Warm congratulations to my Penn colleague Anna Weesner on winning the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Press release here. I note that her haunting cycle My Mother in Love will be performed by Tony Arnold and Cygnus at Symphony Space in NYC on April 30. More info here.
I mistakenly tweeted yesterday about the new work by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner as an oboe quartet, but it’s actually a quintet – string quartet and oboe. This is the piece of hers we will hear on the upcoming concert at Penn (this Friday, 3/24) with Peggy Pearson and the Daedalus Quartet – go here for more details on the concert. Read an interview with Anna at the Winsor Music website (in connection with the Boston performance of the piece on Sunday, 3/26). Here’s Anna’s program listing and note for the new quintet:
Love Progression: A Personal Essay
for oboe and string quartet
The personal essay strikes me as a mode for exploring a chosen topic in a way that might be equal parts reflective, studious and cheeky. By ‘love progression’ I mean to refer to one of the common four-chord progressions on which a million and a half pop songs are based. Because why not? Common currency, my currency, history’s currency. The mix of it. ( . . . or by ‘love progression’ did I mean the progression of love?)
The piece falls into six sections and is played without pause.
I. the flight
II. the timelessness
III. the questions
IV. the pop song
V. the mad scene
VI. the love coda
Rochberg taught Reise; Reise taught Gill. So when pianist Jeremy Gill plays a concert with violist Peter Minkler at Penn this Wednesday, October 1, at 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall, and the program includes works by Rochberg, Reise, current Penn faculty member Anna Weesner, and Gill, well, that’s what the post title is about. Rose Recital Hall is in the Fisher-Bennett building at 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia – the concert is free.
Here are some comments by Jeremy:
“I met George Rochberg in 1995 at a summer composition program in Madison, Wisconsin. I was then an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, and Rochberg had already retired from a long teaching career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he built one of the finest composition programs in the country along with his colleagues George Crumb and Richard Wernick. I only had one private lesson with Rochberg that summer, but it was the single best lesson of my life, and I knew that he would remain a major figure in my development.
“When I came to Penn in 1996 to do a PhD in composition, I had the opportunity to continue our relationship, which soon blossomed into a true friendship (he and his wife, Gene, who is still alive and well at 94, were living in Newtown Square, a Main Line suburb of Philadelphia). Rochberg, though nearly 60 years my senior, always treated me like a colleague, introducing me to his acquaintances as his “young friend.” He continued to be a great mentor to me until his death in 2005, whereupon Gene asked me to edit a book he left unfinished for publication. A Dance of Polar Opposites came out in 2012, published by University of Rochester Press.
“The Viola Sonata that Baltimore Symphony violist Peter Minkler and I will perform on October 1 is one of the first pieces of Rochberg’s that I came to love. It is full of fire, pathos, and is formidably crafted: the work of a true master and one of the most important works in the viola/piano repertoire. Peter and I gave our first performance of the work at the Mansion at Strathmore in New Bethesda, MD last spring (after a private performance for Gene) and I’ve been dying to play it again since. Peter has been playing the sonata for about 30 years, and has made, in my opinion, the best commercial recording of the piece available (on the Centaur Records label, with pianist Lura Johnson). It is an honor to play this great work with him.”
Network has posted two new videos in which Anna Weesner, Bobby Zankel, and myself speak about the pieces we’ve made for the April 4 program at Temple University’s Rock Hall.
Find more Network videos here.
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.
I’m taking a break from working on my piece for this to let you know about some upcoming events. It will be a very busy few days at the end of this week. On Friday, January 24, Penn will offer its annual “Wail of the Voice!” program, featuring faculty and alumni composers. There will be music by current faculty Jay Reise, Anna Weesner, and myself, as well as alum Mike Fiday, performed by the Daedalus Quartet, flutist Michele Kelly and pianists Greg DeTurck, Matthew Bengtson, and myself. The concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, found at 34th and Walnut on the Penn campus here in Philadelphia. The 8:00 pm concert will be preceded by a 7:00 pm pre-concert discussion, with Penn grad student Neil Crimes as moderator.
It will be my first time playing piano in a concert performance in quite a while (playing at church or in the classroom is a different matter). The Daedalus and I will offer the slow movement from my 1996 Piano Quintet, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. As I remarked at rehearsal with the Daedalus, “you guys sound great, and my part is easy”, so this bodes well for a fine performance.
I’ll post the program notes for the Wail! concert during the course of this week. For now, let me point out the rest of my own busy weekend. After the concert at Penn I will take an overnight train to Boston, arriving for a Saturday morning rehearsal of my new setting of The Call, with Emmanuel Music and Ryan Turner conducting. That piece will receive its first performance at Emmanuel Church’s Sunday Eucharist, 10:00 am on January 26. On Sunday evening I will attend Christopher Oldfather’s performance of my consortium commission piano piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music concert. It’s an 8:00 pm concert, 7:15 pre-concert chat, this at the Longy School in Cambridge. Between my two Sunday performances, I hope to attend Robert Levin’s piano recital at Harvard, featuring piano works by Wyner, Harbison, Türk, and Rands. And on Saturday afternoon (assuming I haven’t collapsed from lack of sleep on the train) I will meet with John Harbison to try out some of his Leonard Stein Anagrams for him, in preparation for my February 26 performance of them here in Philadelphia.
I suppose “unique” is an extremely tired word, but I really don’t know another composer whose music sounds like that of my Penn colleague, Anna Weesner. She subscribes to no “-ism”, and there is no ready label for her music. The elements that make up her language – some of which include hints of pop, or Stravinsky, or Lutoslawski, for example – are thoroughly digested. When she engages aspects of popular idioms, with a reliance on motoric pulsation or ostinato technique, she does so in a thoughtful way – the ostinati are balanced with carefully crafted harmonic motion; the rhythmic “hooks” are subtly varied and integrated.
