Ives, Upshaw, Kalish

It was a fantastic concert tonight, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: an all-Ives program with Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. On the first half Dawn showed off the immense variety of the Ives songbook, including a number of pieces familiar from Gil’s performances and recordings of them with the late Jan DeGaetani. “Tom Sails Away” was especially touching; “Serenity” created its silver aura of stillness; “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” was visionary.  Dawn very much still has it – the beauty of sound is there, if a bit darker than it once was. She retains that transparency where there seems to be no distance between the song and the listener.

For the second half, Gil played the Concord Sonata. I can’t claim to having made a comprehensive survey, but of the five or so I have heard, Gil’s recording for Nonesuch remains my favorite, in part simply for the sheer gorgeousness of his piano sound. That sound was present tonight, as was Gil’s ability to clarify the various strata of Ives’ textures and to shape even the most rambunctious moments. A small example: the build-up to the fusillade of fast clusters in the Hawthorne movement was carefully shaded, rather than getting too loud too soon. I remember as a student at Tanglewood observing a rehearsal that Gil was coaching, hearing him exhort the pianist in the ensemble to “Phrase!” What we heard tonight was eloquent phrasing, meaningful contours springing organically from the Ives’s transcendental (and Transcendentalist) piano writing.

Bard and “First Songs”

Few posts lately because I was concentrating on re-formatting the parts for my Chamber Concerto that Network for New Music will be doing in April. That job finally got finished yesterday, so I can now start to catch up a bit.

This past Thursday I was in New York to attend the “First Songs” concert put on at the Morgan Library by the Bard College Conservatory of Music Graduate Vocal Arts Program. This is the program that Dawn Upshaw directs, and her presence attracts students working on a quite high level. The idea of the concert was to feature the student singers performing new works created for them by young composers. Dawn herself rounded out the evening, performing songs written for or championed by her, with one such song, my own “Cinder”, performed by student soprano Kameryn Lueng, with pianist Christina Giuca. I agree with Zachary Woolfe in the Times, Kameryn did indeed “soar” in my piece – it was a lovely performance, and Christina finely balanced the soft, clustery chords of the accompaniment. Kameryn was enthusiastic about “Cinder”, and hopes to do more of my music. Here’s a picture of Kameryn and I:


and here I am with Dawn:



“Cinder” in New York and Boston

539wIt was about this time of year in 1999 that I completed a set of songs for Dawn Upshaw called Holy the Firm. The best song from the cycle, one that she and others have often performed, is “Cinder”, and it sets a poem by my friend Susan Stewart. I just got a message from Dawn that she has programmed that song on concerts to be given this week by herself and some of her students from Bard College. Here are the dates and locations:

Feb. 19 at Bard, in the new Bito Performance Space at 8pm
Feb. 21 at the Morgan Library in NYC at 7:30pm
Feb. 24 at the Longy School of Music in Boston at 7pm

Student Kameryn Lueng will sing “Cinder” – I don’t have her pianist’s name yet. The program will include a number of new songs written specifically for the students, three songs from John Harbison’s Simple Daylight, a song by Laura Schwendinger, as well as a new song by George Tsontakis performed by Dawn herself with pianist Kayo Iwama. (picture: Dawn Upshaw)

Update: Kameryn’s excellent accompanist is Christina Giuca.

Lyric Fest performs “Cinder”

I just found out that Lyric Fest, an organization here in Philly devoted to, as their website puts it, “connecting people through song”, will include my “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm on their upcoming October 14th concert. The program is at 3:00 pm and will be held at the Academy of Vocal Arts here in Philadelphia. Under the title “Old City ~ New Song”, Laura Ward, Randi Marrazzo, and Suzanne DuPlantis, the artistic directors of Lyric Fest, have put together an array of songs by Philadelphia composers, including premieres by Allen Krantz and Thomas Lloyd.

“Cinder” is probably my most popular song. Dawn Upshaw, who premiered Holy the Firm, extracted the song from that set and toured with it. The piece has been sung at memorial services, at Songfest, and was featured at a presentation by the Joseph Campbell Foundation at an event called the Parliament of the World’s Religions several years ago. When I told Susan Stewart (the author of the text for “Cinder”) about the Parliament, she remarked “I thought that’s what happens when we die.”

A SongFusion State of Mind

I’ve written before about SongFusion, a hot new group in NYC devoted to art song, whose members include my friend Mary Mackenzie. Mary is including an excerpt from Holy the Firm, the cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw, on their next program, “States of Mind”. There’s a fine mix of composers involved – I’m honored to be included – check out the repertoire here. The concert is Tuesday, May 8, 8:00 pm at the DiMenna Center in Manhattan.

Mary has been doing – and will be doing – a lot of great stuff, including performances of Pierrot with members of Carnegie Hall’s Academy program. Go to her website and click on itinerary.


Songfusion members (L to R): Victoria Browers, Liza Stepanova, Michael Kelly, Kathleen Tagg, Mary Mackenzie

Sellars does Crumb

Peter Sellars is staging a performance of George Crumb’s Winds of Destiny at Ojai. In this feature on the NPR website, Crumb says how Dawn Upshaw’s performance of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” helped inspire his own setting of the piece in this cycle. I was at her performance of that tune, because it was part of her Carnegie Hall debut program in which she did my Denise Levertov setting Bedtime as part of a group of songs by composers roughly of her own generation. It was an amazing program. After that group, she did a staged version of Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, then a set of folks songs with Bill Crofut. In the Crumb staging, prepared with Bill T. Jones, Upshaw became what was undoubtedly the first soprano making her Carnegie recital debut to spend time during the performance laying flat on the floor of the stage. More on Crumb here and here. Audio and video from the Ojai site here.

My Excellent Boston Adventure

The primary reason for visiting Boston this past weekend was to attend the first performance of my new motet Two Arms of the Harbor by Emmanuel Music. This took place at the regular 10:00 am Eucharist at Emmanuel Church with Ryan Turner conducting. The choir did a fantastic job, learning the piece in one intense rehearsal the day before, plus a touch-up on Sunday. It was like my experience with the Chicago Symphony: very good sight-reading, though a bit of disarray, and then an incredible amount of improvement between the first reading and the second. Like a first-rate orchestra, the Emmanuel choristers are very fast learners. I didn’t make things easy for them. The rhythmic language is sometimes a bit challenging (not every choir can do a decent eighth note quintuplet the way they can), and there is a dense stretto passage where the harmony gets more chromatic. For that passage, I wanted, and got, the leggiero quality I hear in this choir’s singing of similarly contrapuntal passages in the Bach cantatas. My piece has a lot of short sections packed into 4 or 5 minutes, and making it all hang together involves some crucial nuances of tempo, dynamic and color. Here all glory goes to Ryan Turner who led a wonderfully characterful performance. When I asked for a big upbeat bar to have a ritardando “like Bernstein conducting Mahler”, or suggested that a passage should sound like the singers are sleepwalking, Ryan knew just what to do and how to make it happen. I am intensely grateful for this beautiful performance, as well as for the customary Emmanuel hospitality. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: this is a community that knows how to listen, and brings an attentive and sympathetic ear to the music I have written for them. I have worked as a church musician since high school, and have had wonderful experiences, but nothing like Emmanuel. To experience a connection with a worshipping community that is nourished by music in this way is deeply nourishing for me in turn. Thank you, dear Emmanuel. More specifically, thank you to Pat Krol, executive director of Emmanuel Music, for her energetic attention to detail; to Rev. Pamela Werntz, the rector of Emmanuel, who truly knows how to facilitate the assembly’s prayer; and to John Harbison, principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music, who kindly took the time in a busy day to attend Saturday’s rehearsal and offer good advice and moral support.

Before the Emmanuel events on Saturday and Sunday I attended Dawn Upshaw’s recital at Jordan Hall on Friday night. Soho the Dog has written more eloquently than I could about the concert, with its carefully chosen twenty-four songs by almost as many composers. I would need to hear the program again to pick up all the connections between and among the pieces: shared keys, musical motifs, textual imagery. Even with all these connections, there was no simplistic route from song to song; the connections were real, but often allusive rather than explicit. Dawn sounded great. No, she’s not thirty anymore, and the voice has changed a bit. But the extraordinary ability to communicate in a direct manner has not. Stephen Prutsman was her superb partner. He looks very grounded when he plays, sitting well back in a chair rather than on a bench. His physical activity at the keyboard is sleek, sometimes quite minimal.  But, perhaps as a compensation for his lack of superfluous motion when actually playing the notes, he likes to conduct himself with an unoccupied hand, as well as having a repertoire of peculiar releases – some miming vibrato, for example.

OK, enough for one post – back soon for more on the BEAMS marathon and more. Here are some shots of Emmanuel Music in rehearsal:

Tuesday morning miscellany

– audio of music by Pultizer finalist Fred Lerdahl here; video of music by finalist Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon here.

-Alex Ross podcasting about  Wagner.

-I plan to catch a couple of performances in Boston when I visit for the premiere of my new motet. Dawn Upshaw sings at Jordan Hall on Friday, April 29; her unusually varied program is here. (I count 22 composers on that list.) Brandeis is holding its annual electronic music marathon the next day, again, lots of variety as lined up by curator and superb electronic (and acoustic) composer Eric Chasalow; excellent performers as well.

Crumb’s Songbooks in LA, NYC, Ojai

Delia Casadei has a fine piece on George Crumb in the LA Times. It is especially nice to see the Songbooks getting such high profile performances, particularly by Upshaw and Hampson. (Nothing against Tony Arnold, who is quite fabulous and deserves the kind of recognition Upshaw and Hampson have achieved.) Dawn has narrowed down her list of composers a bit in recent years (as I know all too well), good to see George is still on that list. And Hampson’s advocacy of American music has tended toward more conservative composers.

It will be interesting to see what Sellars does in staging the pieces. A performance of one of these Songbooks involves a huge array of percussion that is already quite arresting, visually; I don’t know the Ojai stage, but I wonder how much room there will be – literally and psychically – for a staging.

I previously posted about George’s American Songbooks here. (photo: Peggy Peterson/Bridge Records)