Cold Snap Miscellany

A few items of interest on a chilly day in Philadelphia:

– Two choirs that have performed my music offer Christmas concerts this weekend: The Crossing, and  Cantori New York.

– Did you know you can hear performances from Yellow Barn online? Lots of new music, including works by Michel van der Aa, Charles Wuorinen, Oliver Knussen, Hans Abrahamsen and many more, as well as traditional repertoire.

– The extraordinary violinist Rolf Schulte has made archival recordings of his performances of concertos by Roger Sessions and Donald Martino available on CD Baby here. The Sessions is performed by the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, with Janos Kulka, and the Martino is with the New Hampshire Symphony and James Bolle. The music is also available on the iTunes store.

– The Association for the Promotion of New Music presents an all-Babbitt program in his centennial year on December 19 at the Di Menna Center in New York, including performances by the New York New Music Ensemble.

– There will be a concert of music by Robert Capanna on Friday, January 6, at the Settlement Music School’s Queen Street Branch here in Philadelphia. Presented in collaboration with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the performers include the Network for New Ensemble conducted by Jan Krzywicki, soprano Sharon Harms, pianist Charles Abramovic, and the Prism Saxophone Quartet.

Maneval and Wernick at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

There was a terrific concert last night presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: music by Philip Maneval and Richard Wernick as played by the Daedalus Quartet and pianist Charles Abramovic. This was, as Miles Cohen, the Society’s artistic director put it in his pre-concert remarks, the “exclamation point” to last season’s celebration of the Society’s 30th anniversary, with the impetus being the presentation of music by Philip, the executive director of the Society. Philip suggested adding music by Richard Wernick to the program; Dick was  one of Philip’s teachers when studying at Penn, and the Society has long championed Dick’s music with commissions and performances.

Philip’s pieces – a piano sonata and a string quartet – were both substantial multi-movement works. I was particularly taken with the piano piece, not least because of the superb playing of Charles Abramovic: exquisitely balanced chords, a multitude of colors, the long line of the piece elegantly projected. It’s interesting to compare Philip’s compositional voice with that of his teacher. Both are working with a mostly dissonant post-tonal vocabulary, made coherent by the careful deployment of referential harmonies and motifs. But their gestural languages contrast. Philip’s voice is more rhapsodic, more directly related to older musics, while Dick tends to be more terse, with sharply etched shapes contrasting with lyrical music that often springs from an uncanny stillness. The music of both men is superbly crafted, and richly satisfying.

The Daedalus was its usual shining self in Philip’s new string quartet, and quartet members Min-Young Kim and Thomas Kraines joined Abramovic for a sizzling performance of Dick’s Piano Trio Nr. 2. (I linked to a video of the trio in this post.) The characterful epigrams of Pieces of Eight, a set of brief piano pieces by Dick, rounded out the program. It was nice to see a full house in the Curtis Institute’s Field Hall to celebrate the Society and two eloquent composers.

More “Sketchbook” Thoughts

Charles Abramovic and Jeffrey Khaner offered a exceptionally fine recital last week at the Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia. I have been blessed with many wonderful performances over the years, including work by top-rank flutists, but Jeffrey Khaner’s performance of my new A Flutist’s Sketchbook last week featured some uncommon playing. He gets a luscious sound from his instrument, with variety of color and intensely beautiful tone in every register and at every dynamic level. Charlie has played my music several times in the past, including the Network for New Music recording of Dream Journal, so I was already familiar with his unostentatious virtuosity. The Sketchbook is a grab-bag of styles, beginning with a simple diatonic chorale, and ending with a set of variations on “Be Thou My Vision”, with stops along the way for pieces that are modal, twelve-tone, and places in between. I had thought of the 13 pieces as being in a somewhat arbitrary order, though moving roughly from straightforward to more complex, and had even thought that performers could devise new orderings of the pieces, but friends told me the order I gave the work made a satisfying arc. It’s not a piece for those who insist on a consistency of style in a multi-movement work, but I have often preferred breadth of expression over uniformity of vocabulary.

Thank you to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for its ongoing commitment to new music in general and Philadelphia composers in particular with commissions such as the one that made A Flutist’s Sketchbook possible.

My premiere opened the concert. Charlie continued the program with the Carter Piano Sonata. This is a piece I want to like more than I do. It’s relatively early Carter, with key signatures and passages that are diatonic, but somehow the pitches don’t “tell”, just as the pitches don’t quite make sense in a some of Carter’s later music. The work is a big conception, with grand gestures that contrast with scurrying figuration that brought to mind the similarly scurrying but decidedly non-diatonic figures in Carter’s Night Fantasies from more than 30 years later. Charlie got the striking passages with harmonics to speak more clearly than in other performances I have heard, and he commanded the declamatory, florid, and reflective aspects of the piece with his customary assurance.

Dick Wernick’s Pieces of Eight was the other premiere of the evening, a set of eight short movements for solo piano. The set includes occasional pieces with dedications to friends and colleagues. The Wernickian wit was much in evidence, as in a piano version of the little piece he wrote for Network for New Music’s Diabelli Variation project a few years ago. Though they may be relatively light pieces, Dick’s always masterful craftsmanship remained in play.

The program ended with Copland’s flute and piano Duo. I hold Copland in very high esteem, but the Duo, his last major work, is not one of his best pieces, and even as fine a performance as this couldn’t make up for the lack of inspiration.

Here are Charlie and Jeff taking a bow after the Copland:

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“Sketchbook” and “Holy the Firm” pictures

Here I am with Charlie Abramovic and Jeffrey Khaner after the concert at Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia where they premiered my new set of pieces for flute and piano (that’s Charlie on the left)

IMG_3544And a shot from tonight’s concert by Mary Mackenzie and Eric Sedgwick; from left Richard Wernick, Eric, myself, Mary, and George Crumb:

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a few more pictures yet to come, plus some comments on the concerts – brilliant performances both nights!

“Sketchbook” Premiere

A quick reminder that I hope to see those of you who are in Philly at tonight’s premiere of A Flutist’s Sketchbook performed by Jeffrey Khaner and Charles Abramovic – details here. I heard a rehearsal last week – I knew these guys are first rate,  but when you hear the sheer beauty of sound, the musical intelligence, the virtuosity, all put at the service of your own stuff, you realize more profoundly how incredibly fine these musicians are.

Almost a Festival

If one performance is a concert, do two performances in quick succession in the same town constitute a festival? I don’t know about that, but there is a happy coincidence next week when my Philadelphia Chamber Music Society commission A Flutist’s Sketchbook will have its premiere on Tuesday, Oct. 22, and the next night Holy the Firm will be performed by soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Eric Sedgwick. Here are the details:

October 22, 2013 at 8:00 pm:
A Flutist’s Sketchbook (premiere)
Jeffrey Khaner, flute
Charles Abramovic, piano
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Settlement Music School
Queen Street Branch
Philadelphia, PA

October 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm
Holy the Firm
Mary Mackenzie, soprano
Eric Sedgwick, piano
Penn Contemporary Music
Rose Recital Hall (in Fisher-Bennett Hall)
34th and Walnut Streets
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

Jeffrey Khaner is the principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra; Charles Abramovic is a renowned chamber music partner, working with artists such as Midori and Sarah Chang as well as being a stalwart advocate for new music. I am greatly honored to have them perform my music. The commission was for a work accessible to players of modest attainments while remaining satisfying for professionals. I was uncertain as to exactly where to target the piece, and therefore this is a set of “13 easy and not so easy pieces” as the work’s subtitle describes it. Given the simplicity of some of the music, it strikes me that having Jeff and Charlie play the Sketchbook is like using nuclear weapons to kill a mosquito. Still, it will be a thrill to hear their formidable gifts put at the service of this modest music.

In contrast, Holy the Firm is rather immodest music. Written as it was for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish, this time I tried to make a big statement commensurate with the capabilities of those artists. Dawn specifically wanted a cycle, not an individual song, so H the F is a set of five movements, shaped by an expressive arc that binds the songs together quite literally – the songs follow each other with little or no pause (although individual songs can be extracted and performed separately, as has happened on many occasions). There are motivic recurrences that also tie the pieces together, with material from the first three songs (settings of Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard and the 7th century monk John Climacus) recurring in the finale, a kind of mad scene setting a found poem also by Annie Dillard. The expressive fulcrum of the piece is based on Susan Stewart’s Cinder, the first of 10 poems of Susan’s I have set, (with more settings to come). Here is Susan’s haunting text:

We need fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars;
we needed death to mark
an end, an end that time
in time, could mend.
Born in love, the consequence –
born of love, the need.
Tell me, ravaged singer,
how the cinder bears the seed.

Dolce Suono, Mahler, and Schoenberg

A great concert tonight in Philly by Dolce Suono with the amazing Eric Owens as soloist in new works by David Ludwig, Stratis Minakakis (both Penn alums), Fang Man, Steve Stucky, and Steve Mackey. (The Steves were absent due to performances in Carnegie Hall (Stucky) and with the LA Phil (Mackey). Ah, to have such problems…) Owens also did the Mahler Songs of a Wayfarer in the Schoenberg arrangement, and the underappreciated pianist Charles Abramovic offered an elegant performance of the Schoenberg Op. 19 piano pieces (with some idiot’s cell phone ringing during the last delicate movement). This is the first concert in a project commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death and the 60th anniversary of Schoenberg’s death, and the commissioned works all had threads of connection with those composers.