Recent Listening

Not new recordings, just items that have passed through my CD player in recent weeks.

Schubert: The Piano Sonatas. András Schiff. It’s a safe bet that there are pieces here that will be new to you. One that was new to me was a tantalizing opening fragment of a sonata in f-sharp minor, exquisite in its delicate melancholy. Schiff plays a Bösendorfer with myriad colors, orchestral grandeur, and a touch of harshness in the loudest moments. He makes teasing reference to players of fortepianos in his program note – a judgement he seems to have changed since he has recently recorded Schubert on a fortepiano for ECM himself.

Bernard Rands: Now Again. It’s the vivid harmony that most often strikes me about Rands’s music; certainly there are scintillating gestures and plentiful lyricism, but the pitches in the music always feel right. Wonderful performances by Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, featuring the superb mezzo Janice Felty.

Amy Williams: Cineshape & Duos. I love the intensely characterful writing in this music, so vivid and clear in expressive intent. The pitches matter, the phrases are elegantly shaped, and the timing is just right, things never outstay their welcome. And the performances are splendid, Williams herself is the superb pianist for six of the titles, including the dramatic and virtuosic piano solo Cineshape 4. In a program note, Williams explains the title, saying that it is part of a series of works “based on a close and selective reading of an existing film”, in this case the German film Run Lola Run. The piece certainly does “run”, but you don’t need to know the film to enjoy the musical shape.

“Motherless Child” in Philly, “The Call” and “Contraption” in Boston

I’m back now from my trip to Boston to hear the first performance of my George Herbert setting, The Call, as given by Ryan Turner and Emmanuel Music, as well as Christopher Oldfather’s performance of Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music program at the Longy School.

The visit was immediately after I played the slow movement of my Piano Quintet with the Daedalus Quartet last Friday night on Penn’s “Wail of the Voice!” concert. The movement is a set of variations, or a “meditation” as I put it in the movement title, on the African-American Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” I stick close to the tune for the first two statements, first by high cello over thick, soft piano chords, then by viola, over a simple pizzicato cello line. The next section breaks away from the form of the tune, instead building to a big climax of keening strings over a piano ostinato derived from the tune’s intervals. For the last statement of the theme, the second violin plays the tune one last time, while the first violin is a ghostly shadow of the second, playing in a higher register, more slowly, and in a different key. The lower strings and piano accompany with very soft and gradually sinking clustered harmonies. I was very impressed with the eloquence of all the quartet members throughout, but especially in their solos. I knew the Daedalus to be a superb ensemble, especially from hearing them play my own music. But performing with them let me know in a more intimate way just how fine this group truly is.

Here’s a shot of me with the quartet (Min-Young Kim, Matilda Kaul, Jessica Thompson, and Tom Kraines):

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and here is a picture of the four composers on the “Wail” concert, Anna Weesner, Jay Reise, Mike Fiday and myself:

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After the concert I caught an overnight Amtrak to Boston (thank God for the quiet car), which arrived early enough to let me hang out at a Starbucks reading this before heading over to Emmanuel Church for the first rehearsal of the new motet.

The singers of Emmanuel Music are incredibly fast learners, and I have been rather reckless at throwing challenges at them in the series of motets I have done for them over the years, both in terms of rhythm and pitch. They have never let me down. Ryan Turner’s rehearsal technique is thoughtful and efficient; he knew just what areas to pinpoint and work on. I learn more about the subtleties of the choral medium – the interaction of vowel color and intonation, for example – every time I observe him rehearse.

After rehearsal I enjoyed a tasty lunch at 29 Newbury with Ryan and Emmanuel’s energetic executive director, Pat Krol. Then it was off to meet with John Harbison and try out his Leonard Stein Anagrams, the set of short piano pieces I will be playing on a concert at Penn on February 26. I didn’t play too badly, and John generously overlooked my blunders and praised the things that (accidentally or otherwise) worked OK. Most importantly, I got my questions answered – about how certain notations should be interpreted (for example, a tenuto dash under a slur at the beginning of a phrase can mean a durational accent, not just a dynamic one.)

The next morning’s performance of The Call at the liturgy went well. There were two liturgical events especially worth mentioning. Rector Pamela Werntz preached, and tied in my piece with the gospel reading about Jesus calling the disciples – “listen to the call!” she said, and at that moment, a cell phone rang. The place cracked up. “It’s Jesus calling!” Pam remarked. The other moment was quite touching to me – being prayed for by name as part of the intercessions – thanks to Pam’s spouse, Joy Howard, who offered that petition.

Robert Levin’s recital that afternoon at Harvard’s Sanders Theater was astounding. I followed the scores I had brought for the Harbison 2nd sonata and the Bernard Rands Preludes, and you could have issued the concert as a CD, I don’t think he dropped a note, and the dynamics and articulations were so clearly articulated, you could have taken them down in dictation. That makes his playing sound cold, but it was far from that – the dark power of the Harbison and the exquisite color and lyricism of the Rands were fully present. There were charming and fierce short pieces by Yehudi Wyner and a premiere from a composer new to me, Hans Peter Türk. Here are the principals at a post-concert reception (L to R, Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, Robert Levin, and Bernard Rands):

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Now it was time for the Collage concert at the Longy School. The expert Collage players capably met the formidable demands of David Lang’s These Broken Wings. Crystallography by Kati Agócs was charming, like a folk music from some hitherto unknown culture. Brenna Wells was the vocal soloist, spinning lilting lines. After intermission, Christopher Oldfather played my piano consortium commission piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift with beauty of sound and no small amount of insight. He had a firm grasp of the character of the pieces. I was delighted by how he was able to clearly delineate multiple layers of events in the music. The warm effusions of Charles Fussell’s Pilgrim Voyage closed the program. I was honored to get some generously positive feedback from colleagues who were in attendance, including Yehudi Wyner and Robert Beaser. Gunther Schuller was there, 88 years old, looking rather frail – yet, he was present at both the Levin recital and the Collage concert. I was touched by his kind comments on my piece, as well as his remembrance of my time at Tanglewood some 30 years ago.

The Boston Musical Intelligencer reports on the Collage concert here.

Get up! Get Up! You Sleepyhead

… Then I spent the rest of my childhood years waking up in the middle of the night with a book half open on my chest, and I still do it. I read between two and four every night. I sleep and by the time I get to two o’clock now I have to read. I read for two hours and [after] I sleep for another two hours, then I get up and work two hours.

FJO: That’s extraordinary.

BR: It’s a crazy life. Augusta’s even worse. She gets up at three in the morning or four, when I’m still reading. I hope this is not too trivial for you.

– Bernard Rands interviewed by Frank J. Oteri for New Music Box

and

As if exploring that exhibit [a Constable and Turner show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts] wasn’t overwhelming and exhausting enough, we plunged ahead to examine the museum’s famous collections of Oriental and Asia art, Persian fourteenth – to sixteenth-century paintings and manuscripts, and Egyptian tombs and statues. Our senses were reeling from all this magnificence; and I can’t explain how we had the energy and persistence to take it all in – all in one day. To confirm how truly crazy I was – and perhaps still am – my diary recounts that after that museum visit, I copied quite a bit of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms into one of my notebooks – that is, before dining at O Sole Mio, one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Boston, then catching a show at the Casino Burlesque, and then heading out to the Totem Pool [a dance hall] – all in one day!

– from Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty [Gunther’s autobiography]

So, what time did you get up? and what did you accomplish today? Reading stuff like this, I feel very lazy indeed.

More about Gunther’s book soon. And, this will explain the post title.

Bernard Rands Piano Preludes

Reading about the recent first performances given by Jonathan Biss of a new piano work by Bernard Rands made me take down Bernard’s Preludes for piano from the bookshelf. This is a set of 12 character pieces written for Robert Levin and premiered in 2007. The works have Italian titles – Ricercare, Toccata, and some less familiar ones, like Istampita and Bordone. The Italian angle is also reflected in the set’s two memorial pieces, one for Luciano Berio, the other for Donald Martino. Bernard’s ear for exquisite harmony is evident throughout as is his interest in structures that proliferate in a gradual process – for example, the efflorescing lines set against detached chords in the opening Ricercare, or the gradually more elaborate harmonizations of a recurring chorale tune in Ritornello-Rallentando. This type of variation technique, with a clearly repeated structural basis, is familiar from works like Rands’s Bolero-like Ceremonial for wind ensemble, or, in a more lyrical vein, the second movement from the first Le Tambourin Suite. The pianism in the preludes ranges from relatively stark to quite virtuosic.

Bernard and his wife Augusta Read Thomas have a large number of recordings posted online here – look for the folder with Bernard’s music. UPDATE: Find recordings of Augusta’s music here. bernardrands.com does not have the recordings of his music that Gusty’s old site did. The score of the Preludes is published by Schott. Video of Jonathan Biss on the new Rands piece here and here.

Now Again

Network for New Music has released an all-Bernard Rands cd entitled Now Again, featuring the fabulous mezzo Janice Felty and the superb Network for New Music Ensemble. Read more about it and purchase a copy  here. Also, check out Network’s videos, including one on recording the Rands disc, as well as the first in a series of “Summer Shorts”, this one featuring Penn grad student composer Melissa Dunphy – yes, she of Gonzales Cantata fame.

I haven’t yet heard the disc, but I was at the first performance of the title work, which is based on Sappho fragments. It is an uncommonly gorgeous piece.