Songs for Adam

“If there’s anything out there like Primosch’s Songs for Adam, I haven’t heard it – though the music wears its singularity lightly, with no need to express itself radically. It has a confidence of expression that comes of Primosch’s having written a steady stream of song cycles since the late 1990s. Composers are still drawing legitimate inspiration from poets of the increasingly distant past, such as Walt Whitman, but Primosch pushes both himself and thus his listeners onto new ground with Susan Stewart’s verse, which are called songs in their printed version because they suggest music, especially in the first poem, in which Adam is stuttering his way into existence.

Both poet and composer share an ability to contemplate how basic elements of existence might feel for the first time, and the duo know how to capture that in their respectively cultivated vocabularies, with an emotional rightness that never becomes too analytical.

In fact, Primosch enters the Korngold zone when describing Adam’s intoxication with the word. Though words are set dramatically and in ways that are well written for the voice, the best moments are in the masterly orchestration, which gives an extra percussive spark to moments of discovery and unflinchingly confronts the agony of Adam’s expulsion from Eden.

The pale strings capture his disappointment in the real world in an overall dramatic arc that’s almost epic, going from the unimaginable (the beauty of Eden) to the unthinkable (the world’s first children, Abel and Cain, and the world’s first fratricide).”

-David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2010


“As with the 2002 premiere of his From a Book of Hours, [Songs forAdam is the work of a skilled melodist and orchestrator.”

-Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times, October 31, 2009


“The Chicago Symphony performed Primosch’s From a Book of Hours in 2002, and that setting of Rainer Maria Rilke poems motivated the orchestra’s administration to sign up the American composer for another commission. This time Primosch chose a living poet, Susan Stewart, who penned six settings for the cycle. Her words are simple, but varied in expression, at times impressionistic, evolving from child-like simplicity to romantic yearning, wry irony, and despair.

Songs for Adam is scored for solo baritone and large orchestra with Brobdingnagian percussion (including vibraphone, crotales, bell-tree, temple blocks, two tam-tams, etc.). Yet Primosch releases the full fury of his vast forces only in a few places, and much of the scoring is strikingly luminous and transparent.

The first song depicts Adam’s stammer as he learns to “open his mouth to sing.” Ensuing sections reflect his naming of objects in the world, and his discovery and longing for Eve. The fourth setting is more dramatic, painting the expulsion from the garden. A melancholy exile follows, and the cycle concludes with a lamentation on Abel’s murder also noting the violence that continues down through the centuries.

Primosch has a real gift for vocal writing, and his predominantly tonal style skillfully reflects the texts, with a striking variety of expression in this 30-minute work. In addition to Davis’s superb direction and the first-rate playing of the CSO, much of the success for this premiere is due to the sterling advocacy of Brian Mulligan. The young baritone possesses a burnished, evenly produced instrument and his sensitive singing and exemplary diction made the greatest possible case for Primosch’s cycle. Mulligan brought impassioned fervor to the names, a sense of romantic yearning to the fourth setting and just the right sense of desolate expression with a ray of hope to the coda.

This was not quite the world premiere of Songs for Adam, since four of the six songs were “previewed” by the Civic Orchestra in March (isn’t that the same as “performed”?). The scale of the orchestration may mitigate against future performances in this cost-conscious era, but Primosch’s Songs for Adam is a rich-textured, moving and effective song-cycle that deserves to be heard. The audience clearly enjoyed the new work as well, enthusiastically applauding the composer and poet along with the musicians.”

-Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review – October 30, 2009


” …there was the world premiere of James Primosch’s intriguing and beautiful new song cycle, “Songs for Adam,” to lift the evening beyond the ordinary.

It’s unusual for an orchestra to commission both the music and poetry for a vocal work, but that’s what the CSO did when it invited Primosch, a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, and Susan Stewart, a prize-winning poet and English professor at Princeton, to create a sequel to Primosch’s 2002 song cycle, “From a Book of Hours,” which the CSO also commissioned and premiered.

The six poems follow the biblical story of Adam, from his first stammering words to the creation of Eve to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden to a meditation on the death of Abel. Stewart’s poetic imagery — simple yet elusive, given to repetition and internal rhymes — melds comfortably with Primosch’s lyrical, essentially tonal harmonic grammar. The vocal writing for baritone ranges from introspective musings to angry declamation, bestriding a large orchestra that is used with acute subtlety, sensitivity and evocative instrumental color, never covering the singer.

I cannot imagine a more compelling interpreter than Brian Mulligan, a young American baritone who has sung with the Metropolitan and San Francisco operas. He brought a burnished, pliant sound and gripping expressive penetration to the cycle. Especially memorable was the poignant regret of the final song, violins dying away softly, leaving the last notes to the singer. Davis and the orchestra surrounded the vocal part with telling atmospheric detail. Primosch and Stewart were present to share in the audience’s warm reception.”

-John Van Rhein, Chicago Tribune, October 31, 2009

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