“Dark the Star” at Florida State

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
Tallahassee, FL

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.

Clarinet to the Max

9461_cover_rgb_largeMax 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.

French Music for Piano on Bridge Records

9459_cover_compact  9456a-b_cover_compact

 

 

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.

 

Ways of Listening

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.

George Perle’s Piano Music

perleI’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.

Opera News on “Sacred Songs”

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.”

Sticky post: “Sacred Songs” CD

CD coverThis CD is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and has been released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music. Scroll down for several more posts about the album. A review by Christian B. Carey on the Musical America website is here; another is at Audiophile Audition, by Steven Ritter. Composer Daniel Asia discusses the album at the Huffington Post here.

Sacred Songs: program notes, part II

Here are the program notes for the other two pieces on my new CD on Bridge. (The first installment is here). The pictures below are of the Grammy winning soloists on the disc, Bill Sharp and Susan Narucki.

Dark the Star

Unknown-3Composing this cycle of songs began with my discovery of three poems in Susan Stewart’s collection Columbarium that I knew I must set to music. The deep, dreamlike wisdom of these poems haunted me, just as I had experienced with Susan’s poem “Cinder” that had served as the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm. Eventually, texts by Rilke and an earlier setting I had done of a psalm verse were drawn into the gravitational orbit of Susan’s poems. I ordered the texts in a nearly symmetrical pattern, with two poems set a second time in versions that shadow their first readings. This is partly for the sake of the formal design, but, more importantly, to re-examine the poems in the penumbra of what comes before. Rounding the cycle in this way reflects not only the circles and repetitions in Susan Stewart’s texts, but also the way in which, as Rilke writes, the things we have let go yet encircle us.

William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort premiered this cycle in 2008.

Holy the Firm

Unknown-2The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for this song cycle draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted from a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte.  The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.

The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song. In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”

Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish gave the first performance of the original piano and voice version of Holy the Firm in 1999. I subsequently made this chamber version for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort; those artists gave the premiere in 2002.