David Patrick Stearns on “Carthage”

David Patrick Stearns, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer (his writing still appears there, I assume on a free lance basis) wrote about the recent premiere of my Carthage by The Crossing on his blog, Condemned to Music. Read the whole post here, but here is the relevant portion:

Not having anything close to a comprehensive view of composer James Primosch, I find it hard to characterize how his voice has evolved. But I can say the composer I heard around 2000, when I first started sampling Philadelphia’s local compositional talent, is extremely different from what I heard on Saturday in the piece Carthage, set to an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.

Previously, I had thought of Primosch as a post-George Rochberg composer, tonal but with some sharp edges and a taste for complexity; maybe writing for the voices of The Crossing has led him into something more essential. This piece (also a world premiere) uses something resembling plainchant as a starting point, taking from that world a sense of a religiously concentrated melodic line. There’s plenty of harmonic sophistication, and some blue notes – some of the bluest notes this side of Coltrane – that tell you this music is very much a product of our time.

The Crossing has big plans for Primosch in future months and seasons. We’ll talk more about him when I have a critical mass of his music to contemplate.

Print Media Dämmerung

Three recent events involving newspaper writing about classical music:

  • November 12, 2017: New York Times devotes its Sunday classical page to an upcoming album of pop songs sung by a former opera singer.
  • November 12, 2017: Philadelphia Inquirer devotes its classical page to a preview of upcoming new music events in Philadelphia.
  • November 16, 2017: David Patrick Stearns announced on his blog that he is accepting a buyout from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’m not saying there is an causal relationship among these events. But the juxtaposition of the two Nov. 12 articles was striking – by wasting the limited space available for classical music that day, the Times seemed parochial compared with the Philadelphia paper.

I am sad to see David Patrick Stearns go. His writing annoyed me, it pleased me, it offered me fresh insights – sometimes all in the same article. But it was always solid and thoughtful writing and never boring. He will be greatly missed.

David Patrick Stearns on “Alleluia”

Philadelphia Inquirer classical music critic David Patrick Stearns wrote about this past Sunday’s Mendelssohn Club premiere of my Alleluia on a Ground. You can read the full article here (note that the picture is a file photo and not from this past weekend), but here is the relevant portion:

…the best news that came out of this season-ending concert at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion is that two of Philadelphia’s world-class composers  wrote new pieces. [Robert Maggio was the other composer represented by a new piece.] Both were in top form, showing hugely different approaches toward the same text.

They program continued Mendelssohn’s mini-commissioning series of pieces written to the word Alleluia in honor of retired artistic director Alan Harler. For Sunday’s program, James Primosch and Robert Maggio delivered works that felt completely self contained but are full of ideas that should be continued into larger works.

Primosch’s Alleluia on a Ground began with unison vocal lines of such apparent simplicity that they could almost have been Gregorian chants. Yet subtle quirks pointed to a discreet individuality that would never have been heard in music from that world. Many vocal lines had what might be called a hinge note, opening a door into unanticipated but never radical directions. These created a web of contrapuntal writing at home in a religious text setting but going to places specific to Primosch, especially with background and foreground effects.

I like that idea of a “hinge note”, a gateway to a fresh direction. I also appreciated the mention of “background and foreground effects” – perhaps this was suggested most vividly by the juxtaposition of chords for the full chorus and a smaller subset of the group at the climax of the piece. Climactic or not, that three-dimensional effect is something I am always seeking.

I wish I could offer my own comments on the performance, but car trouble kept me from getting to the concert in time. I think it’s the first time I ever missed a premiere! Having heard two rehearsals, I know conductor Paul Rardin and the singers surely did a wonderful job.

Philadelphia Milestones

I was honored to be mentioned in David Patrick Stearns’s review of events in classical music for 2014 in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote:

Philadelphia had its own unofficial biennial. In a town sometimes accused of championing composers from far away at the expense of locals, The Crossing choir’s June/July Month of Moderns Festival featured new works by both Robert Maggio (The Women Where We Are Living) and James Primosch (Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus) at peak inspiration. In October, Kile Smith delivered The Consolation of Apollo, an ingenious melding of the writings of sixth-century Boethius and the musings of the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968. Would these works have been written were there not a choir like this to sing them?

To answer his rhetorical question – no, I think not, at least not in my own case. I wrote the piece knowing I could count on a superb performance, no matter what the challenges I set before the group. I’m happy to say The Crossing will reprise the piece next June 21.

Network “Third Space” in Review

Nice to see this review of Network for New Music’s festival of electronic music in the Philadelphia Inquirer today. Here’s what David Patrick Stearns had to say about my Chamber Concerto:

James Primosch’s terrific Chamber Concerto began dauntingly with musical ideas splintered over a large range of sounds, opening the door to an exquisite, mysterious garden of sound in the second movement, reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen, with a playfully intricate final movement.

I quite agree with David’s comment about the performances being at a “remarkably high standard” – thank you, Network!

The Crossing and “Much Magic”

I was happy to see David Patrick Stearns’s positive comments on The Crossing‘s recent concert here in Philly, including some nice words about my piece, Spiralling Ecstatically. David remarks that he doesn’t usually associate me with choral music, which is pretty reasonable, given the fact that my choral music is not widely performed – I suffer, like so many composers, from second performance syndrome. But the fact is that I have written about a dozen choral pieces, five of them since the turn of the century. I am in the process of circulating a batch of scores among choral directors, and perhaps something will come of that; also, I hope the Mendelssohn Club’s CD on Innova of Fire-Memory/River-Memory will have an impact. For now, I’ll direct you to my website, where there is a listing of my choral works, plus some audio and score clips (note that the “chorus” webpage does not yet include the two most recent motets, Two Arms of the Harbor, and Gaudete in Domino).

Autumn Miscellany

OK, so this is a little late for the first day of autumn, but it is still miscellaneous:

Davd Patrick Stearns weighs in with a positive spin on the Allen Kozinn re-assignment story.

– season brochures are coming in over the transom thickly now. Boston’s Collage is offering Feldman, Saariaho, Corey Dargel, Yehudi Wyner, and the late George Edwards. They are also presenting Christopher Taylor doing the complete Vingt Regards of Messiaen.

In DC, the 21st Century Consort’s year includes music by David Froom, Stephen Albert (my favorite piece of his, a Joyce setting called To Wake the Dead), Donald Crockett and Derek Bermel. Here’s how the Albert begins:

– go here for the sound of Wallace Stevens reading.

– and go here for George Perle, Paul Lansky, and Virgil Moorefield on three generations of composition teachers.

Wednesday Morning Miscellany

– fellow Columbia alum David Froom talks with New Music Box here. David quotes Roger Sessions as saying music should be “inevitable without being predictable” – that puts the task before us clearly and succinctly, doesn’t it?

– David Patrick Stearns writes about how CDs get funded, and has this to say:

Thus, the quality of recent discs is consistently high. The Mendelssohn Club has never sounded better than on its new Metamorphosis disc with works by Philadelphia composers [Andrea] Clearfield, Jennifer Higdon, and James Primosch.

More about the disc here.

– SongFusion’s “States of Mind” concert is coming up next Tuesday, May 8, in NYC and will include my song “Every Day is a God” from the cycle Holy the Firm.

– recent reading: the prose in Sabine Feisst’s Schoenberg’s New World is less than scintillating, but she still creates an interesting mosaic picture of Schoenberg’s life and work during his years in the United States. Feisst’s premise is that during his time in the US, Schoenberg was neither neglected, nor a sell out. Her research was incredibly thorough (there are 81 pages of end notes for a text of 248 pages), and she can be maddeningly methodical as she moves through lists of, say, performers of Schoenberg’s music. But there are insights here you won’t find elsewhere, as well as some great anecdotes. Schoenberg student Dika Newlin on Schoenberg’s outfit for a class in 1939:

It consisted of a peach-colored shirt, a green tie with white polka-dots, a knit belt of the most vivid purple with a large and ostentatious gold buckle, and an unbelievably loud gray suit with lots of black and brown stripes.

A companion website for the book is here (you’ll need the password found in the book).

Easter Friday Miscellany

– David Patrick Stearns offer a substantial interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen.

– The inimitable Jeremy Denk writes about the Goldberg Variations on Deceptive Cadence.


Here are some pictures from last week’s New York New Music Ensemble concert at Penn. The performance was superb, at times astounding. All the pieces had merit – I was especially struck by On That Swirl of Ending Dust by master of electronic media Eric Chasalow. The piece combined Eric’s exquisitely crafted electronic sounds with the live ensemble in tight synchrony. There were hints of jazz in the second movement, while the third movement was a quiet ritual, with bits of spoken text in the electronic component that made me think of a sober family gathering. Rand Steiger’s exuberant tribute to Elliott Carter, Elliott’s Instruments, enfolds fragments from an array of Carter’s own pieces. It was interesting how one could still recognize references to essentially athematic music. Yiorgos Vassilandonakis’s Quatuor pour la fin d’une ère evocatively explored liminal sounds, a dreamscape not quite in focus.  Cloud Earth by Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long was less densely worked than some of the other music on the program. There were imaginative textures here, as well as a little too much wood block for me.

Here are (l to r) Linda Quan, Steve Gosling, Chris Finckel and half of Jean Kopperud in rehearsal:

James Baker, Steve Gosling, Jean Kopperud, Jayn Rosenfeld, and guest artist Dave Shively (regular NYNME percussionist Daniel Druckman couldn’t make it):

and the band bowing after the show: