Oboe Quartet in Philly, “Come Brothers All…” in Boston

Brilliant musicians who had previously played my music in other contexts separately came together to play my Oboe Quartet at Penn last Friday. Oboist Peggy Pearson, who commissioned the piece, collaborated with members of the Daedalus Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at Penn. The result was superb, richly shaded, strongly shaped. The premiere of an oboe quintet by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, the intensely strange Janáček first quartet, and a Haydn quartet arranged with oboe substituting for one of the violins rounded out the program. Anna’s piece was wonderfully varied and imaginative. She conjures memorable musical images that sound the way life feels. Peggy’s playing here, as throughout the evening, was extraordinary for her ability to subtly blend with the strings.

I traveled on to Boston the next day and attended the Cantata Singers benefit that evening:

This was held at the Liberty Hotel, which served as a jail until surprisingly recently.

Now some touristy pictures taken while walking from the subway to the benefit. Beacon Hill does look a little like some of the smaller streets in Philadelphia, though the buildings are typically three stories in Philly, not four: IMG_1912

 

The St. Gaudens memorial to Colonel Shaw and his African-American Civil War regiment:

IMG_1910(“Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat…” – from “For the Union Dead”, Robert Lowell) which is right across from the State House:

The next morning I went to Emmanuel Church, looking in on John Harbison before the service as he rehearsed a Victoria motet and a movement from his own And Mary Stood.

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Sunday afternoon – this 11th century corpus was a favorite piece:

 

Then Sunday evening was the first performance of my little contribution to Winsor Music’s “Songs for the Spirit” project, Come Brothers, All; Come Sisters, Too on a text by Georgia Douglas Johnson. Kendra Colton demonstrated the tune, then the audience joined in a reprise, with satisfying energy. Just before the performance:

It was great to have another chance to hear Anna’s quintet, plus the Haydn from Friday. The Winsor program closed with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, with clarinetist Rane Moore joining the Daedalus in a powerful rendition of this profoundly melancholy piece.

Thank you to all these musicians for your beautiful performances! I look forward to coming back to Boston for a Winsor Music concert next season that will feature a performance of my recently completed Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano.

Anna Weesner’s New Quintet

I mistakenly tweeted yesterday about the new work by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner as an oboe quartet, but it’s actually a quintet – string quartet and oboe. This is the piece of hers we will hear on the upcoming concert at Penn (this Friday, 3/24) with Peggy Pearson and the Daedalus Quartet – go here for more details on the concert. Read an interview with Anna at the Winsor Music website (in connection with the Boston performance of the piece on Sunday, 3/26). Here’s Anna’s program listing and note for the new quintet:

Love Progression: A Personal Essay
for oboe and string quartet

The personal essay strikes me as a mode for exploring a chosen topic in a way that might be equal parts reflective, studious and cheeky.  By ‘love progression’ I mean to refer to one of the common four-chord progressions on which a million and a half pop songs are based.  Because why not?  Common currency, my currency, history’s currency.  The mix of it. ( . . . or by ‘love progression’ did I mean the progression of love?)

The piece falls into six sections and is played without pause.

I. the flight
II. the timelessness
III. the questions
IV. the pop song
V. the mad scene
VI. the love coda

–Anna Weesner

Oboe Quartet Comes to Penn

daedalus 3.24.17Oboist Peggy Pearson commissioned and premiered my Oboe Quartet, playing the first performances back in 2015 with members of the Apple Hill Quartet. This week’s performance here in Philadelphia will be the first time the Daedalus plays the work. Mark DeVoto reviewed the first performance of the Oboe Quartet for the Boston Musical Intelligencer – you can read the review here. Preview the piece with audio or the score.

Here’s a program listing and note on the piece: 

1) Moderato
2) Allegro con fuoco
3) Passacaglia: Adagio, ma non troppo
4) Moderato e fluente
5) Moderato; Allegro giocoso

 I first heard Peggy Pearson’s eloquent playing as part of the performances of Bach cantatas at Emmanuel Church in Boston, and I think that baroque context has influenced this quartet. The work’s central passacaglia invokes a baroque form, while the first, second and fourth movements, though not suggesting a baroque idiom, perhaps hint at cantata recitatives and arias without words – lyrical, dramatic, plaintive. The impulse throughout the work is more songful than symphonic. Using a stylized dance, as I do in the finale of the quartet, also reflects baroque practice, though the choreography in my quartet clearly has more to do with a 20th century dance floor than with an 18th century ballroom.

Snow Day Miscellany

I have finished my Oboe Quintet for La Fenice (premiere June 9 at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival), so I have a moment to post about a few things on this snowy, icy day in Philadelphia.

– The performance of my Three Folk Hymns at UC San Diego by Susan Narucki and Donald Berman is coming up on March 15. More info here.

Peggy Pearson and members of the Daedalus Quartet will give the Philadelphia premiere of my Oboe Quartet in a concert at Penn on Friday, March 24th at 8. This happens in Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut. There will be a new piece by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner on the program as well. Preview the piece with the score here and audio here.

– In less happy news, the evaporation of classical music coverage at the New York Times continues.  The decline of the Times – what used to be called “the newspaper of record” –  is particularly distressing. The “moments” – highlights of the week’s events – that have been appearing in the Saturday edition are better than nothing, I guess, but “moments” are exactly what classical music is not about. The Times seems to aspire to be a guide to date night instead of reporting cultural news – the recent spring preview was pathetically sparse. Readers look to the Times for depth and breadth, but neither of those seems to be a priority now. I don’t subscribe to the Times for more white space around the articles and bigger pictures – more words, please! While coverage of major organization continues – so far, new productions at the Met are still covered, and the Philharmonic gets reviewed every week – smaller events, often the ones that involve new music, the kinds of thing that give New York’s musical life its rich texture, no longer have a presence in the paper. And let’s not get started on jazz coverage. The thinning out of content is happening in other parts of the paper – the editorial pages and pages 2 and 3 are now affected. Alex Ross is typically eloquent on the broader picture.

Yuletide Miscellany

– I very much enjoyed last night’s performance of Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Met. Stellar performances from Eric Owens, Tamara Mumford, Susanna Phillips, the Met orchestra and chorus, and conductor Susanna Mälkki were framed by the best of the Robert Lepage productions I have seen – simpler than his Ring, or the Adès Tempest (though certainly not simpler technically), and the more effective for it. The music is gorgeous and moving but sometimes distractingly static. It seemed odd for something so finely made and fluid in small details (though with a good bit of repetition) to be less varied on a larger level. I kept waiting for the bass to move during the storm scene at the beginning of Act IV – and it never did. I suppose one could respond that the sea – where most of the piece takes place – never changes on the larger level either. Here’s a trailer:

and here is Susanna Phillips rehearsing (it’s not right that the pianist is not identified!)

– coming up on January 13, 2017, the Daedalus Quartet will be presenting George Crumb’s Black Angels along with works by Joshua Hey and Scott Ordway at the Chinese Rotunda of the Penn Museum. (Friday the 13th, perfect for this piece!) Young composers who think extended performance techniques are something novel need to check out this piece and see how such devices can be used for maximum expressive impact. Here’s a preview:

– lastly, here’s my annual reminder to keep up your musicianship skills during Christmastime.

 

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.

Jay Reise: Memory Refrains

TROY1004Jay Reise‘s Memory Refrains will close this Friday’s “Voice of the Wail!” concert at Penn (details here). This 2002 work, written for and premiered by the Cassatt Quartet, will be played by the Daedalus Quartet at Friday’s concert. Here is Jay’s program note on the piece:

Memory Refrains is in one movement and runs about 25 minutes. The work is structured around three “inner” pieces of contrasting moods – Capriccio, Barcarolle, and Elegy. Each is played three times (the ‘refrains’ of the title) interspersed with interludes and transitions. The work opens with the fanciful and whimsical capriccio; after almost a complete stop, the barcarole begins with its lilting rhythms. The elegy begins immediately after the close of the barcarole and is characterized by a quietly insistent accented accompaniment. The interludes and transitions develop ideas derived from these three central pieces.

Memory Refrains is dedicated to Anna Cholakian, the extraordinary founding cellist of the Cassatt Quartet, who was tragically lost to cancer in 1996. The musical letters of Anna’s name (A-A-C-B [= German H]-A-A) make up the note content of the cello solo before the final refrain of the elegy. Memory Refrains was premiered and recorded by the Cassatt Quartet in 2002 (Albany Records).

To-Do List

The questionnaireIt isn’t entirely about picking up a pencil and staring at a blank sheet of manuscript paper, this composing thing. As a way of letting you know about some things that are happening soon, here is a list of stuff I have to do in the next 6 weeks or so:

– I have a considerable backlog of scores that are not in as nice shape, graphically speaking, as I would like, and I haven’t yet supplied the master copies of them (well, these days, PDF files) to Theodore Presser Co., my publisher. However, I am slowly addressing the issue with the help of master editor/engraver Ken Godel. Ken has recently sent me files of both the piano/vocal and chamber ensemble versions of my song cycle Holy the Firm, and I am proofing them one more time. I hope to finish this in the next few days.

Bridge Records has sent me the first draft of the booklet for the CD of my vocal music they will be releasing soon. I need to proof this, not only for the content (texts of the songs, bio notes, etc.) but to offer suggestions on the graphic appearance and layout. This needs to be done by this coming Monday.

– The Folger Consort will be performing my Songs and Dances from “The Tempest” in January, and I need to get the score and parts to them by the middle of this month. The varied instrumentation of the piece (it is scored for a wide array of early instruments) will be handled by a different, larger array of performers than was the case at the premiere some 15  years ago, and parts have to be devised to reflect this division of labor.

– In January I will be playing the slow movement, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, from my Piano Quintet, with the Daedalus Quartet on a program at Penn. Again, that score needs to be cleaned up graphically – my Finale chops have improved a bit since 1996, as has the program itself, of course. The Daedalus wants to see the parts by the beginning of December. (By the way, the Daedalus gave a wonderful concert yesterday at Penn, with works by Schulhoff, Korngold and a rare performance of the Schoenberg Ode to Napoleon, with pianist Charles Abramovic and baritone Randall Scarlatta as narrator. It’s a remarkable piece. Charlie described it to me afterwards as being “as crowd-pleasing as Schoenberg from that period gets.” I had only heard the piece live once before, a performance at Columbia University, with, of all people, Wallace Shawn as narrator.)

– My new song for Lyric Fest on a text by Susan Scott Thompson is also due in December; I want to look it over one more time before sending it in – for once I finished something far enough in advance that I have time to make final adjustments after letting the piece rest for a bit. It’s amazing what you see when you come back to a score after even a few weeks.

Richard Wernick and his Students

IMG_0070Here is the mentor and his mentorees: L to R, Philip Maneval, Yinam Leef, Richard Wernick, Melinda Wagner, and myself, taken after the April 18 concert of music by students of Dick Wernick held at the Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia.

Dick told the story of the graffito above the urinal in the men’s room in the Penn Music Department annex, the building where the faculty composers’ offices used to be. The inscription read: “Rochberg is the Father, Crumb is the Holy Ghost, and Wernick is the Son of a Bitch.” Yes, Dick was a challenging teacher, as some of us wrote in the program book for the concert. (Find the program notes here, here, here and here.) But there is more to the man than that, as I know from the kindnesses he showed me decades ago when I was ill with the same disease that took the life of his son. It would have been quite understandable if Dick went running in the other direction when he got word of my diagnosis. Instead, he was on the phone to me with advice, with names of doctors, with generous support. I count myself fortunate to know Dick Wernick.

And you will be fortunate if you check out his music! Try the recordings on Bridge of his concerti, or of his chamber music, or the one with big sonatas written for Lambert Orkis by Dick and myself. These are all splendid performances of Dick’s powerful, beautifully made pieces.

Speaking of performances, the players of the Daedalus Quartet, the Trio Cavatina, Elizabeth Hainen and Burchard Tang were superb in some very challenging music last week. These were high-calorie pieces, densely argued, with wide-ranging expressive demands. The performances were notable for their passion and sharply etched character. I was delighted with the performance of my quartet, and was astonished at how the Daedalus took on not just my piece, but three substantial works, all played with uncommon care.