xakbjerken-al-cropped-200x154Pianist Xak Bjerken offers recent music by Hartke, Stucky, Salonen, Jones, as well as classics by Debussy and Scriabin in a recital at Penn this coming Wednesday, October 19. The free 8 pm program is in Rose Recital Hall, located on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, at the corner of 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia.

I saw Xak play the Stucky Sonata at a memorial for Steve last season, and it was an intensely moving performance. Here’s the complete lineup:

Images, Book II – Claude Debussy
Post-Modern Homages, Set II – Stephen Hartke
Sonata for Piano – Steven Stucky
Iscrizione per un amico – Esa-Pekka Salonen
The Flames of the Sun Make the Desert Flower Hysterical – Stephen Hartke
Ephemera – Jesse Jones
Sonata No. 9, op. 68 “Black Mass” – Alexander Scriabin

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Francis Poulenc: Music for Piano (1918-1959). Aleck Karis, piano.

Pierre Boulez: Complete Music for Solo Piano. Marc Ponthus, piano.

Yes, both composers are French, but they couldn’t occupy more contrasting places on the aesthetic spectrum. What’s consistent across these two albums is the high quality of the piano playing. Ponthus commands the extremes of Boulez’s piano writing with dazzling and heroic virtuosity. No heroism is called for by Poulenc, but the many short movements of these pieces do require deft characterization, only possible with Karis’s command of subtle and varied nuances.

Almost all of the 8 pieces on the Poulenc album were new to me, the one exception being the Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. The big pieces here were the most intriguing – a set of Fifteen Improvisations dating form 1933-59 and a Thème Varié from 1951. There’s more variety and weight to this music than just the charming cocktail piano of the Mouvements Perpétuels. (I used to play those as part of my piano bar repertoire.)

I’m afraid the astounding brilliance of Marc Ponthus’s playing did not change me into a big Boulez fan. I find the relatively late Incises (in its 2001 version) and the very early Douze Notations (1945) to be more attractive than the three sonatas. The shattered narrative of the Third Sonata – like handfuls of multi-colored glass shards – simply doesn’t sustain my interest. The Second Sonata has become something of a repertoire piece, but if you are looking to program a big mid-century atonal piano sonata I would suggest the Sessions 3rd, Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, Wolpe’s Battle Piece (a sonata in all but name), or, dating from a little later, the Wuorinen 2nd, or the two sonatas of Richard Wernick (only the First seems to be on YouTube), all much less widely played works that appeal to me more than the Boulez sonatas.


But it’s not about the joy, it’s about the work, and there has to be some kind of joy in the work, some kind from among the many kinds, including the joy of hard truths told honestly. Carpenters don’t say, I’m just not feeling it today, or I don’t give a damn about this staircase and whether people fall through it; how you feel is something that you cannot take too seriously on your way to doing something, and doing something is a means of not being stuck in how you feel. That is, there’s a kind of introspection that’s wallowing and being stuck, and there’s a kind that gets beyond that into something more interesting and then maybe takes you out into the world or into the place where deepest interior and cosmological phenomena are at last talking to each other.

You really should read the whole thing, an inspiring and wise list of 10 tips from Rebecca Solnit on how to be a writer that I came across on Literary Hub. “Deepest interior and cosmological phenomena…talking to each other” is pretty much what I am hoping set in motion as an artist.

There are many books and essays on the practice of being a writer or on being a visual artist, but there is not as much out there specifically on being a composer, so those of us who push notes around have to find nourishment where we can. Among the places I’ve found support are books by David Bayles and Ted OrlandAnne LaMott, and Annie Dillard.

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.