“The Avowal” at Emmanuel

Emmanuel_Church_(Boston)_-_DSC08191

UPDATE: due to a scheduling issue, this performance of The Avowal has been postponed.

Back in the late 20th century, John Harbison conducted my solo cantata, The Cloud of Unknowing, with Lucy Shelton and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. After the concert, John floated the idea of me writing something for Emmanuel Music, (with which John was, and still is, long affiliated) to be sung at an Emmanuel Church Sunday Eucharist. I responded with a setting of Denise Levertov’s poem called “Candlemas”, calling my piece Meditation for Candlemas. The late Craig Smith conducted the premiere. I was told that it was a nice coincidence to have chosen Levertov, as she had attended services at Emmanuel at one time. When I wrote a sequel to the Candlemas piece, I again chose a Levertov poem, “The Avowal”. This 1997 setting will be performed again at Emmanuel, with Ryan Turner conducting, on Sunday, October 15, 2017, as part of the 10 am liturgy. It’s the first event in the triple-header of performances of my music in the Boston area that day. Next week I’ll be posting about the other concerts of that day – the premiere of A Sibyl with Collage New Music, and the Boston premiere of my Quintet for oboe, strings and piano by Winsor Music.

Cantori New York, Musicatreize, and St. Thomas Mass

A few years ago I wrote a big piece for The Crossing that set the Latin Ordinary of the Mass, interwoven with settings of poems by Denise Levertov that reflect on the Mass texts. The piece takes its title from the sequence of Levertov poems: Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. The Crossing later gave a second performance of the work, but no other group has taken up the piece until now. Cantori New York, in collaboration with the French ensemble Musicatreize, will perform the Mass at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, 552 West End Avenue in New York City this coming Saturday, November 5 at 8 pm, and Sunday, November 6, at 7 pm. In the work, the Levertov poems are assigned to a main choir while the Mass texts are given to a schola, in this case four soloists drawn from Musicatreize. The latter group will also perform the work themselves on November 2 at the Salle Musicatreize in Marseille.

Here is my program note on the piece:

This work is part of a long tradition of Mass settings that juxtapose additional poems with the standard Latin texts; Requiems of Benjamin Britten and Christopher Rouse are recent examples, though the practice of poetic insertions originated many centuries ago. I have assigned the Latin texts (excerpts in the case of the Credo) to a group of four solo singers while the main choir sings excerpts from a cycle of poems by Denise Levertov inspired by the Mass texts. The Latin settings are in the manner of various forms of liturgical music, and include quotations of a Bach chorale and Gregorian Chant.

The title of my piece is that of the Levertov cycle. St. Thomas Didymus is the apostle Thomas, with the designation “Didymus” meaning “the twin”. Thomas is informally known as “doubting Thomas” because of his insistence on seeing and touching Jesus before he would believe in the Resurrection. Upon subsequently seeing Christ, he acknowledged him as “My Lord and my God”. A Mass honoring St. Thomas is a Mass that honors the juxtaposition of doubt and belief that is the basis of life in pursuit of the divine. The simple pair of twin statements in Levertov’s reflection on the Credo is the pivot of the work:

I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief.

St. Thomas Mass in NYC

Cantori New York has announced its 2016-2017 season, and their first program on November 5 and 6 will feature the New York premiere of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, a work I wrote on a commission from The Crossing. The piece interweaves a setting of the Latin Mass, sung by a schola or small group of singers, with settings of Denise Levertov poems reflecting on the Mass texts, sung by a larger main choir. For these performances, the French vocal ensemble Musicatreize will serve as the schola and Cantori New York as the main choir. Cantori’s artistic director Mark Shapiro will conduct. The performances will take place at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, which is on West End Avenue at 87th Street. I don’t have the times yet for the performances – I believe they are both in the evening, will share that info with you when I can.

You can see a video of The Crossing premiering the Mass here.

Levertov quote

I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays. But they are also makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are “members one of another.”

-Denise Levertov, from “Statement on Poetics” in The New American Poetry, quoted by Dana Greene in Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life.

Upcoming in Easton MD and Philadelphia PA

I’ll be traveling to Easton, Maryland tomorrow for rehearsals and a performance of my recent Oboe Quartet. There will be an open rehearsal of the Quartet at 11:30 tomorrow, and the performance is this Thursday, June 18, at 5:30. Both events are at the Academy Art Museum in Easton as part of the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival. The players will be Peggy Pearson, oboe; Robin Scott, violin; Steven Tenenbom, viola; and Marcy Rosen, cello; quite an all-star group. I am looking forward to hearing another interpretation of the piece after the fine performances by Peggy plus members of the Apple Hill Quartet earlier this year. It is such a treat to have multiple performances of a piece, an all-too rare occurrence.

But not entirely rare; after all, the other upcoming performance is also a reprise. The Crossing will revive my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, premiered last year at The Icebox in Philadelphia, and presented this coming Sunday at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia at 4:00 pm. The premiere was astonishingly fine – check it out on the video page (link above). The only problem with the video is that folks find it hard to make out the beautiful Denise Levertov texts that I have interwoven with the traditional Latin Mass, due not to any fault with the diction of the choir, but to the unusually resonant performance space. It will be interesting to hear it in a less dramatically resonant space this time around.

Candlemas in Boston

I just got word of this upcoming performance, unfortunately a little too late for my most recent e-newsletter: Emmanuel Music will do my motet Meditation for Candlemas as part of the 10:00 am Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church in Boston on February 1. Emmanuel Music’s Artistic Director Ryan Turner will conduct.

This piece sets a text by Denise Levertov, and is the first of the eight motets I have written for Emmanuel Church so far, dating back to 1994. Check out the complete list of my choral music here, and listen to recorded excerpts here.

More Mass-ive thoughts

Today I sent conductor Donald Nally a PDF of the complete score for my piece commissioned by The Crossing, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. I posted a program note about the piece here, but I thought I would say a little more in this post about how the piece is put together.

My Mass is scored for both a full SATB chorus and four SATB soloists forming a semi-chorus or schola. While the work can be performed with the two groups arranged antiphonally, this is not absolutely necessary. In fact, the rhythmic coordination of the two groups is probably too tricky to permit the schola to be placed in a distant gallery of a church far from the main choir loft. Still, a certain degree of separation will be desirable. I am told The Icebox, the performance space here in Philly where the work will be premiered, is extremely reverberant, so it is unlikely that we will be able to position the two groups very far apart.

There are plenty of precedents for antiphonal choral music, but the special issue at play here is how the texts for the work are divided up: the schola sings the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) in Latin, while the main chorus sings excerpts from Denise Levertov’s cycle of poems “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus”. Rather than something like the Monteverdi Vespers where the antiphony is used for echo effects, here the two groups are articulating different texts, using musical gestures that more often contrast with, rather than echo each other. The model is obviously the Britten War Requiem, with its Wilfred Owen poems sung by tenor and baritone soloists while a choir and boychoir sing the Latin Mass texts. The schola in my piece is further distinguished from the main choir because its music evokes various liturgical idioms while the full choir usually does not. For example, the piece begins with the schola singing the Kyrie in a melismatic plainchant style. As the chant continues, the choir gradually unfolds the first words of the Levertov – “O deep unknown” – in sustained four-part harmony. These four chords return in varied forms in every movement of the piece, and there are melodic gestures derived from them as well.

kyrie

The compound meter and open fifths of the schola’s music for the Gloria suggest medieval organum; the choir sings in block polychords, using simple meter to increase the contrast with the smaller group.

gloria

Actual liturgical music is quoted in the Credo. The schola sings excerpts from the Creed set to phrases from the Bach chorale Wir glauben all’ an einer Gott. Since the German text of that chorale is a translation of the Creed, I have simply “Romanized” the Lutheran tune! I have also extracted only a few phrases from the Creed, not to be theologically selective (the so-called “cafeteria Catholic” syndrome is not at play), but because setting the entire Nicene Creed in chorale style would be impossibly long in this context.

credo

Soloists from the main choir begin the Sanctus with the Levertov text.

