Snow Day Miscellany

I have finished my Oboe Quintet for La Fenice (premiere June 9 at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival), so I have a moment to post about a few things on this snowy, icy day in Philadelphia.

– The performance of my Three Folk Hymns at UC San Diego by Susan Narucki and Donald Berman is coming up on March 15. More info here.

Peggy Pearson and members of the Daedalus Quartet will give the Philadelphia premiere of my Oboe Quartet in a concert at Penn on Friday, March 24th at 8. This happens in Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut. There will be a new piece by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner on the program as well. Preview the piece with the score here and audio here.

– In less happy news, the evaporation of classical music coverage at the New York Times continues.  The decline of the Times – what used to be called “the newspaper of record” –  is particularly distressing. The “moments” – highlights of the week’s events – that have been appearing in the Saturday edition are better than nothing, I guess, but “moments” are exactly what classical music is not about. The Times seems to aspire to be a guide to date night instead of reporting cultural news – the recent spring preview was pathetically sparse. Readers look to the Times for depth and breadth, but neither of those seems to be a priority now. I don’t subscribe to the Times for more white space around the articles and bigger pictures – more words, please! While coverage of major organization continues – so far, new productions at the Met are still covered, and the Philharmonic gets reviewed every week – smaller events, often the ones that involve new music, the kinds of thing that give New York’s musical life its rich texture, no longer have a presence in the paper. And let’s not get started on jazz coverage. The thinning out of content is happening in other parts of the paper – the editorial pages and pages 2 and 3 are now affected. Alex Ross is typically eloquent on the broader picture.

An American Nine

Alex Ross wrote recently about a blogging challenge to name nine favorite symphonies, one for each numbered slot. While the lists I’ve read range widely in terms of the nationality of the composer, what if one tried to devise a list of nine American symphonies?

Speaking only of pieces I have heard, either live or on recordings, I can’t come up with a piece for every numeric slot. On the other hand, there are multiple possibilities for some of the lower numbers. Here’s a by no means exhaustive list of favorite American symphonies of mine without regard to the numbered slots or the limit of nine. I am surely forgetting some great stuff, but this is what comes to mind at the moment. I did make the tough decision to pick a favorite piece by those composers from whom I have heard more than one symphony (Corigliano, Ives, Harbison, Rochberg, Rouse, Sessions, Wernick), and have included pieces that are not designated with a number by their composers. (Adams would be on this list if he used the name “symphony” for a piece like Naive and Sentimental Music.)

Copland: Short Symphony
Corigliano: #1
Currier: Microsymph
Hanson: #2
Harbison: #2
Harris: #3
Hartke: #3
Ives: #4
Persichetti: #6 (for band)
Rochberg: Symphony #2
Rouse: #2
Schuman: #3
Sessions: #2
Stucky: Symphony
Wernick: #1
Wuorinen: Percussion Symphony
Zwillich: #1

I really don’t know how I would trim this to nine. If you forced me to try to do so, I can say that the Ives and Rochberg would definitely be on the list, probably the Copland, but after that…

I probably would never have heard the Hanson if I had not heard it used as the sign-off music for WCLV-FM when I was growing up in Cleveland. The Persichetti also has sentimental associations, since I played it in college. (However, it is not listed just out of sentimentality, as I have heard more than one person say that it is one of his best pieces.)

I’ve heard only part of the symphonic output of several of the composers listed above (including Sessions, Harris, and Schuman among the older generations), and there are plenty of composers whose symphonies I have not heard at all (Piston, Ran, Harrison, to name just three). And, I repeat, I am surely just forgetting something at the moment. What pieces would you add to a list of favorite American symphonies?


Primosch, not Primrosch

Hey, I’m in the New York Times!

Or at least some guy with a very similar name is.

Back in 1993, Alex Ross gave me a favorable review in the Times – and spelled my name Primrosch.

Today, Steve Smith gave me a positive review in the Times – and spelled my name Primrosch. (Update: the Steve Smith review has been corrected – thank you for arranging this, Steve. I’ve also inquired about the 1993 error.)

Over the years, I have cashed checks made out to Primrosch, Primrose, and Primosh, among others. I am told the name was probably originally Hungarian, and would have been spelled Primocz, Primosch being a Germanization. I have also been told more than once that the “primocz” is the first violinist in a gypsy band, though you can’t find evidence of that on Google. I once had a driver’s license with the name Prbdsch. It did not go well when I explained to a traffic cop “oh, that’s not really my name”.

