Network for New Music played Mario Davidovsky’s String Trio here in Philadelphia yesterday. I wrote a program note for the performance:
The very first sound we hear in Mario Davidovsky’s String Trio – a short sharp attack in the viola combined with the same notes sustained in the violin – reflects the composer’s pioneering work in the medium of electronic music. In that opening sound he creates a composite gesture just as he constructed such gestures by splicing together bits of magnetic recording tape in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center beginning in the early 1960’s. Building up a musical discourse from elemental particles became Davidovsky’s practice when writing purely instrumental music as well. The lightning speed of articulation, the rapidly shifting dynamic levels, the sense of a musical space in constant flux, all of which we hear in the String Trio, can be traced to Davidovsky’s work in the electronic medium.
But there is more to this music than an acoustic replication of electronic idioms. The hard-edged intensities of this music also reflect an urban sensibility, a response to the experience of living in New York City as Davidovsky has for most of his life. This aspect of his music requires a super-charged playing style with exaggerated dynamics, and razor sharp rhythms. In contrast, amid the stinging attacks, flurries of activity, and sudden swells, there are moments in this music of the utmost delicacy, singing lines that intersect in what composer Ross Bauer has characterized as an “almost Renaissance purity”.
The pleasure of Davidovsky’s Trio springs from attending to the play of forms, the way fragmentary elements are deployed over time, how they are juxtaposed, layered, and transformed into one another. In its fiery vehemence, its scintillating exuberance, and its extreme tenderness, Davidovsky’s Trio offers us an uncommonly eloquent musical narrative.
Davidovsky’s String Trio was commissioned by the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation and premiered in Venice in 1982 by members of the Arditti Quartet.
Here’s a recording of the Trio from a Bridge Records album. (Note that the image shown in the video is from some other album!)
Richard Wernick: Sextet; Concerto for Cello and Ten Players; Piano Trio No. 1. Bridge Records 9480. Here are three masterfully crafted and powerfully expressive works from an exceptionally underappreciated American composer. (I say “exceptionally” because, as the late Steve Stucky once said to me, “we’re all underappreciated!”) Richly contrapuntal, the music is in a dissonant post-tonal idiom, finding coherence in its focussed use of striking motifs and economical harmonic vocabulary. The pitch language is nicely balanced between consistency and variety. When I was in the grad program at Penn, Wernick used to exhort my fellow students and I to “make your own tonality!” He does so in his own music and succeeds brilliantly.
The sextet is scored for strings and piano – a piano quintet plus bass. The addition of the bass gives a quasi-orchestral weight to the vigorous passages here. But Wernick can also deploy his forces in a beguilingly delicate, Webernesque texture, as in the work’s opening Arioso. The Chamber Concerto is the earliest piece on the album. I am taken aback to realize I was at the premiere of this piece some 37 years ago, with the 21st (then 20th!) Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall, with Barbara Haffner as the soloist, as she is on this recording. I find this earlier piece to be more expressionist in style, more rhapsodic in shape than the later music on the disc (the Trio is from 1994; the Sextet from 2003.) There is a somewhat neo-classical character to the later music, though Wernick’s idiom is very different from that of, for example, the music of Stravinsky that is normally associated with that term. I remember especially admiring at the premiere – and I continue to admire now – the second movement of the concerto, one of Wernick’s grandest conceptions, a sixteen-minute passacaglia that very gradually builds and builds in density and power. The terse and animated outer movements of the Piano Trio contrast nicely with the contemplative middle movement, centered around a still point of repeated piano harmonics. It’s an all-star group playing the Trio, with Gregory Fulkerson, violin; Barbara Haffner, cello; and Lambert Orkis, piano; the players for the concerto and the Sextet are from the Chicago area, including members of the Lyric Opera’s orchestra, and are no less fine. Robert Trevino conducts the concerto.
Here’s the opening of the Sextet:
I just got word that the fabulous duo of soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Donald Berman is giving a program at Tufts this coming Sunday that will include my setting of a Kathleen Norris text, Who Do You Say That I Am?, and two songs from my set of Three Folk Hymns – the ones based on Be Thou My Vision and What Wondrous Love is This? The concert is at 3 pm at the Distler Performance Hall in the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University in Medford, MA – more info here. The program is an attractive one. Susan and Donald are calling it: “Stop Endings: Intimate Songs on Nature, Loss, and Spirituality”. Besides my own material there will be music of Schumann, Zemlinsky, and Kurtág. (Susan coached with the famously demanding Kurtág.)
There’s lots of great stuff from Susan on YouTube, including Carter, Crumb, Davidovsky, Vivier, etc. For a start, here’s her Bridge recording of the third song in my Rilke cycle From a Book of Hours for chamber ensemble and soprano (the piece also exists in the original orchestral version). Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. There’s a perusal score of the chamber version below and the orchestral version is here. You can hear Donald play piano music of Scott Wheeler here; lots of Ives from Donald on YouTube as well.
(photo credit: Richard Bowditch)
My Dark the Star for baritone and chamber ensemble was selected to be performed at the Florida State University Festival of New music next week. Here are the details:
Thursday, February 2, 2017, 7:30 pm: Dark the Star
Evan T. Jones, baritone
Deborah Bish, clarinet
Greg Sauer, cello
Heidi Williams, piano
Peter Soroka, percussion
Alexander Jimenez, conductor
Opperman Music Hall
Florida State University
A great deal of music is packed into the three days of the Festival – go to the Festival website for more information.
Special guest performers for the Festival include the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, and violinist Monica Germino. The featured composer is Louis Andriessen. I’ve never met Andriessen, but I played his 1963 work Registers for piano at the 1977 Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam. This graphic score is very different from the later music for which he is principally known, with its influences from minimalism and Stravinsky. You can get some sense of what the score looks like in this video, though the image is quite reduced in size. (A shame the performer in the video is not identified.)
Heidi Williams, the pianist for the performance of Dark the Star, is in the midst of a big CD project with soprano Mary Mackenzie, including quite a lot of my vocal music. I will linger in Florida after the Festival to attend a recording session for my Three Folk Hymns with Mary and Heidi. (Mary just gave a wonderful performance at a Collegium Institute event at Penn, along with pianist Eric Sedgwick.)
Here’s the first movement of Dark the Star in the Bridge recording made by the forces for whom the piece was written: William Sharp, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor.
Max Reger: Music for Clarinet and Piano. Alan R. Kay, clarinet; Jon Klibonoff, piano. Bridge Records 9461
Reger is a composer many people love to hate – the pieces are said to be too long, the harmony too wanderingly chromatic. (Not everybody; Rudolf Serkin was a fan.) But the two clarinet sonatas of Op. 49 are only about 20 minutes long each, and with a bit of patient listening, the harmonic labyrinths of this late romantic music become less forbidding. Along with Reger’s slightly longer sonata Op. 107, they deserve to be heard much more frequently as alternatives to the Brahms sonatas on clarinet recitals. The three sonatas plus a couple of very brief character pieces make up this wonderfully performed disc, notable for the sheer beauty of sound achieved by both players.
Francis Poulenc: Music for Piano (1918-1959). Aleck Karis, piano.
Pierre Boulez: Complete Music for Solo Piano. Marc Ponthus, piano.
Yes, both composers are French, but they couldn’t occupy more contrasting places on the aesthetic spectrum. What’s consistent across these two albums is the high quality of the piano playing. Ponthus commands the extremes of Boulez’s piano writing with dazzling and heroic virtuosity. No heroism is called for by Poulenc, but the many short movements of these pieces do require deft characterization, only possible with Karis’s command of subtle and varied nuances.
Almost all of the 8 pieces on the Poulenc album were new to me, the one exception being the Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. The big pieces here were the most intriguing – a set of Fifteen Improvisations dating form 1933-59 and a Thème Varié from 1951. There’s more variety and weight to this music than just the charming cocktail piano of the Mouvements Perpétuels. (I used to play those as part of my piano bar repertoire.)
I’m afraid the astounding brilliance of Marc Ponthus’s playing did not change me into a big Boulez fan. I find the relatively late Incises (in its 2001 version) and the very early Douze Notations (1945) to be more attractive than the three sonatas. The shattered narrative of the Third Sonata – like handfuls of multi-colored glass shards – simply doesn’t sustain my interest. The Second Sonata has become something of a repertoire piece, but if you are looking to program a big mid-century atonal piano sonata I would suggest the Sessions 3rd, Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, Wolpe’s Battle Piece (a sonata in all but name), or, dating from a little later, the Wuorinen 2nd, or the two sonatas of Richard Wernick (only the First seems to be on YouTube), all much less widely played works that appeal to me more than the Boulez sonatas.
Composer Daniel Asia has written about my Bridge Records release “Sacred Songs”, in the Huffington Post.
Program notes for the album by John Harbison and Susan Stewart are here and here; YouTube postings of tracks here and here.
You may have noticed the link at the end of the recent NY Times review of the Tanglewood performance of my Dark the Star – it takes you to a YouTube posting of a track from the Bridge recording of the piece. The recording is by William Sharp, baritone, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor. You really should pick up a copy of the disc (there are links to do that at the Bridge website), but if you disdain physical media (and paying artists for their work!) and want to hear the piece from the beginning, go here. Dark the Star consists of nine movements played without pause, which means the separate videos for each track of the piece interrupt the flow in disconcerting ways, sometimes in mid-phrase – another reason to spring for the physical disc. The pieces from the Sacred Songs cd featuring soprano Susan Narucki are also on YouTube – here’s the first track from the cycle Holy the Firm.
Another way of listening to my work is to visit the audio excerpts link above. I’ve just posted two items:
– under solo voice, you can find the recent premiere of Shadow Memory, with soprano Lisa Williamson and pianist Rami Sarieddine, recorded at SongFest this past June. The piece is on a text by Susan Orlean.
– under instrumental, you’ll find the Oboe Quartet I wrote for Peggy Pearson and the Apple Hill Quartet, this taken from their performance at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA this past spring.
And, yes, I was thinking of this title when I titled this post, though not of the book’s content.
I’ve been greatly enjoying Michael Brown’s recent disc of George Perle’s piano music released by Bridge. Brown has the facility to handle Perle’s characteristic rapidly chattering textures, and the precision to project the music’s subtle rhythmic distinctions. I especially admired Brown’s command of the quickly shifting dynamics demanded in these scores, distinctly marking out musical strata. The piano sound is clear but warm. (Dare I say it? I prefer the sound of the piano on this disc to the brighter sounding instrument on Leon Fleisher’s otherwise magisterial recent album also on Bridge, an album that also includes music by Perle.)
Perle composed prolifically for the piano. The listing at georgeperle.net includes 20 solo pieces, in addition to concerted works.* Perhaps we don’t think of him as a piano composer the way we should because he eschewed the heroic and preferred smaller forms. Many of the pieces are comprised of multiple short movements – the eight pieces on Brown’s disc amount to 38 tracks. There’s nothing in his catalog like the Wolpe Battle Piece, Sessions’ Third Sonata, Shapey’s 21 Variations, Martino’s Pianississimo, etc. I don’t mean to suggest Perle’s achievement is slight – this is an important body of substantive music. But the music tends to be succinct, not rhapsodic. The preference is for lean writing rather than great washes of sound. Yet there is also considerable variety here. In addition to the fleet toccata textures that are Perle’s most typical voice, Brown’s album offers the introspective mood of the five movements that make up Lyric Intermezzo (1987), the biggest set on the album, and the expressionistic Short Sonata (1964), fierce of gesture and alert in its juxtapositions. The album encompasses nearly six decades of composing, so it’s natural that there are stylistic changes represented. The earliest piece, a Classic Suite from 1938 actually hints at Ravel in a few spots.
Perle’s piano music has been decently represented on disc with much of the catalog available in fine performances. Among other albums, there is an all-Perle disc by Michael Boriskin on New World; several solo piano pieces are included on a 2-disc Perle retrospective on Bridge (this album also includes the Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber orchestra and the Piano Concerto No. 2 **), the recent Fleisher disc includes Musical Offerings, composed for the pianist in 1997/1998; and Russell Sherman’s take on the Six Celebratory Inventions is on a disc from Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings.
Perle placed scores with a variety of publishers over the years, but it seems that Schott holds most of the catalog now, including some pieces formerly with other firms. (Presser and Peters still have important works as well.)
*) There is a Soliloquy recorded by Michael Borisken that does not appear on the Perle website list.
**) The Serenade is apparently the same recording that was issued on a Nonesuch disc that is still available as a download at Amazon. The Nonesuch album includes Richard Goode’s performance of the Ballade, the work’s only recording.
A review by Joshua Rosenblum of my Sacred Songs album has appeared on the Opera News website. It’s only available for subscribers, so I’ll just offer a few quotes here:
“Primosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama…”
“Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation…”
“Baritone William Sharp uses his resonant, authoritative voice to provide a gripping, inexorable build…” [in the song cycle Dark the Star]
“Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross. Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.”
“These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple… Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment.”