Ten and Modernistic.


Notes Aligned in Boston

It’s a little ways off, and I don’t have all the details, but I want to let you know about a happy coincidence has taken shape on my schedule of performances. On the afternoon of October 15, Collage New Music with soprano Mary Mackenzie, will premiere my current project, a song cycle called A Sibyl on Susan Stewart poems, at the the Longy School of Bard College in Cambridge, MA. David Hoose will conduct. And that evening, Winsor Music will present the second performance of my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano, this at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA.

Mary Mackenzie, who has done a fabulous job with my music on several occassions, including this CD, will be the soloist for A Sibyl.

I’ve put in a request with Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music to do one of my motets at Emmanuel Church that morning – maybe there will be three performances of my music in Boston that day!

UPDATE: Ryan has confirmed that he will include my music at Emmanuel’s 10 am service that day – it’s a Primosch festival in Boston!

“Shadow Memory” video

SongFest has posted a video of their June 24 concert that included my song on a Susan Orlean text, Shadow Memory. Go to the SongFest Facebook page, and scroll down to the video posted on June 26. My song begins at about 1:05:30. It’s a fabulous performance, with Bahareh Poureslami, soprano, and Shane McFadden, piano. I used the last paragraph of this Susan Orlean piece for the song’s text. A picture of the program for the concert, listing the all-American repertoire, can be found in the SongFest Facebook photo stream.

Recent Listening

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3; Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2; David Diamond: Symphony No. 4. New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein.
I think most of my students these days don’t know the name Roy Harris. Yet in my own undergraduate days, the Harris Symphony No. 3 was on the syllabus in my 20th century music history class as an example of American symphonic writing. (I think Appalachian Spring was on the list as well, but if you wanted an American symphony, the Harris was the go-to piece, unless you substituted the Copland Third for Appalachian Spring.) The Harris remains convincing, with vivid gestures and an unusual single-movement formal plan. The Thompson is more neo-classical; a little predictable at times, but charming. (Did it really get the enormous number of performances mentioned in the letter to Bernstein I cited here? Bernstein’s advocacy probably helped.) I found the melodic material in the Diamond Fourth to be more compelling than in other works of his that I have heard, with less of the aimless contrapuntal bustle that he can fall into.

Miles Davis Quintet: Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. This is a very strong set offering tunes associated with earlier Davis recordings – Autumn Leaves, So What, Stella by Starlight, and Walkin’ – but from the perspective of a later ensemble, including George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, that treats the material much more freely than Davis’s groups of a few years earlier. It’s certainly trickier to follow the form on this version of Autumn Leaves as compared with the one on the Cannonball Adderly album Somethin’ Else. There’s gorgeous low register open horn playing from Miles on Stella, and a couple of bowed Ron Carter solos, not something I associate with that master. Do I hear passing references to the original version of So What in Coleman’s solo on this piece?

Summer Solstice Miscellany

– my Shadow Memory, a voice and piano song on a text by Susan Orlean, will be performed at 7:30 pm this coming Saturday, June 24, 2017 at SongFest. The concert takes place in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School. Soprano Bahareh Poureslami and pianist Nathan Cheung will perform. You can read more about the piece here and here.

IMG_2336– I went to see the National Orchestral Institute’s concert at the University of Maryland last Saturday. This is a training orchestra, in existence for 30 years now, and the playing is at a very high level. It has to be at that level to take on a program like last Saturday’s: Sun-Treader of Carl Ruggles, Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, and the John Harbison 4th Symphony. David Alan Miller, director of the Albany symphony, conducted. This was a program of pieces that I never expected to hear in person. (I’m afraid there is an awfully long list of very good pieces that fall into that category.) Sun-Treader – not exactly a light-hearted concert opener – sounded rather like a Second Viennese School work in its expressionist grandeur, probably not what Ruggles had in mind, except for the grandeur part. The Stucky Concerto is full of the orchestral brilliance one associates with that composer, but there is emotional heat as well, notably in the big variations set that forms the second movement. John Harbison’s 4th Symphony is in five movements, ranging widely over a varied expressive terrain. It thinks, it’s playful, and in the remarkable Threnody that constitutes the fourth movement, it looks into an abyss. Throughout the piece there is an overarching intelligence, expressed in the unexpected but logical formal shapes.

It was terrifically impressive to hear the young players tackle this challenging program. You will be able to hear for yourself, as the program was recorded for eventual release on Naxos. All praise to David Alan Miller, who continues to be an extraordinary champion of American music – at one point on Saturday, John Harbison referred to him as the Koussevitzky of our time.

Here is John, along with Will Robin, at a pre-concert chat:


– It wasn’t on my summer reading list (that was only a partial list anyway), but I picked up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day at the recommendation of my friend Guthrie Ramsey, and am enjoying it greatly. This is partly for the familiarity of its Philadelphia setting, but more importantly for being touching and funny and thought-provoking. The NY Times review puts it well: “cerebral comedy with pathos.”