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.

Thank you, Richard Wernick

wernick-richard_2009credit-adamleefNext Thursday, April 18, is the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society‘s concert in honor of Richard Wernick, featuring music by four of his former pupils:

Daedalus Quartet
Trio Cavatina
Burchard Tang, viola
Elizabeth Hainen, harp
Thursday, April 18, 2013, 7:30 pm
Settlement Music School (Queen Street)

Melinda Wagner (Pulitzer Prize, 1999): Pan Journal
James Primosch (current Penn faculty): Quartet No. 3
Yinam Leef (President, Rubin Academy, Jerusalem): Quartet No. 2
Philip Maneval (Executive Director, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society): Quartet in C-sharp, Op. 50

My third quartet was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and premiered by the Ying Quartet in 1999. Here is a program listing and note on the piece:

String Quartet No. 3 (1999)
I. Theme and Variations
Theme: Largo
Var. 1: Andante Moderato
Var. 2: Allegretto Grazioso
Var. 3: Vivace
Var. 4: Prestissimo
II. Fantasia: Allegro Ansioso
Var. 5: Adagio
III. Finale: Vivace, Poco Scherzando
Coda: Largo

program note

After writing a series of pieces that either set texts or relied on pre-existing melodies (old sacred tunes) as compositional resources, I set out to create a more autonomous, abstract world in my Quartet No. 3. My efforts yielded a somewhat unusual formal scheme: a theme and variations set is first interrupted by an anxious (“ansioso”) and expressionistic Fantasia; then resumes for a single variation, infiltrated by the gestures of the Fantasia. A viola cadenza follows, introducing a rondo-like finale. This attempt to cap the piece in a playful spirit is surprised by another reprise of the slow variation theme, this time in a simple unison statement.  The entire sequence plays without pauses and runs about 20 minutes.

Philip Maneval at PCMS requested that each of the composers write a note on their experience working with Dick as a student at Penn. Here is my note:

Some teachers of composition make it easier for the student to compose; some make it harder. Richard Wernick made it harder, and I am grateful that he did. Dick encouraged me to think deeply about fundamental musical issues, to work at making pitches truly matter, to hold myself to the toughest standards, to avoid simplistic solutions. Striving in his own composing for similar goals, he earned the right to be a kind of biblical prophet, issuing a radically uncompromising call to the highest artistic ideals. Thank you, Dick, for continuing to strive, for clinging to your vision of what a composer can be, for enriching us all with music of substance and expressive power.

That’s Dick in the photo above, taken by Yinam Leef’s son, Adam. It could be Dick the magician, conjuring up a new work – or sending it off into the world, in flight.


sunspots_full_diskThese things just happen once in a while – I don’t know why – sunspots? –  but I seem to have six performances coming up next month. To save you from having to click on the “upcoming performances” link above, (although you should feel no inhibitions about doing so), here’s the news for April:

April 2, 2013: Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (premiere)

Judith Gordon, piano
Sage Hall
Smith College
Northhampton, MA

April 5, 2013: Chamber Concerto

Benjamin Fingland, Clarinet
Network for New Music
Rose Recital Hall
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

April 13, 2013: Times Like These

Lisa Oberlander, clarinet
Yien Wang, piano
Cheryl G. & Joseph C. Jensen Grand Concert Hall
of the Stephens Performing Arts Center
Idaho State University, Pocatello, ID

April 16, 2013: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm

Kameryn Lueng, soprano
Szilvia Mikó, piano
Longy School of Music
Boston, MA

April 18, 2013: String Quartet #3

Daedalus Quartet
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Settlement Music School, Queen Street Branch
Philadelphia, PA
Concert will honor composer Richard Wernick with performances of works by his students.
Program includes music by Melinda Wagner, Yinam Leef, and Philip Maneval.

April 27: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm; How Can I Keep From Singin’? (arranged by Primosch)

Kameryn Lueng, soprano
Szilvia Mikó, piano
Bito Performance Space
Bard College Conservatory of Music
Annandale on Hudson, NY

Would that this kind of thing happened more often. Hope to see you at one or another of these – I’ll be at Smith, in Philly for both concerts, and possibly at Bard.

