Bach, Mahler, Murail, Eastman

Alex Ross recently posted a list of concerts and operas he attended during a recent European trip. I haven’t been to Europe lately, but I did get to a memorable and varied series of concerts in Philadelphia recently. Here are some brief comments.



I was delighted to see the Church of the Holy Trinity filled for a program of Bach cantatas – it seats about 1100! Very fine performances, with the singers and obbligato players ably commanding Bach’s long lines. The second aria in BWV 170 is a contender for the strangest Bach aria ever, with the organ playing the obbligato while the violins in unison play the bass!


My favorite pieces here were the Murail works and the Messiaen. The latter was written on the death of his mother, while the former on the death of his teacher Messiaen; good to hear those in succession. The big hall at the Barnes is not ideal for every concert situation, but it worked for the spectralist pieces with their emphasis on resonance, sculpted in sensuous layers in Marilyn’s virtuosic performance. Here’s how the piano was set up, followed by a shot from the Q and A with Marilyn and Robert Whalen, co-artistic director, along with Katharine Skovira, of the concerts at the Barnes.



  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered the Mahler 3rd in its last subscription set of the season. I was there for the May 19 performance.


This was a magnificent performance of a staggering piece. Certainly hearing the orchestra in full cry was thrilling, but I was constantly struck by the intensely eloquent solo playing – trombone in the first movement, offstage “posthorn” (I assume played on trumpet?) in the third, to name just two of many. Karen Cargill’s voice was richly sonorous, and the choirs were splendid. Am I the only person who hears an echo of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” in the cello tune of the finale?

  • The last event in my recent bout of concert going was the final concert of the Julius Eastman retrospective presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda.






The ensemble pieces were intriguing, but the highlight for me was the a cappella solo performance of Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc by Davóne Tines. He was positioned at the lectern pictured above. His powerful bass-baritone cast an incantatory spell as he repeated the work’s few short musical phrases, a setting of this text:

Saint Michael said
Saint Margaret said
Saint Catherine said
They said
He said
She said
Speak Boldly
When they question you

The piece served as an invocation, and I sensed an unusual concentration in the audience; it was exceptionally quiet during the pauses between phrases, giving us a chance to attend to the reverberation The Rotunda offers.

Hear Davóne singing music of Caroline Shaw here, and Jerome Kern here.

Back from Tanglewood

There is so much to say about the recently ended Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music that I have been having trouble getting started with a blog post about it all. This won’t be a complete report, just a beginning. I hope to have more to say in subsequent posts – though I really need to get back to the violin and piano piece I am working on for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

My own Dark the Star was performed on the Friday, July 24 program, and magnificently so. The piece is scored for baritone, clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion, but there were two superb young baritones among the Fellows – Dimitri Katotakis and Davone Tines –  so the renowned baritone Sanford Sylvan, coach for the performance, devised a division of labor where the two singers alternated, sometimes even dividing up the text for a single song. I’m not going to alter the score to include two singers, but what Sandy worked out was uncannily effective. The texts for the piece are full of shadows and doubles; plus, in two cases I set the same text twice, so the double-soloist strategy made organic sense. For one phrase near the end, Davone and Dimitri sang in unison to devastating effect. The instrumentalists were superb: Ethan Young, cello; John Diodati, clarinet; Joseph Kelly, percussion; and Pierre-André Doucet, piano. The distinguished pianist Stephen Drury conducted.

Dark the Star opened a well-considered program devised by John Harbison, with threads of connection among the pieces both in terms of form and expression. There was an ecumenical flavor established by including pieces with Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist roots. Sacred song, broadly defined, occupied the first half. My piece was followed by Dallapiccola’s Concerto per la notte di Natale dell’anno 1956, with a 17-piece chamber orchestra conducted by John Harbison and the brilliant Suzanne Rigden as soprano soloist. Intimate and piercingly intense by turns, the piece sets two medieval texts by Jacopone da Todi, along with an instrumental prologue, intermezzo, and epilogue. After intermission, Dark the Star‘s formal strategy of relatively short songs played without pause was echoed in the premiere of Harbison’s Seven Poems of Lorine Niedecker – in this case truly short songs, or perhaps a single song making use of several poems – played continuously and running about 7 minutes. Harbison is able to find fresh piano textures with unobtrusive and economical means, and the vocal writing is equally engaging. Soprano Sarah Tuttle was the appealing soloist, accompanied by veteran pianist Ursula Oppens. (There were several touching instances on the festival when veteran performers handed on their commitment to new music by performing alongside their more junior colleagues, including new works by Michael Gandolfi (Dawn Upshaw with singers Nola Richardson, Alison Wahl, and Zoe Band) and Yehudi Wyner (Lucy Shelton with mezzos Paulina Villareal and Quinn Middleman.)) The closing work on the program was also a set of miniatures, this time instrumental movements for a mixed chamber ensemble: Gerald Levinson’s Here of amazing most now, originally written for an Orchestra 2001 concert in honor of George Crumb on his seventieth birthday. Though not part of the composition, it worked well to have the instrumentalists speak the various haiku or poetic fragments that serve as epigraphs for each movement of the piece. New works by Helen Grime (a vibrant duet for clarinet and trumpet called Embrace) and a quartet for clarinet and piano trio by Shulamit Ran entitled (in Hebrew) Birkat Haderekh (“Blessing for the Road”) rounded out the second half. There was a sense of tenderness in the Ran, not the most common affect in new music concerts.


Here are a few pictures.

At the dress rehearsal for Dark the Star  in Ozawa Hall – Davone Tines:


Dimitri Katotakis:

Version 2

Ethan Young:


and the band:


time for bows:


after the show:


“Team Baritone” – that’s Sanford Sylvan with my two soloists: