“I fixed my eyes on something out there firm…”

Many musicians are offering their performances and compositions online during this time of isolation, so I want to make my small contribution.

Here is a setting of a poem by Susan Scott Thompson called “Waltzing the Spheres”. I first encountered it when I heard it read on a PBS broadcast at the time of 9/11. I knew immediately I wanted to set it, but never got around to it until years later when I set it on a commission from Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest. You can read Lyric Fest artistic director Suzanne DuPlantis’s blog post about the piece here, and the entire poem is posted here.

The crisis we are in feels somewhat like 9/11, so it seems like the right piece to offer now.

I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful singers do the piece. Kiera Duffy (famous for her performance in Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves”) gave the premiere with pianist Laura Ward; Kelly Ann Bixby has performed it; Meredith Lustig sang it on a New York Festival of Song program; and Mary Mackenzie recorded it for her album Vocalisms. Here Mary sings it with pianist Heidi Williams:

It may be at this challenging moment that the best way we can “hold each other closer in the turn” is by keeping our physical distance from one another – at the same time we cling to one another with our hearts.

Vocal Music Highlights

With the announcement that I have received the Virgil Thomson Award for vocal music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I thought it would be a good idea to post about my music for voice, and point out some highlights.

Work titles given as links will take you to either an online perusal score or to the Theodore Presser Company’s webpage for that piece.

You can find all my vocal music listed here (use the links near the top of the page to get to the vocal section) and there are videos and audio clips here.

I think two of my very best pieces in any medium are the two song cycles I wrote for the Chicago Symphony: From a Book of Hours (Rilke texts), and Songs for Adam (Susan Stewart). The Rilke set is for soprano and was premiered by Lisa Saffer, with Antonio Pappano conducting.  The recording on the video/audio page is with Susan Narucki, soprano and Sarah Hicks conducting the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute. Given the near impossibility of any but a very few composers receiving repeat performances of their orchestral music, I made a version of the piece for soprano and chamber ensemble. A recording of that version is on Sacred Songs, a disc of my vocal music on Bridge. Susan Narucki is again featured, with the 21st Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall. Here’s a track from the Rilke cycle:

Songs for Adam is for baritone and orchestra, and was premiered by Brian Mulligan, with Sir Andrew Davis leading the CSO. Susan Stewart, whose poetry I’ve set several times, wrote a set of texts specifically for this project. I’ve started sketching a version for piano quintet, since the original has yet to be performed a second time.

The Sacred Songs cd also includes 3 other pieces for voice and chamber ensemble. I want to mention the baritone cycle on that record. Dark the Star sets texts by Rilke, Susan Stewart, and a psalm verse in a set of nine short movements that play continuously. Here’s a sample, with William Sharp, baritone:

A recent cycle with chamber ensemble was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, and premiered by soprano Mary Mackenzie with Collage New Music in Boston. Called A Sibyl, the texts that Susan Stewart wrote specifically for the project speak of the mysterious prophet-like figure written about in The Aeneid. The ensemble is pierrot ensemble plus percussion.

If I am counting correctly, I have written 29 songs for voice and piano, some grouped into cycles, some independent pieces, and some existing in orchestrated versions with chamber ensemble. I think my most widely performed piece is “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm. This was my first Susan Stewart setting. Mary Mackenzie sings it on Vocalisms, an Albany release, with Heidi Williams, piano:

Vocalisms also includes the complete Holy the Firm, the Three Folk Hymns, and some independent songs. Holy the Firm was written for Dawn Upshaw, and she toured with the cycle and subsequently with “Cinder” as part of a set of pieces by American composers roughly of her generation. I orchestrated Holy the Firm for soprano and chamber ensemble, and Susan Narucki sings it on the Sacred Songs album:

There are two piano and voice sets based on pre-existing melodies. The Three Sacred Songs use chant melodies plus an early Renaissance carol, with Latin texts; the Three Folk Hymns are in English, and use the popular tunes “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, “Be Thou My Vision”, and “What Wondrous Love is This”. Here’s the first of the Folk Hymns, again with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams:

None of these cycles need be performed complete. Excerpts from Holy the Firm beyond “Cinder” can work well; I’ve played piano for performances of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” paired with “Cinder”.

Turning to choral music, I’ve written a number of motets for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday services of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The first, Meditation for Candlemas, on a Denise Levertov text. This is the only a cappella piece of mine that is available from the Theodore Presser Company – contact me directly for any of the others. While several of these short a cappella works are virtuosic in their demands, others would be accessible for high school, college, or community choirs. For example, Alleluia on a Ground was written for the Mendelssohn Club here in Philadelphia, and the recently premiered Wind, Carry Me was written for a choir of high school students. Note that among these motets are some two-voice pieces: one for treble voices – One With the Day, One With the Night, on a Wendell Berry text – and one for male voices – Journey, on a Meister Eckhart text.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory for chorus and orchestra was also written for the Mendelssohn Club, and is featured on a Innova disc. Here is the second movement, setting Denise Levertov’s “Of Rivers”:

I have two other pieces for chorus and instruments. Matins sets texts by Hopkins and Mary Oliver, and was written for the Cantata Singers. The piece calls for a small complement of strings and features a concertante oboe part, written for Peggy Pearson. Set for a premiere next month is a piece based on a Bach chorale, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”. Commissioned by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Bladwin-Wallace University, the piece is scored for chamber chorus and string quartet.

There will be two CDs featuring my vocal music coming out in the next few months. First, The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, has recorded an entire album of my choral music, including the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for the group. This piece interweaves the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems reflecting on the Mass texts, again by one of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov. My Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, also written for The Crossing, is included and gives its name to the album. Settings of e. e. cummings, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry round out the disc. Second, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough perform five of my songs on an Albany Records disc to be called Descent/Return. That’s also the name of the pair of songs from the soprano and ensemble cycle A Sibyl that I arranged for soprano and piano which are included on the album. Three individual songs – The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams), The Pitcher (Robert Francis), and Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris) complete the disc, which also includes solo piano pieces by myself and John Harbison as well as returning Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight to the active catalog.

I’ll end this survey with video from the premiere of the St. Thomas Mass:

Election Eve Miscellany

  • First things first: I hope you are either planning to go vote tomorrow, or are perhaps reading this while waiting in line to do so.
  • Thank you to The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally for the beautiful first performance they gave of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage. In a ten minute piece, I asked a lot of the group in terms not only of vocal virtuosity, but in variety of expression. They certainly delivered, as they always seem to do. I am very grateful. Unfortunately, no review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • I am struggling hard to make progress on my new piece for the Imani Winds, set for a February premiere in Philly, but to be rehearsed for the first time in December, so there is much to do on the piece this month. At the same time I have been polishing the performance materials for Matins, the work for oboe, strings and chorus that Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers will perform in January. Conductor David Hoose has helped me improve the notation – there are a lot more cautionary accidentals in the score than there used to be, for example – and some re-spellings that I am not sure I always agree with. But I have accepted 98% of David’s suggestions and corrections, and am happy to do what I can to make sure the performers can give their best.
  • Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward will perform two of my songs on upcoming Lyric Fest concerts: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm sets a Susan Stewart poem and is my most performed piece; and Bedtime, a Denise Levertov song from nearly 30 years ago, which was later memorably sung by Dawn Upshaw at her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Check the Performances page for more info on all the concerts I am mentioning.
  • Recent and not so recent listening has included:
    • some old George Shearing sides from the 1940s from a Proper box set. I’m afraid this was disappointing, with saccharine ballads and frantic bop solos, though he sometimes hits a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
    • A 1982 DG disc of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic in his Divertimento (forgettable), Halil with Rampal (colleagues I respect speak well of this piece, but it didn’t hold me), the Dance Episodes from “On the Town” (delightful) and Rostropovich playing the Three Meditations from “Mass” (it’s not really a cello and orchestra piece. However, like Anne Midgette who wrote about Mass in the Washington Post, I had the piece from which this cello work is extracted memorized before I knew any better, so I find it hard to judge the music now. (I wonder if she was raised Catholic as was I?))
    • A Recital of Intimate Works, which is an album of varied keyboard pieces performed by pianist Andrew Rangell on a 1996 Dorian disc. I am not sure that these pieces all qualify as intimate – not all the movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles, for example – but it is very freshly programmed. A piano album that includes Froberger, Sweelinck, Messiaen, and Enescu, plus Mozart (the sublime Rondo in A minor) and transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven certainly gets my attention. Beautifully played and recorded.
  • I’ve been greatly enjoying The Library Book by Susan Orlean – it’s great reporting, it’s great writing, it’s great fun, and, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s greatly touching. But this is the writer whose work gave me the text for a moving song, Shadow Memory:

The video is with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, who are the fabulous performers on Vocalisms, the new disc from Albany that includes Shadow Memory plus nine more of my songs.

Vocalisms

Vocalisms, the new two-CD set featuring my music as well as works by Harbison, Rorem, and Daniel Crozier, has been released by Albany Records. Soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Heidi Louise Williams perform my Shadow Memory (text by Susan Orlean), Waltzing the Spheres (Susan Scott Thompson), Three Folk Hymns (based on How Can I Keep From Singing?, Be Thou My Vision, and What Wondrous Love is This?), and the first recording of the piano version of Holy the Firm, (various authors) the 1999 cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. There’s a complete track listing at the Albany website.

The album makes a fine survey of contemporary American piano-and-voice song, with a mix of pieces by two senior composers (Rorem and Harbison) along with music by two mid-career types (Dan and myself.) The title comes from the opening piece, Harbison’s Vocalism, a Whitman setting that was commissioned by SongFest, the same organization that commissioned Shadow Memory.

I met Mary when she did my Three Sacred Songs about ten years ago, and she has been a wonderful advocate for my music ever since. Heidi came to my attention through her collaboration with Mary, and, as with Mary, I’ve been thrilled to hear her performances. It’s a wonderful combination of two smart artists who each have a gorgeous sound and superb musicianship. Their partnership is impeccable and they command every mood, whether serene or playful, mysterious or exuberant, often with no small emotional wallop, whether it’s the melancholy of Shadow Memory or the devastating deathbed scene that closes Holy the Firm. I’m profoundly grateful for their work.

I am delighted with the quality of the recording as well, as realized by producer Peter Henderson and engineer Paul Hennerich.

This is Mary’s fourth release on Albany, which says something for their well-justified belief in her merit. I can’t provide a direct link, but go to the Albany website and do an artist search to see her complete list of Albany albums, including the 21st Century Consort’s Cathedral Music, featuring my Sacred Songs and Meditations. And do the same for Heidi, whose Albany releases include a wonderful disc of contemporary American piano music called Drive American. You’ll want to browse the Albany catalog in general – the firm is admirable for its commitment to new music.

While there is a brief soundclip from the new album at the Albany page, you can see videos of Mary and Heidi doing two of the songs from the album here. That page also includes material from the Cathedral Music cd.

The score of Holy the Firm is available from the Theodore Presser Co., while the other songs are available from me directly – just send me a message.

Here are the three of us – Mary on the left – after a 2015 coaching session.

“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.

 

“Cathedral Music” Released

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I’m delighted to report that Albany Records has released Cathedral Music, a new CD that includes my Sacred Songs and Meditations along with works by Stephen Albert (Cathedral Music) and Christopher Patton (Out of Darkness). I devised the piece at the request of Christopher Kendall, who wanted something for a concert celebrating the new millennium to be performed at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. To honor the notion of “a thousand years of music”, the work is based on ancient sacred tunes – plainchant and more – and is written for a solo soprano, chorus and Christopher’s two consorts: The Folger Consort and The 21st Century Consort. For this recording, Mary Mackenzie is the superb soloist. The piece alternates instrumental fantasias on the old melodies with settings of the tunes for soprano, all scored for a combination of early and modern instruments. Before each movement the men and children of the National Cathedral choirs sing the tune on which the movement is based. In addition to the virtuosic and atmospheric performances by all the musicians, the disc benefits from the lovely resonant acoustic fashioned by engineer Mark Huffman and producer Joseph Gascho.

When I made the piece, I assumed it was sort of a one-off, given the unusual forces required, and would never be performed again. Christopher, bless him, proved me wrong, programming the piece a few years ago prior to the recording session. Go here for a post about the performance and recording, including pictures and personnel credits. Thank you to all concerned, especially Christopher and Mary.

The album has already shown up on YouTube. Here is the first movement:

Time for a Download

An mp3 download of clarinetist Lisa Oberlander‘s album Times Like These is now available at Amazon. Yien Wang is the pianist on the album, which is a nice mix of new music and older repertoire.

I wrote the title piece for Jean Kopperud and Stephen Gosling who recorded it for Albany. Lisa has now played it – brilliantly – several times, and recorded it for Potenza Records. I expect the physical CD will be available soon. Check out video of Lisa and Yien performing the piece by clicking on the “video” link above.