Wail of the Voice: Primosch

1115410I am faced with the performance of some older pieces of mine this spring, the first being my 1991 piano trio, Fantasy-Variations, on this Friday’s Wail of the Voice concert at Penn (see the posts below for more information). I heard a rehearsal of the piece the other day with Min-Young Kim, violin; Tom Kraines, cello; and Gregory DeTurck, piano. They are doing a fabulous job, there is no doubt about that, but what kind of composing job did I do 21 years ago?

It is a curious thing to hear a piece from that long ago. Lutoslawski referred to the experience as being like hearing the work of a younger colleague. I can’t say I feel a similar sense of distance, but I do recognize that I would have treated some ideas differently today than I did 2 decades ago. There are a few spots where the rhythms are unnecessarily tricky, others where the rhythm is too straightforward – it’s curious that there are miscalculations of both kinds. I hasten to say (given that I am trying to get you to come to Friday’s concert) that there are also spots that still sound OK! Perhaps more interesting than my subjective and confused sense of whether the piece is any good is the fact that there are aspects of the piece that are consistent with my later compositional practice, the most obvious being my interest in variation form. My Third Quartet (to be played this spring by the Daedalus Quartet) is built around a big variation form, and the Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer that I wrote for Lambert Orkis opens with a 25 minute variation set. (I later made that set into an independent piece (search “Primosch” and scroll down) for piano solo.) I think this continuing interest in writing variations partly stems from my experience as a jazz musician – playing choruses constitutes improvising variations.

Here is my program note on the Fantasy-Variations:

The theme that opens my Fantasy-Variations  permeates the harmonic and melodic life of the 24 short episodes and coda that follow.  However, in a few sections the relationships with the theme are more hidden than explicit; the fanciful connections between these portions and the opening theme suggested the work’s hybrid title.  Yet even in these more wide-ranging variations the opening theme is usually still hovering nearby, often as a quiet presence contrasting with more animated gestures.

The piece may be understood as a kind of dream journal: a chain of brief entries that seem to vary greatly, yet rotate about a fixed constellation of types and obsessions, speaking a language of images at once logical and impossible, familiar and mysterious.

I wrote the Fantasy-Variations for the Leonardo Trio* in 1991 with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in composition.

A recording of the piece is available on a disc from New World Records (see image above).

* I am sorry to say that the Leonardo Trio doesn’t seem to exist any longer, although the members continue to be active in other musical pursuits. A Google search shows a Trio Leonardo and another Leonardo Trio, neither of which is group for which I wrote. The members were Erica Kiesewetter, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello; and Cameron Grant, piano. Besides my own disc, they can be heard on an album of music by Morris Rosenzweig and a disc of Smetana, Martinu and Shostakovich.

Wail of the Voice: Weesner

I suppose “unique” is an extremely tired word, but I really don’t know another composer whose music sounds like that of my Penn colleague, Anna Weesner. She subscribes to no “-ism”, and there is no ready label for her music. The elements that make up her language – some of which include hints of pop, or Stravinsky, or Lutoslawski, for example – are thoroughly digested. When she engages aspects of popular idioms, with a reliance on motoric pulsation or ostinato technique, she does so in a thoughtful way – the ostinati are balanced with carefully crafted harmonic motion; the rhythmic “hooks” are subtly varied and integrated.

Anna’s sense of timing and pacing is exquisite – she can effect gradual changes, or make jump cuts that startle before revealing their logic a moment later. Anna does not use tonal elements in a neo-classical manner, nor for the sake of nostalgia or for surrealist effects. Rather, these elements, as straightforward as a major chord, are activated by an unexpected context, freshened by a foreign element or revealed as a secret underpinning for a more complex surface. Hers is a direct yet subtle art – the surface is full of vivid gestures, wonderfully wide-ranging and imaginative but placed with pinpoint timing, and cunningly varied. A figure may repeat in what seems like will be an obvious manner, but the repetition is quickly subverted, or, under pressure, expands to ecstatic layering of varied iterations. Her pieces are generally not long in clock time, yet are understood by the listener as eventful – satisfyingly “long” in experiential time. Formal patterning in Anna’s work is uniquely fresh. There are rarely straightforward recapitulations, and ready-made formal schemes do not interest her. The music has its own mind as to how to unfold, varying both from piece to piece, and within individual pieces with respect to rate of change, in method of making transitions, in dramatic arc. She manages to achieve that difficult balance of the unexpected and the inevitable.

The piece of Anna’s that we will hear at Friday’s Voice of the Wail concert (Friday, January 11, at 8:00 pm in Rose Recital Hall at Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus) is a string quartet to be played by the Daedalus Quartet. Here is her program note:

The Space Between has traveled a long and unusual compositional path.  It began with a commission from the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet in 2001.  Excited about this project and wanting to take full advantage of the chance to write for a terrific group, and for multiple performances, I wrote a piece that was compositionally ambitious, which is to say, awfully long and awfully challenging to play.  The Cypress did a bang-up job with the piece, though I’m not sure any of us were entirely sure we wanted to promote its continued existence.  Some years went by and I found that I didn’t want to let the piece go as a lost, youthful effort, but that I also didn’t want to keep it as it was.  So I tried revising it.  Several times.  Does too much labor mean a piece that sounds labored?  In the first instance, with the original quartet I wrote for the dear Cypress, I think the answer was yes.  With The Space Between I hope that the answer is no.  (I think wishfully of the drafts of sentences by E.B. White, where the eventual version—the one born of many attempts and apparently requiring no small amount of labor—is the one with expressive elegance and lightness and spontaneity.)

The Space Between is made largely of material salvaged from the first movement of what was originally a two-movement piece.  Not much of it is precisely as it was before, though some material is certainly recognizable.  There is also new material.  Overall, it is different enough to warrant a new title.

Musically, the piece is preoccupied with texture, that is, with the business of how many voices, or parts, are in play at a given time and with whether what those parts are doing is primary or supportive, melody or accompaniment, or neither.  It may have something to do with wanting to explore the sound of the one and the many (and the space between them), or with what it means to write a melodic line and to let it stand alone, on the one hand, and then also give it musical context.  It is easy in music to think about loud and soft as “players” in an unfolding score.  I would like to think that in addition to loud and soft, one might hear near and far, the solitary and the group, and also private and public, as additional, complicit forces at work.

Working with string quartets is incredibly gratifying and fun, especially when the players are highly skilled, deeply thoughtful and good-humored.  In this vein, I’d like to affectionately dedicate this piece to three quartets who’ve helped my music along in ways too numerous to mention: the Cypress Quartet, the Cassatt Quartet, and the Daedalus Quartet.

Wail of the Voice: Wernick

Richard Wernick retired from the Penn composition faculty a number of years ago, but his presence is still felt indirectly, in that two of his students – myself and Jay Reise – presently teach at Penn. At the time of a concert for Dick’s 75th birthday a few years ago I wrote:

Some teachers of composition make it easier for the student to compose; some make it harder. Richard Wernick made it harder, and I am grateful that he did. Dick encouraged me to think deeply about fundamental musical issues, to work at making pitches truly matter, to hold myself to the toughest standards, to avoid simplistic solutions. Striving in his own composing for similar goals, he earned the right to be a kind of biblical prophet, issuing a radically uncompromising call to the highest artistic ideals. Thank you, Dick, for continuing to strive, for clinging to your vision of what a composer can be, for enriching us all with music of substance and expressive power.

It’s Dick’s most recent string quartet that we will hear at Friday’s Voice of the Wail concert, January 11 at 8:00 pm in Fisher-Bennet Hall on the Penn campus, performed by the ensemble for which it was written, the Daedalus Quartet. Here is Dick’s program note on the piece:

In 1962 I began a two year residency with the Bay Shore Public Schools.  This was under a program entitled the Young Composers Project, funded by the Ford Foundation and administered by the Music Educators National Conference.   During this time I had the privilege of meeting and working with Howard Koch, a remarkable string pedagogue with a very special gift of eliciting the very best from students of all ages.  During those years I wrote pieces for chamber orchestra, elementary, junior high school and high school bands and chorus. The highlight of those two years, however, was working with, and composing music for, an extraordinary group of high school string players (the violist was actually a junior high school student who had been conscripted for the group).  In addition to my String Quartet #1 which I wrote for them, Howard and I collaborated with them on a program of the Bartok 2nd Quartet and two movements of the Schubert C Major Quintet.  It was a very special time; having come from the world of music for theater, dance and TV, the String Quartet #1 must be counted as the first piece of serious concert music that I acknowledge.

Skipping ahead to 2009, the Daedalus Quartet were doing a residency in Bay Shore and my name came up in connection with the projected possibility of my composing a new string quartet for them.  To my astonishment there were people in Bay Shore—former students—who actually remembered me from that time nearly a half century ago.  The result of that encounter was the ultimate composition of my Eighth String Quartet, written for the Daedalus Quartet, and commissioned by the Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund and the Islip Arts Council. It is dedicated to the memory of Howard Koch.

My Eighth Quartet is the only one (so far) in four movements.  The main body of the piece is found in the two slow movements, numbers two and four, which, while quite different from one another, contain much in common in the way of melody and harmony.  The first and third movements are unrelated either to each other or the slow movements.

The first movement is fast and energetic, much in the manner of a toccata.

The second movement—Arioso Serioso I— is cast in the style of a chaconne, a set of variations above a repeated bass line.  In the case of this movement, however, the bass line and principal motif are exactly the same, but proceed at different speeds, and this brief “motif” is also the principal underpinning of the movement’s harmonic structure.

The third movement is the quirky one.  As the title would suggest, it is not a Menuetto at all; it just sounds like one.  The movement is a variation on a short piano piece I composed for Network for New Music in Philadelphia who, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, invited twenty five composers to each write a variation on the same Diabelli Waltz that Beethoven had used for his monumental Diabelli Variations.  A rather hubristic notion at the very least, but quite a bit of fun.

The fourth movement  — Arioso Serioso II — is, in a sense, a continuation of the second movement but with the inclusion of additional material.  I derived this added material from a sacred service I had composed many years earlier, and, although it is highly transformed from its original version, I found its use in this, a memorial piece, perfectly appropriate.


Scenes from Whaling Trip

Here are a few pictures from Wednesday night’s “Voice of the Wail!” concert at Penn. There were some fine performances by the Daedalus Quartet, pianist Greg DeTurck, and College House Music Fellows Michelle Kelly, Matt Bengston, and Tom Kraines. And who could resist the masks for Crumb’s Voice of the Whale? ( L to R: Michelle Kelly, Matt Bengston and Tom Kraines,)

The surviving members of the so-called Penn Troika (Penn composition faculty members Rochberg, Wernick, and Crumb) were present, along with the current composition faculty and some alums. Here are (L to R) George Crumb, Jay Reise and myself:

and a whole pod of whales, I mean group of Penn composers (seated, l to r: retired faculty members Richard Wernick, George Crumb; standing: current faculty members Jay Reise, Anna Weesner, myself, Penn alumnus Philip Maneval):

More about the concert here, here, here and here.

Sound as Four, Sound as One

Anna Weesner has sent along her program note for Sound as Four, Sound as One, the work that the Daedalus Quartet will perform as part of the Wail of the Voice concert next Wednesday:

In clear connection with the title, this quartet opens with the sound of all four players in unison, a sound that is then quickly juxtaposed with the sound of one voice alone.  A basic notion concerning the many and the one, or the one and the many, informs much of this piece.  This expressive notion probably has a few different points of origin for me.  For one, I have long loved the sound of strings playing in unison in the register represented by the lowest octave of the violin.  There is something about the less-is-more timbral mix that occurs when violins, viola and cello play together in this range that has always sounded potentially gutsy and sort of heart-rending at the same time.  There is also a textural concern that I think has to do with wanting to explore questions about the role, or the “sounding meaning”, so to speak, of melody.  In addition to playing in actual unison, the quartet often plays in rhythmic unison, which may set off as meaningful other textural situations, such as when there is clear melody and accompaniment, or when there is one voice alone.  I also hope that there will be a sense of space in play, so that the louds and softs in the music might translate somehow as being equally concerned with feelings of near and far.  I imagine, for example, someone who is far away calling out loudly in contrast to a softly murmuring crowd nearby.  Or perhaps it’s a single person murmuring nearby and a crowd far away, roaring.

We’ve got the program order figured out for the concert, here’s the lineup:

Anna Weesner: Sound as Four, Sound as One
Daedalus Quartet

James Primosch: Piano Variations
Gregory deTurck, piano

– intermission –

Jay Reise: Yellowstone Rhythms
Samuel Lorber (scroll down), saxophone; Matthew Bengston, piano

George Crumb: Vox Balenae (Voice of the Whale)
Michele Kelly, flute; Tom Kraines, cello; Matthew Bengston, piano

The time and place again: 8:00 pm, Wednesday, March 28, in Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Fisher-Bennett is at 34th and Walnut. There will be a pre-concert chat with the composers, moderated by Penn grad student Delia Casadei, at 7:00 pm. An article by Delia about George Crumb here. More on the concert here and here and in future posts.


Wail of the Voice

Lots of new music at Penn in coming weeks. Music by Penn faculty past and present will be heard on Wednesday, March 28, at a program playfully called “Wail of the Voice”, with reference to the Crumb work that will end the program, Voice of the Whale. There will be music by current faculty Anna Weesner and Jay Reise, as well as myself. The Daedalus Quartet will play Anna’s piece, Greg DeTurck will offer my Piano Variations, and there will be a piece for saxophone and piano by Jay. In addition to Greg and the Daedalus, Matt Bengtson (piano), Sam Lorber (saxophone), and Michele Kelly (flute) will also be heard. A pre-concert discussion will be at 7:00, concert at 8:00, all this in Rose Recital Hall at Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus.

One week later, April 4, same place, same time, the New York New Music Ensemble will appear. The program includes:

Rand Steigerelliott’s instruments (2010)
Eric ChasalowOn That Swirl of Ending Dust (2012) Written for NYNME
Yiorgos VassilandonakisQuatuor pour la fin d’une ère (2012)  Written for NYNME
Zhou Long Cloud Earth (2012) Written for NYNME


Hear whales wailing here.

Upcoming in Philly

Plenty of new music in the next few days in Philadelphia:

-the Prism Sax Quartet celebrates its 25th anniversary with a concert at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Friday, January 29. Note the early start time of 5:45. Billed as a CD release party, the program includes music by Steve Mackey, Jacob TV, Roshanne Etezady, Bill Albright, and Lei Liang. New Yorkers have to wait till Sunday night to hear this show at (le) Poisson Rouge. Go here to read a fine piece by David Patrick Stearns about Prism, and here for a clip of Prism playing my Short Stories.

Update: Very nice to see Prism written up in the NY Times Arts & Leisure section.

-the American Composers Orchestra does a run-out of their Friday night Zankel Hall program to the Annenberg Center in Philly on Saturday, January 30. Anne Manson conducts music by Sebastian Currier, Roger Zare, and Paquito D’Rivera.

-the Daedalus Quartet (with guest colleagues) plays Beethoven, Schoenberg (your chance to hear Verklärte Nacht live) and a new piece by Lawrence Dillon on Sunday, January 31, in Amado Recital Hall on the U Penn campus.

There may be other events I am missing, but these three concerts alone add up to something of a new music festival.