Carthage Released Today

It’s the big day. Navona Records is releasing Carthage today, with The Crossing singing a program of my choral music, conducted by Donald Nally. Go here to learn more, to stream the music, and to purchase a CD.

This project means a great deal to me and not just because of the astonishing performances and excellent recorded sound. The spiritual orientation of these pieces makes them especially close to my heart. I am profoundly grateful to have such a marvelous document of my music, and of my relationships with The Crossing and Emmanuel Music, the two groups for whom I wrote the pieces on this album

My experiences with choral music began with my work as a church musician starting in my teens and continuing to this day. I’ve had a long relationship with Emmanuel Music, having written numerous pieces for that group over the past 26 years, three of which are on the new album. I’ve written for chorus and ensemble as well, with works for the Cantata Singers and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. All of these experiences nourished the three pieces I composed for The Crossing that make up the bulk of the album, most notably the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, my interweaving of the Latin Mass texts with poems of Denise Levertov that comment on those liturgical texts.

The members of The Crossing possess extraordinary skill, but in working with them to prepare performances and make this recording, I have also experienced their patience, their high standards, their generosity, and their sensitivity.

I think there is a unique vulnerability inherent in vocal music, but there is a unique power as well. These qualities come across particularly strongly in a cappella choral music and you will sense this when you listen to Carthage.

Election Eve Miscellany

  • First things first: I hope you are either planning to go vote tomorrow, or are perhaps reading this while waiting in line to do so.
  • Thank you to The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally for the beautiful first performance they gave of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage. In a ten minute piece, I asked a lot of the group in terms not only of vocal virtuosity, but in variety of expression. They certainly delivered, as they always seem to do. I am very grateful. Unfortunately, no review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • I am struggling hard to make progress on my new piece for the Imani Winds, set for a February premiere in Philly, but to be rehearsed for the first time in December, so there is much to do on the piece this month. At the same time I have been polishing the performance materials for Matins, the work for oboe, strings and chorus that Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers will perform in January. Conductor David Hoose has helped me improve the notation – there are a lot more cautionary accidentals in the score than there used to be, for example – and some re-spellings that I am not sure I always agree with. But I have accepted 98% of David’s suggestions and corrections, and am happy to do what I can to make sure the performers can give their best.
  • Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward will perform two of my songs on upcoming Lyric Fest concerts: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm sets a Susan Stewart poem and is my most performed piece; and Bedtime, a Denise Levertov song from nearly 30 years ago, which was later memorably sung by Dawn Upshaw at her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Check the Performances page for more info on all the concerts I am mentioning.
  • Recent and not so recent listening has included:
    • some old George Shearing sides from the 1940s from a Proper box set. I’m afraid this was disappointing, with saccharine ballads and frantic bop solos, though he sometimes hits a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
    • A 1982 DG disc of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic in his Divertimento (forgettable), Halil with Rampal (colleagues I respect speak well of this piece, but it didn’t hold me), the Dance Episodes from “On the Town” (delightful) and Rostropovich playing the Three Meditations from “Mass” (it’s not really a cello and orchestra piece. However, like Anne Midgette who wrote about Mass in the Washington Post, I had the piece from which this cello work is extracted memorized before I knew any better, so I find it hard to judge the music now. (I wonder if she was raised Catholic as was I?))
    • A Recital of Intimate Works, which is an album of varied keyboard pieces performed by pianist Andrew Rangell on a 1996 Dorian disc. I am not sure that these pieces all qualify as intimate – not all the movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles, for example – but it is very freshly programmed. A piano album that includes Froberger, Sweelinck, Messiaen, and Enescu, plus Mozart (the sublime Rondo in A minor) and transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven certainly gets my attention. Beautifully played and recorded.
  • I’ve been greatly enjoying The Library Book by Susan Orlean – it’s great reporting, it’s great writing, it’s great fun, and, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s greatly touching. But this is the writer whose work gave me the text for a moving song, Shadow Memory:

The video is with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, who are the fabulous performers on Vocalisms, the new disc from Albany that includes Shadow Memory plus nine more of my songs.

“Mass” Reviewed

I’m happy to link to a sympathetic review of The Crossing’s performance of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus by David Patrick Stearns that appeared in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. He called it one of my best works, and I think he is right – for whatever inexplicable reason, things seemed to fall into place in that piece. Would that such a thing would happen consistently…

I liked the comment with which the review ends:

You can trust a piece that’s too personal to proselytize, and, through depth of feeling, achieves more universality.

The performance was quite fantastic. I am in awe of the musicianship of The Crossing’s singers and of the skill with which Donald Nally (the group’s artistic director) can elicit the formidable best that they can give. It didn’t hurt that many of the singers were performing the piece for a second time. It was good to hear the piece in Chestnut Hill Presbyterian, a less drastically resonant space than The Icebox where the premiere took place.

You can see the video of last year’s premiere of the piece at this site’s video page – go to the link above.

Encore from The Crossing

UnknownThe Crossing, Philadelphia’s extraordinary new music choir, has just announced its 2014-15 season, and I am happy to say they will be reviving my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, which they premiered this past summer. The date is Sunday, June 21, 2015, as part of the group’s annual Month of Moderns festival – more info about the program here. You can see video of this past June’s performance by choosing the video link above. There are several posts about the piece below; perhaps start with this one. You can find more posts by clicking on “The Crossing” in the tag cloud found in the sidebar on the right.

Monday Miscellany

– It was a fantastic performance by The Crossing last Saturday. I thought my new Levertov Mass went very well, and the audience was warmly appreciative. I’m deeply grateful to every member of the group, especially those who performed the demanding “schola” parts – a quartet of singers positioned behind the audience – as well as the several singers who took on brief solos in the main choir, in front of the audience. Donald Nally prepared the performance with meticulous care, and the level of musicianship of all involved was quite dazzling.

UPDATE: go here for the Philadelphia Inquirer review of the concert by David Patrick Stearns.

– You can read an article here about the Westminster Choir College CoOPERAtive program, which will include a reprise of this spring’s Lyric Fest concert that includes my Waltzing the Spheres. Laura Ward will again be the pianist, while Kelly Bixby will be the soprano.

– There are eight Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at the Mann Center this summer – but five of them are either movie play-alongs or pop concerts, and a sixth is mostly given over to spirituals. The latter does have a premiere by Uri Caine, nice to see some new music being done. But only two entirely classical programs?

I grew up going to Cleveland Orchestra summer concerts at the Blossom Music Center – the first time it was the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Brahms #1 with Gina Bachauer, followed by The Rite of Spring. I also remember hearing Mahler #3 (Maureen Forrester, soloist), Mahler #8 with Leinsdorf, and Issac Stern playing Brahms. But that was then, and this is now…

UPDATE: a brochure just came in today’s mail for two July programs with the Philadelphia Orchestra – “Pixar in Concert” and “Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute to the Beatles”. By the way, on the days that Philly will present “Pixar in Concert”, the Mostly Mozart Festival will present a John Luther Adams premiere.

Fresh Frozen

The Crossing rehearsed my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus for the first time in The Icebox at Crane Arts yesterday. The space is a huge, very high-ceilinged plain white rectangle that was, so I am told, a meat locker. (Why on earth did a meat locker need to be so big, especially so tall? Were they storing cuts of dinosaur meat? Godzilla fillets?) The room is unusually resonant; cut off a loud chord, and you will still be listening to it 6 or 7 seconds later. It takes a little getting used to when you first hear the choir in there, especially if the music is something other than slow. Crossing Music Director Donald Nally wisely moderated the tempo in the faster portions of my piece, and I think the unavoidable – and in some passages desirable – blurring of the sound will not be a problem. The separation of the two choirs in my piece worked well, with the quartet and main choir on either side of the room across the shallow dimension. I take it the audience will be between the two groups.

The musicianship of The Crossing’s members is quite extraordinary, and the many short solos in my piece are being beautifully handled. Donald Nally is a highly efficient, meticulous conductor whose sympathy for the piece is apparent at every moment. I’m deeply grateful for everyone’s efforts. I hope to see you at this Saturday’s performance: June 28, 7 pm, Crane Arts, 1400 N. American Street, Philadelphia.

A few informal shots from rehearsal:








Mass Meetings

I was excited to receive over the weekend the schedule of rehearsals for The Crossing’s performance of my St. Thomas Mass on June 28 at The Icebox here in Philadelphia. While the last rehearsal is specifically identified as a session that I will coach, I will attend all the rehearsals. Conductor Donald Nally has been offering positive comments on the piece. He also told me – regarding attending the first rehearsals: “Just be warned, I tend to wrestle pieces to the ground in the first rehearsal or so….then they get back up and start dancing a little.” I’ve heard The Crossing make pieces dance on several occasions, and I know they will bring this piece to vivid life.

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.


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.


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.


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.