Matins in Boston, A Sibyl in Tallahassee

Two significant performances of my vocal music are coming up in the next several weeks:

  • The Cantata Singers are reviving my Matins later this month, a piece for oboe, strings and chorus that they co-commissioned along with Winsor Music 15 years ago. (This is just the second performance of the piece; here’s hoping somebody takes up the piece for its third performance sooner than 2033.) The fabulous Peggy Pearson, who has been a wonderful champion of my music, commissioning and performing my Oboe Quartet and Oboe Quintet, will be the soloist. I first got to know Peggy and her playing through her work with Emmanuel Music, with whom she masterfully plays the prominent oboe parts in the Bach cantatas performed at Emmanuel Church. Matins, which sets poems of Hopkins and Mary Oliver, will be heard at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, with David Hoose conducting, January 25 at 8 pm. I will give a pre-concert lecture on the whole program, which includes the Bartók Divertimento and the Pärt Te Deum, at 7 pm.
  • A Sibyl, my song cycle on texts written expressly for the project by Susan Stewart, will be on the first concert of the 2019 Florida State University Festival of New Music on January 31. Among the splendid musicians performing my piece are soprano soloist Marcia Porter, conductor Alexander Jiménez, Deborah Bish, clarinet; Nina Kim, violin; Evan Jones, cello;  Justin Ball, percussion; a flutist whose name I don’t yet know; and pianist Heidi Louise Williams, who is at the keyboard for the recent Albany cd featuring my music, Vocalisms, with Mary Mackenzie, soprano. It was Mary who was soloist in the premiere of A Sibyl, performed by Collage New Music and conducted by David Hoose – funny how threads of connection weave together in this business.

“A Sibyl” at MoMA

I’ll be heading to NYC soon for rehearsals and a performance of A Sibyl, my cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble on texts by Susan Stewart. This will be on Sunday, July 8 at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of their Summergarden series. The concert is at 8 pm and admission is free. The performers are members of the New Juilliard Ensemble, with Joel Sachs conducting. The soloist will be Anneliese Klenetsky.

I wrote here and here about A Sibyl in connection with the premiere last fall with Mary Mackenzie and Collage New Music, conducted by David Hoose.

That’s the Sibyl of Cumae from the Sistine Chapel above.

Reviews from Boston

Nothing from the Globe so far, but the Boston Musical Intelligencer had reviewers at both the Collage and Winsor concerts from last Sunday. From Mark DeVoto’s review of the A Sibyl premiere:

Rich expressiveness that cries out for more performances infused all of these intense but not expansive poems. Other groups should take note of this gratifying premiere.

More on “A Sibyl”

  • David Hoose speaks about the Collage New Music season, including this Sunday’s concert, featuring the premiere of A Sibyl, in this Boston Musical Intelligencer interview.
  • There are a number of YouTube videos featuring soprano Mary Mackenzie, who will be the soloist for A Sibyl. These include several of my own music. Here’s Mary singing two songs with pianist Heidi Louise Williams; the first is on a text by Susan Scott Thompson, the second sets words by Susan Orlean.

Mary and Heidi have recorded these songs and several others for a CD to be released later this season on Albany Records.

  • here are some excerpts from Sacred Songs and Meditations, a big set of vocal and instrumental pieces based on plainchant and other ancient melodies. The ensemble is the 21st Century Consort led by Christopher Kendall, with members of the Folger Consort and choirs of the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C.

  • Read about Susan Stewart, author of the texts for A Sibyl, here and here. Susan published a volume of new and selected poems this year, entitled Cinder. The title poem is the first of her texts that I set, some 18 years ago. Listen to Susan Narucki sing it, again with the 21st Century Consort and Christopher Kendall.

“A Sibyl” Premieres in Boston

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the Sibyl of Cumae in the Sistine Chapel

Written on a Fromm Foundation commission, A Sibyl is a cycle of six songs on texts by Susan Stewart, whose poetry I have set in several other pieces – Holy the Firm, Dark the Star, and Songs for Adam. Susan wrote the poems specifically for this new project. Collage New Music will premiere the piece at the Longy School in Cambridge, MA on October 15, 2017 at 3 pm. (There will be a pre-concert chat at 2 pm.) Mary Mackenzie will be the soprano soloist and David Hoose will conduct. Here’s my program note on the piece:

When I asked my friend Susan Stewart to write a set of poems for a new work for soprano, she responded with reflections on the mysterious prophetess spoken of in Virgil and Ovid. The sibyl sings of her prophecies written on leaves, and of how the god possesses her; she warns Aeneas before his descent to the underworld; she celebrates the moon. Having been granted eternal life, but failing to ask for eternal youth, she is reduced to no more than her voice. I understand the sibyl as an archetype of the musician who sings for us of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love; who guides us in moonlit and shadowy places; and whose prophetic voice resounds unendingly, in power, and in vulnerability.

A Sibyl was written for Collage New Music on a commission from the Fromm Music Foundation. I am grateful to the Foundation, to Collage, and to Mary Mackenzie for making this work possible, and to Susan Stewart for words to sing.

Mary has performed many pieces of mine, and she recorded Sacred Songs and Meditations with the 21st Century Consort, led by Christopher Kendall.

She has also recorded a big 2-CD collection of songs by various composers with pianist Heidi Williams that will include four pieces of mine, to be released on Albany later this season.

Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa published an interview with me on the Collage website – I talk there about working with Susan’s poetry and my history with Collage.

 

“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.