Heat Wave Miscellany

Actually the heat wave is in its last day today in Philadelphia, with more reasonable weather coming tomorrow. Perspiring or not, here are a few notes on recent listening and more.

I’ve been greatly enjoying Brian Mulligan’s new album on Bridge Records, called “Old Fashioned”. Brian was the soloist in my Songs for Adam back in 2009 with the Chicago Symphony. He continues to sound marvelous, with a rich and powerful baritone. His program for the CD features songs from the turn of the 20th century, items that perhaps your grandparents loved – “Because”, “I Love You Truly”, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, “Roses of Picardy” and the like. There is no hint of parody or camp, these are sincere and honest interpretations of genuinely touching material. Perhaps these songs mean a lot to me because my parents knew and loved some of them, and because I got to know them from the sheet music I inherited from various aunts and uncles. My father used to sing/hum the odd phrase from a couple of them. These family connections reinforce for me the sentiments expressed in the songs. Craig Rutenberg is the elegant pianist.

Awaiting their turn in my CD player: Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit (Wet Ink Ensemble, New World Records); John Harbison’s Requiem (Nashville Symphony, Naxos) and an album of orchestral music of George Perle (Seattle Symphony, Bridge Records).

Philadelphia musical organizations are announcing their coming seasons. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society did this a while ago; the programs I find of interest are too numerous to mention, but some new music highlights include a program with the Jack Quartet with percussionist Colin Currie and, on various concerts, works by Brett Dean, Christopher Cerrone, Iva Bittová and more. There will also be lots of Beethoven, including a complete cycle of the piano sonatas, the majority handled by Jonathan Biss. A brochure from the always thoughtfully programmed Lyric Fest just came in the mail; an evening-length premiere by Daron Hagen is of special interest. Orchestra 2001’s season is modest, but performances of works by George Crumb and Rene Orth deserve attention.

Lastly, August Read Thomas sent me a link to a short video about her new opera, featuring the astonishing Nicole Paris:

 

“Dark the Star” at Florida State

About a year ago, a performance of my song cycle for baritone and chamber ensemble, Dark the Star, was scheduled for performance at the Florida State University New Music Festival. Evan Jones, the soloist came down with a terrific case of laryngitis, and the performance had to be cancelled. I’m delighted that the performance has at last been re-scheduled, and Evan will be singing the piece, with most of the same players from last year, on a faculty recital at FSU this Friday, March 2. I heard a rehearsal of the instrumentalists last year, and the performance is going to be fantastic. Here’s the lineup:

Evan T. Jones, baritone
Deborah Bish, clarinet
Gregory Sauer, cello
Heidi Williams, piano
Jacob Kight, percussion
Keith Dodson, conductor

The concert takes place at FSU’s Opperman Music Hall at 7:30.

There are a couple of ways you can get to know the piece. Check out an earlier post, including a program note here. You can listen to the superb Bridge recording by baritone William Sharp, the 21st Century Consort, and conductor Christopher Kendall:

and you can look at the score, published by Theodore Presser Co. here.

Order the CD that includes Dark the Star, plus three other vocal works of mine, at the Bridge website.

 

 

On Davidovsky’s String Trio

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!)

Chamber Music of Richard Wernick on Bridge

UnknownRichard 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:

Narucki and Berman at Tufts

43-231708452f2b1da7481ac1d67e2aecf6I 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)

 

“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

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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.