Without Ceremony

May 20 announcement in the New York Times of the 2020 recipients of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I am mentioned at the lower right as recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music.


Or I should say without Ceremonial. That’s how the American Academy of Arts and Letters refers to the annual gathering at their headquarters in upper Manhattan, which would have taken place today if not for the pandemic. (What’s the correct name for the neighborhood around 155th and Broadway? Wikipedia tells me 155th is the dividing line between Hamilton Heights to the south and Washington Heights to the north, with Hamilton Heights being a subset of Harlem.) If the novelty has not worn off for you (it has for some colleagues of mine, but not for me) it is an exciting event. I know the details from having attended previously. A reception when you come in is a good moment to oooh and aaah at the famous members of the Academy, (go here for a list of current members) as well as guests – I saw Jackie Kennedy there once. Then there is a luncheon. You are seated with a member of the Academy from your own field; the last time I was there I met the late Arthur Berger for the first and only time. Then you file into the auditorium and take a seat on stage, with prize winners mixed in with members on tiers of seats. (The fine acoustics of the auditorium make it a prized venue for recording sessions; I’ve had two pieces recorded there.) As I recall, Charles Wuorinen was on my left one year, with John Corigliano nearby and Mary Gordon behind me. First, photographs are taken of the whole crowd on stage. Then the audience is admitted, and the speeches and awarding of prizes begins. One time I saw Robertson Davies give an address (there are honorary members from foreign countries). Another reception closes the day.

A member of the Academy once told me that when he was elected his first thought was that “wow, I am in among” (let’s say, at the time) “Saul Bellow and Willem De Kooning”. But then his second thought was that “hmm, I am also  in with so and so or such and such” which is to say, with some decidedly lesser lights. Exalting and humbling pretty much at the same time.

I am very grateful to the Academy for the support signaled by this honor. Congratulations to all my colleagues who received recognition!

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. Click to download PDF listings of my music for solo voice and for chorus.

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 one I composed, Meditation for Candlemas, is 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:

Virgil Thomson Award Announced

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced that I am the recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music for 2020. The press release is here.

Needless to say, I count myself very lucky indeed, and am greatly touched that the distinguished jury (listed in the release) would consider my work worthy of this recognition.

I submitted two choral works to be considered by the jury: Carthage (a setting of a text by Marilynne Robinson – she’s an Academy member, maybe I’ll get to shake her hand at the Academy Ceremonial) and my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, my setting of the Latin Mass interwoven with poems reflecting on the Mass texts by Denise Levertov. The latter will be performed by Emmanuel Music at Emmanuel Church in Boston on March 29 at their 10 am Sunday liturgy, and can be heard on a forthcoming CD of my choral music by The Crossing.

The award is for vocal music, so I will survey that part of my catalog in a subsequent post.

Chabon and the Blashfield Address

UnknownA message from the MacDowell Colony came in recently,  mentioning that you can hear the address given by its chairman of the board Michael Chabon at this spring’s American Academy of Arts and Letters ceremonial by visiting here. Text versions of recent addresses are also available at that site, with speakers including Louise Glück, Wallace Shawn, and Chuck Close. (In Close’s speech, you will learn that this famous maker of portraits actually has prosopagnosia, of all things.)

By coincidence, in my current reading I have finally got around to Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which well deserves its high reputation.

So where’s Meryl?

Yes, Meryl Streep was at the American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial week before last, being inducted as an honorary member. But somehow she didn’t get into the following pictures, so you will have to be satisfied with a bunch of composers.

L to R: James Primosch, Steven Stucky, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Pierre Jalbert, Shulamit Ran, Daniel Asia, David Felder, Barbara Petersen of BMI

L to R: David Felder, Daniel Asia, James Primosch

New music trivia buffs will have noted that all the composers in these pictures are published by the Theodore Presser Company – so thank you to Judith Ilika, head of promotion at Presser, for wielding the camera.

Academy Award (not that one)

Today the American Academy of Arts and Letters announced the 2010 winners of its various awards in music, and I will be present at the award ceremony in May as the recipient of one of four Academy Awards in Music. A link to the press release here. Curiously, all four winners of the Academy Award are published by Theodore Presser Co.Daniel Asia, David Felder, Pierre Jalbert being the other three.