Anna’s sense of timing and pacing is exquisite – she can effect gradual changes, or make jump cuts that startle before revealing their logic a moment later. Anna does not use tonal elements in a neo-classical manner, nor for the sake of nostalgia or for surrealist effects. Rather, these elements, as straightforward as a major chord, are activated by an unexpected context, freshened by a foreign element or revealed as a secret underpinning for a more complex surface. Hers is a direct yet subtle art – the surface is full of vivid gestures, wonderfully wide-ranging and imaginative but placed with pinpoint timing, and cunningly varied. A figure may repeat in what seems like will be an obvious manner, but the repetition is quickly subverted, or, under pressure, expands to ecstatic layering of varied iterations. Her pieces are generally not long in clock time, yet are understood by the listener as eventful – satisfyingly “long” in experiential time. Formal patterning in Anna’s work is uniquely fresh. There are rarely straightforward recapitulations, and ready-made formal schemes do not interest her. The music has its own mind as to how to unfold, varying both from piece to piece, and within individual pieces with respect to rate of change, in method of making transitions, in dramatic arc. She manages to achieve that difficult balance of the unexpected and the inevitable.
The piece of Anna’s that we will hear at Friday’s Voice of the Wail concert (Friday, January 11, at 8:00 pm in Rose Recital Hall at Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus) is a string quartet to be played by the Daedalus Quartet. Here is her program note:
The Space Between has traveled a long and unusual compositional path. It began with a commission from the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet in 2001. Excited about this project and wanting to take full advantage of the chance to write for a terrific group, and for multiple performances, I wrote a piece that was compositionally ambitious, which is to say, awfully long and awfully challenging to play. The Cypress did a bang-up job with the piece, though I’m not sure any of us were entirely sure we wanted to promote its continued existence. Some years went by and I found that I didn’t want to let the piece go as a lost, youthful effort, but that I also didn’t want to keep it as it was. So I tried revising it. Several times. Does too much labor mean a piece that sounds labored? In the first instance, with the original quartet I wrote for the dear Cypress, I think the answer was yes. With The Space Between I hope that the answer is no. (I think wishfully of the drafts of sentences by E.B. White, where the eventual version—the one born of many attempts and apparently requiring no small amount of labor—is the one with expressive elegance and lightness and spontaneity.)
The Space Between is made largely of material salvaged from the first movement of what was originally a two-movement piece. Not much of it is precisely as it was before, though some material is certainly recognizable. There is also new material. Overall, it is different enough to warrant a new title.
Musically, the piece is preoccupied with texture, that is, with the business of how many voices, or parts, are in play at a given time and with whether what those parts are doing is primary or supportive, melody or accompaniment, or neither. It may have something to do with wanting to explore the sound of the one and the many (and the space between them), or with what it means to write a melodic line and to let it stand alone, on the one hand, and then also give it musical context. It is easy in music to think about loud and soft as “players” in an unfolding score. I would like to think that in addition to loud and soft, one might hear near and far, the solitary and the group, and also private and public, as additional, complicit forces at work.
Working with string quartets is incredibly gratifying and fun, especially when the players are highly skilled, deeply thoughtful and good-humored. In this vein, I’d like to affectionately dedicate this piece to three quartets who’ve helped my music along in ways too numerous to mention: the Cypress Quartet, the Cassatt Quartet, and the Daedalus Quartet.
– so how did you spend your Christmas Day? In 1952, you could have spent Christmas evening at Carnegie Hall with Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic, which offered the following as light holiday fare: a Sinfonia from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio; the Corelli Concerto Grosso “Fatto per la Notte di Natale”; and… the Bruckner 8th Symphony. You think I’m kidding? check out the program here.
One non-Christmas item: the Penn music department will be putting on a concert of music by Penn composers January 11, 8:00 pm, at Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall, 34th and Walnut Streets, here in Philadelphia. The 8th Quartet of Richard Wernick will be featured, played by the Daedalus Quartet, as well as music by Jay Reise, Matthew Schreibeis, and Anna Weesner as well as myself. More details on performers and the pieces to be posted in the coming days; for now, a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year to all – see you in 2013.
In clear connection with the title, this quartet opens with the sound of all four players in unison, a sound that is then quickly juxtaposed with the sound of one voice alone. A basic notion concerning the many and the one, or the one and the many, informs much of this piece. This expressive notion probably has a few different points of origin for me. For one, I have long loved the sound of strings playing in unison in the register represented by the lowest octave of the violin. There is something about the less-is-more timbral mix that occurs when violins, viola and cello play together in this range that has always sounded potentially gutsy and sort of heart-rending at the same time. There is also a textural concern that I think has to do with wanting to explore questions about the role, or the “sounding meaning”, so to speak, of melody. In addition to playing in actual unison, the quartet often plays in rhythmic unison, which may set off as meaningful other textural situations, such as when there is clear melody and accompaniment, or when there is one voice alone. I also hope that there will be a sense of space in play, so that the louds and softs in the music might translate somehow as being equally concerned with feelings of near and far. I imagine, for example, someone who is far away calling out loudly in contrast to a softly murmuring crowd nearby. Or perhaps it’s a single person murmuring nearby and a crowd far away, roaring.
We’ve got the program order figured out for the concert, here’s the lineup:
– intermission –
The time and place again: 8:00 pm, Wednesday, March 28, in Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Fisher-Bennett is at 34th and Walnut. There will be a pre-concert chat with the composers, moderated by Penn grad student Delia Casadei, at 7:00 pm. An article by Delia about George Crumb here. More on the concert here and here and in future posts.