Sanctus 1

In this movement there is a kind of private quotation: when the schola enters, the music it sings is based on a much simpler setting of the Sanctus I wrote many years ago for the choir of the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University. That piece was influenced by the rhythms of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Mass (the latter piece perhaps influenced in turn by the Poulenc Gloria), as well as being based on a chant melody – so there are multiple layers of reference at play here.

Sanctus 2

The Agnus Dei begins with a simple traditional plainchant setting of the Latin, which returns at the end.

Agnus 1

At last the two groups join together, with the schola singing the “”O deep unknown” chords that have recurred throughout the piece, the women of the choir repeating the last line of the Levertov in non-synchronized counterpoint, and the men of the choir chanting the Latin text – this is the first time in the piece the two groups have swapped languages.

Agnus 2

To close, the two groups sing the chant in unison. Musically binding together all the musicians in this way is a strategy borrowed from the closing pages of the Britten.

I’ll surely be writing more about the piece once rehearsals get going. Perhaps I can coax Donald or one of the singers to do a guest post about working on the piece. Remember that the premiere is June 28th at The Icebox in Philadelphia, 7:00 pm.

Ite Missa Est

I just sent the last of the five movements of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus to Ken Godel, the superb editor/engraver who is preparing the score to be sent to The Crossing. The premiere is set for 7:30 pm on June 28 at The Icebox, here in Philadelphia. I’ll have more to say about the piece in future posts, but for now, here is the program note I provided in the front matter of the score:

This work is part of a long tradition of Mass settings that juxtapose additional poems with the standard Latin texts; Requiems of Benjamin Britten and Christopher Rouse are recent examples, though the practice of poetic insertions originated many centuries ago. I have assigned the Latin texts (excerpts in the case of the Credo) to a group of four solo singers while the main choir sings excerpts from a cycle of poems by Denise Levertov inspired by the Mass texts. The Latin settings are in the manner of various forms of liturgical music, and include quotations of a Bach chorale and Gregorian Chant.

The title of my piece is that of the Levertov cycle. St. Thomas Didymus is the apostle Thomas, with the designation “Didymus” meaning “the twin”. Thomas is informally known as “doubting Thomas” because of his insistence on seeing and touching Jesus before he would believe in the Resurrection. Upon subsequently seeing Christ, he acknowledged him as “My Lord and my God”. A Mass honoring St. Thomas is a Mass that honors the juxtaposition of doubt and belief that is the basis of life in pursuit of the divine. The simple pair of twin statements in Levertov’s reflection on the Credo is the pivot of the work:

I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief.

The Crossing in Mourning

I spent all day today working on my commission for The Crossing, took a break to look at Arts Journal, and saw the news of the death of Crossing member Jeff Dinsmore. My thoughts and prayers are with all concerned, including my friend Susan Narucki who is to be soloist in the same Andriessen performance with the L.A. Phil that The Crossing is preparing for. A message sent out by The Crossing tonight is here. Members of the ensemble talk about the group in this video.

My piece for The Crossing includes settings of poetry by Denise Levertov, including this passage:

O deep, remote unknown,
O deep unknown,
Have mercy upon us.

Composer at Work

56.-Welder-making-boilers-for-a-ship-Combustion-Engineering-Company.-Chattanooga-Tennessee-June-1942.-Reproduction-from-color-slide.-Photo-by-Alfred-T.-Palmer.-Prints-and-Photographs-Division-Library-of-CongressPosting will be very sparse in the next few weeks as I have to finish up my piece for The Crossing, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. The piece sets portions of the Denise Levertov cycle of poems by that name, juxtaposed with the relevant portions of the Latin Mass Ordinary. The premiere is June 28 at The IceBox, part of the Crane Arts Center here in Philadelphia. Excuse me now while I pull down my visor and put my protective gloves back on…