In case it is too much effort to click the link above, here is the relevant portion of today’s review:

The Prism Quartet — the saxophonists Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Matthew Levy and Taimur Sullivan — focused on music from a newly released Innova CD, “Dedication.” Initially envisioned as a collection of 20 one-minute pieces to mark the group’s 20th anniversary in 2004, the project overflowed its boundaries: the CD offers 25 pieces by 23 composers. The concert, around an hour long, included 24 works, mostly complete.

Given the intended format, most of the pieces were clever bagatelles based on a single notion: rhythmic intricacy, smooth blend, extended vocabulary and so on. Still, you were repeatedly surprised by just how much personality could be expressed in a few deft strokes, through the lush harmonies of Greg Osby’s “Prism #1 (Refraction)”; the 24-tone giddiness of Frank J. Oteri’s “Fair and Balanced”; the crabby grandeur of Tim Berne’s “Brokelyn”; and the jazzy swagger of James Primrosch’s “Straight Up,” to name just four examples from a consistently engaging program.

Prism Quartet performs again Friday at Leonard Nimoy Thalia, Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, at 95th Street; (212) 864-5400,

Tuesday morning miscellany

– audio of music by Pultizer finalist Fred Lerdahl here; video of music by finalist Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon here.

-Alex Ross podcasting about  Wagner.

-I plan to catch a couple of performances in Boston when I visit for the premiere of my new motet. Dawn Upshaw sings at Jordan Hall on Friday, April 29; her unusually varied program is here. (I count 22 composers on that list.) Brandeis is holding its annual electronic music marathon the next day, again, lots of variety as lined up by curator and superb electronic (and acoustic) composer Eric Chasalow; excellent performers as well.

Saturday Doubleheader

It was a musical doubleheader in New York for me last Saturday as I attended both the Met matinee and the NY Phil in the evening.

I am not a big Puccini fan, (even though I cry at Bohème) but I was very impressed by Fanciulla, the last performance of the run at the Met. This was a strong cast, especially Deborah Voigt.  She sounded great, singing with both power and beauty of sound. The range of expressive types Minnie has to project is remarkable: she is playful, steely, vulnerable, kind, heroic, and Voigt conveyed them all. The theme of the piece is Wagnerian – a man redeemed through a woman’s love – but this time the woman survives to get her man, not just redeem him. Alex Ross smartly observes how Minnie beats the men in the piece at their own games (both literally – a poker game – and figuratively) “and then breaks down their macho codes”. The first and third acts end in a remarkably low key manner, with the ambiguities of the final curtain nicely summarized in the figure of the sheriff, left alone on stage, handling a gun, still wanting to kill the tenor, but unable to move. Ross found fault with the production, and it is on the literal side, at once a bit stiff and very busy. Voigt remarks in an interview how she has to handle tons of props in this staging. She seems to spend a long time in the first act putting away whiskey glasses. I suppose this is necessary given the amount of drinking that goes on – per capita at about at the level of an Albee play.

In the evening I heard two men named Thomas – Hampson’s Kindertotenlieder was deeply affecting, and Adés played his piano concerto with video, a collaboration with Tal Rosner. I am an Adés fan, but I was not consistently held by this piece. Anthony Tommasini’s review makes the music sound much more varied than it seemed to me. Too much of the work involved streams of regular durations, often layered against similar streams moving at slightly different speeds, but still lacking in sufficiently characterized rhythmic profile. Still, there was much to admire when the rhythms were less static. I found the video was at its most compelling when most dense, with various geometric patterns intricately overlaid. However, there were also brief moments that were dangerously close to screensaver images, or the visualizer in iTunes, or even the abstractions that accompany the Bach toccata and fugue in Disney’s Fantasia.  I appreciated the fact that the music and image were closely coordinated. I always hated the way the jump cuts from frantic activity to stasis in the Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass collaboration Koyaanisqatsi are not quite in sync, but that is not the case here.

Update: hear the Adés on Instant Encore here.

Bartok in NYC and Philadelphia

Thanks to Alex Ross, and via Opera Chic, I checked out the video where Esa-Pekka explains the story of Bluebeard’s Castle to the L.A. Phil. But I want to call your attention to one of the videos that came up when the Bluebeard one was over – Esa-Pekka on Bartok in NYC. Very moving. He visits Columbia U. to check out Bartok’s papers which they have thanks to his ethnomusicological work there.

I recall there being a bust of Bartok in the Columbia Music Library on the top floor of Dodge Hall. My understanding is that Jack Beeson was a pupil of Bartok – the only American to study with him. I wish I had talked to Jack about this.

There are more Bartok papers here in Philly. The U of PA library has the papers of the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, and Bartok’s 3rd Quartet won a composition contest the Society sponsored. Consequently, Penn has an autograph of the Bartok 3rd. Bartok shared the prize with… Alfredo Casella.