Opera News on “Sacred Songs”

A review by Joshua Rosenblum of my Sacred Songs album has appeared on the Opera News website. It’s only available for subscribers, so I’ll just offer a few quotes here:

“Primosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama…”

“Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation…”

“Baritone William Sharp uses his resonant, authoritative voice to provide a gripping, inexorable build…” [in the song cycle Dark the Star]

Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross.  Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.”

“These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple… Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment.”

All-American Piano

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There was an exceptionally warm and focused audience at last night’s recital at Penn. Linda Reichert and I offered an all-American program that bound together various programming threads – besides the American angle, there were three Philadelphia composers (Primosch, Levinson, and Persichetti); we heard French musical thought filtered through American voices (Levinson, Copland); and experienced the contrast of stream of consciousness (Persichetti) and aphoristic (Harbison) modes of expression.

I thought Linda did a great job on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, with the slow movement called “Nocturnal Obsessions” being a highlight: subtly pedaled, exquisitely balanced (on a not terribly friendly piano), full of atmosphere and Chopin-esque languor.

It was a thrill for me to share the Copland Sonata with my listeners, especially such attentive ones – there was a nearly uncanny quiet in the room during the very soft passages in the finale of the Copland. The piece has its technical challenges, but it is not as pianistically difficult as some of the other great American sonatas (including Barber, Ives, Carter, Rochberg, Wernick, Harbison…). However, I find the emotional intensity of the Copland draining, intense in both its breadth and depth of feeling. The short movements of the Harbison – wry, cryptic, droll, graceful, brusque – offered a welcome contrast with the high drama of Copland’s long-lined narrative.

Now I really must finish up the little piece I am doing for Network’s April 4 Harbison concert so I can attend to my commission from The Crossing – blogging is going to stay infrequent for a while, folks…

Above, I am at the Steinway. Here are Linda and myself after the show (too bad iPhoto can’t do anything to make my sport coat lay flat):

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“Amazing” to-do list

Hard to believe it’s already been a week since I got back from my trip to Boston. I should have made more progress by now with the two tasks at the top of my to-do list:

– The first is to finish my piece for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert here in Philadelphia. This is part of what I have been calling their HarbFest, a week of concerts and other events devoted to the music of John Harbison. Network has commissioned a few new pieces for the April 4 program, all based on American folk tunes that John used in his chamber work Songs American Loves to Sing. That set will be heard, as well as new music by Anna Weesner, Terell Stafford, Bobby Zankel, and Uri Caine and myself. Harbison will join with trumpeter Stafford and students from Temple University to play some jazz tunes at the concert.

My piece is called Meditation on ‘Amazing Grace‘. I am using the tune in minor, with the notes of the melody treated as dissonant color tones above the accompaniment, rather than sounding the notes of the tonic triad. For example, the first two notes of the tune (in b-flat minor) are F-natural and B-flat, but these are harmonized with a G dominant seventh. The tune is played by muted trumpet, while piano and contrabass provide a long-ringing, floating accompaniment.

– While I wrap up that project, I need to keep up my practicing at the piano, for my half-recital (a program shared with Linda Reichert) at Penn is coming up on Feb. 26. I’ll be playing the Copland Sonata, Harbison’s Leonard Stein Anagrams, and, together with Linda, Gerald Levinson‘s work for piano four-hands, Morning Star. Linda will play the Philadelphia premiere of my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and Vincent Persichetti‘s Winter Solstice. While I’ve already written about Contraption, I will try to offer some thoughts on the other pieces in the coming weeks.

Copland Connotations

4179CYVP33L._SY346_I am currently practicing the Copland Piano Sonata in preparation for a performance later this season, so I was interested to see a volume of Copland essays by various authors from about 10 years ago on the shelf at Penn’s library. Copland Connotations is edited by Peter Dickinson, a British composer, pianist, scholar, and champion of American music in general and Copland in particular. As with most such collections, the essays are a mixed bag. In his piece on “Copland and the ‘Jazz Boys'” David Schiff is quite frank about the composer’s condescension toward and even ignorance about jazz. Though a couple of early pieces by Copland are supposedly jazz inspired, Copland’s idea of jazz seems derived from the novelty piano pieces of Zez Confrey (“Kitten on the Keys”) as much or more than Armstrong or Ellington. Other worthwhile essays exploring points of contact between Copland and popular musics include a piece by William Brooks on the many lives of “Simple Gifts”, and Stephen Banfield on “Copland and the Broadway Sound”. Essays by Mark DeVoto on Copland and his fellow students of Boulanger, and Vivian Perlis on Copland and pianist John Kirkpatrick are more anecdotal, but still intriguing. Arnold Whittall’s piece on the Piano Fantasy comes the closest of anything in the book to being a serious analysis of a Copland piece, but is more descriptive than analytical.

Remarkable to say, you can see the sketches for the Copland Sonata online here.

Easter Tuesday Miscellany

After a break for the Easter Triduum, I am back with a few random bits:

– I found this quite moving. I wish more folks who do liturgy showed this kind of sensitivity and imagination.

– Have been listening to this. These are complete versions of the ballets. If you only know the suite, some of the parts you don’t know in Appalachian Spring are unexpectedly edgy. The complete Rodeo is not much different from the Four Episodes, and it is inspired throughout, unlike Billy the Kid, which has some vacant pages. Dance Panels sounds a little dated, unlike the earlier ballets.

-upcoming in Philly:

– Dolce Suono Ensemble presents an intriguing program at Trinity Center this Friday, April 13, including two works by Shulamit Ran. (Go here and scroll down.)

– Network for New Music offers a premiere by Matthew Greenbaum called Rope and Chasm – a work for video and soprano – Sunday, April 15 at 7:30 in Rock Hall at Temple University. A preview:

Mood Nocturne

There is a saying attributed to Aaron Copland that “If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.”

One such literary man is the distinguished poet Edward Hirsch. In his book “The Demon and the Angel”, a collection of brief essays on artistic inspiration, Hirsch writes as follows about the Louis Armstrong masterpiece “West End Blues”: “One feels the duende, for example, in the mood nocturne of Louis Armstrong’s celebrated “West End Blues”, which he recorded with the Hot Fives in 1928.” Hot Fives? Each member was a “five”? Well, that’s not exactly a musical error, simply a copy editing problem. But you tell me what a “mood nocturne” is. What’s more mystifying is the description of the opening cadenza: “It takes a mere twelve seconds and consists of four notes that feel like a clarion call rising out of Armstrong’s rough-and-tumble past, an orphanhood.” What could Hirsch possibly mean by “it consists of four notes”? Maybe he is referring to the opening four notes, which group together by virtue of their equal duration? At least Hirsch can count the choruses in the piece. He writes of how the cadenza is “followed by an odd kind of ensemble chorus” (what is odd about it?) “and then a chorus of trombone.” OK, so that’s two choruses. Hirsch then quotes Wilfred Mellers, who writes that “After the first chorus, however, Armstrong does not play trumpet, instead he scat-sings” (why the hyphen? perhaps a Britishism?) “in duologue” (dialog(ue) isn’t good enough for you?) “with [the] clarinet.” The “duologue” is, of course, the third chorus, not the second. Perhaps Mellers meant that after playing on the first chorus, Armstrong, on his next appearance, does not play trumpet…

Hirsch is right to honor Armstrong alongside Lorca and Rilke, and his reflections throughout the book are intense and beautiful. But why can’t the details be more precise when it comes to music? Or are there similar problems with his writing about poetry?

I came upon this passage the same week that a piece on André Aciman’s “Eight White Nights” in the New York Times Book Review describes a character in the novel as “listening raptly to one of Alexander Siloti’s Bach transpositions.” (Probably the Prelude in B Minor.) I suppose points should be granted that somebody (it’s not clear if the error is the reviewer’s or the novelist’s) knew about Siloti’s arrangements of Bach, but shouldn’t a copy editor have caught the fact that what was meant was a Bach transcription, not transposition?