Viral Cancellations

It will come as no surprise that performances of my music are being affected by the present crisis. My Variations on a Hymn Tune was to have been performed by the Delaware all-state high school orchestra March 14, but the illness of the conductor preparing the work means it will be delayed until next year. The entire Bach Festival of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea, OH has been cancelled. It would have included the April 24 premiere of the work they commissioned from me, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” for chorus and string quartet. I am told the hope is to reschedule the Festival for this fall. And I think the March 29 performance of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus at Emmanuel Church is by no means certain, though no decision has yet been made on that. I’ll let you know when I get definite word.

UPDATE: not only has the performance of my Mass at Emmanuel been canceled, but all worship services at the church have been cancelled through April 5 at least.

Good wishes for the safety and health of all my readers.

Vocal Music Highlights

With the announcement that I have received the Virgil Thomson Award for vocal music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I thought it would be a good idea to post about my music for voice, and point out some highlights.

Work titles given as links will take you to either an online perusal score or to the Theodore Presser Company’s webpage for that piece.

You can find all my vocal music listed here (use the links near the top of the page to get to the vocal section) and there are videos and audio clips here. Click to download PDF listings of my music for solo voice and for chorus.

I think two of my very best pieces in any medium are the two song cycles I wrote for the Chicago Symphony: From a Book of Hours (Rilke texts), and Songs for Adam (Susan Stewart). The Rilke set is for soprano and was premiered by Lisa Saffer, with Antonio Pappano conducting.  The recording on the video/audio page is with Susan Narucki, soprano and Sarah Hicks conducting the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute. Given the near impossibility of any but a very few composers receiving repeat performances of their orchestral music, I made a version of the piece for soprano and chamber ensemble. A recording of that version is on Sacred Songs, a disc of my vocal music on Bridge. Susan Narucki is again featured, with the 21st Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall. Here’s a track from the Rilke cycle:

Songs for Adam is for baritone and orchestra, and was premiered by Brian Mulligan, with Sir Andrew Davis leading the CSO. Susan Stewart, whose poetry I’ve set several times, wrote a set of texts specifically for this project. I’ve started sketching a version for piano quintet, since the original has yet to be performed a second time.

The Sacred Songs cd also includes 3 other pieces for voice and chamber ensemble. I want to mention the baritone cycle on that record. Dark the Star sets texts by Rilke, Susan Stewart, and a psalm verse in a set of nine short movements that play continuously. Here’s a sample, with William Sharp, baritone:

A recent cycle with chamber ensemble was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, and premiered by soprano Mary Mackenzie with Collage New Music in Boston. Called A Sibyl, the texts that Susan Stewart wrote specifically for the project speak of the mysterious prophet-like figure written about in The Aeneid. The ensemble is pierrot ensemble plus percussion.

If I am counting correctly, I have written 29 songs for voice and piano, some grouped into cycles, some independent pieces, and some existing in orchestrated versions with chamber ensemble. I think my most widely performed piece is “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm. This was my first Susan Stewart setting. Mary Mackenzie sings it on Vocalisms, an Albany release, with Heidi Williams, piano:

Vocalisms also includes the complete Holy the Firm, the Three Folk Hymns, and some independent songs. Holy the Firm was written for Dawn Upshaw, and she toured with the cycle and subsequently with “Cinder” as part of a set of pieces by American composers roughly of her generation. I orchestrated Holy the Firm for soprano and chamber ensemble, and Susan Narucki sings it on the Sacred Songs album:

There are two piano and voice sets based on pre-existing melodies. The Three Sacred Songs use chant melodies plus an early Renaissance carol, with Latin texts; the Three Folk Hymns are in English, and use the popular tunes “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, “Be Thou My Vision”, and “What Wondrous Love is This”. Here’s the first of the Folk Hymns, again with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams:

None of these cycles need be performed complete. Excerpts from Holy the Firm beyond “Cinder” can work well; I’ve played piano for performances of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” paired with “Cinder”.

Turning to choral music, I’ve written a number of motets for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday services of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The first one I composed, Meditation for Candlemas, is a Denise Levertov text. This is the only a cappella piece of mine that is available from the Theodore Presser Company – contact me directly for any of the others. While several of these short a cappella works are virtuosic in their demands, others would be accessible for high school, college, or community choirs. For example, Alleluia on a Ground was written for the Mendelssohn Club here in Philadelphia, and the recently premiered Wind, Carry Me was written for a choir of high school students. Note that among these motets are some two-voice pieces: one for treble voices – One With the Day, One With the Night, on a Wendell Berry text – and one for male voices – Journey, on a Meister Eckhart text.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory for chorus and orchestra was also written for the Mendelssohn Club, and is featured on a Innova disc. Here is the second movement, setting Denise Levertov’s “Of Rivers”:

I have two other pieces for chorus and instruments. Matins sets texts by Hopkins and Mary Oliver, and was written for the Cantata Singers. The piece calls for a small complement of strings and features a concertante oboe part, written for Peggy Pearson. Set for a premiere next month is a piece based on a Bach chorale, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”. Commissioned by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Bladwin-Wallace University, the piece is scored for chamber chorus and string quartet.

There will be two CDs featuring my vocal music coming out in the next few months. First, The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, has recorded an entire album of my choral music, including the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for the group. This piece interweaves the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems reflecting on the Mass texts, again by one of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov. My Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, also written for The Crossing, is included and gives its name to the album. Settings of e. e. cummings, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry round out the disc. Second, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough perform five of my songs on an Albany Records disc to be called Descent/Return. That’s also the name of the pair of songs from the soprano and ensemble cycle A Sibyl that I arranged for soprano and piano which are included on the album. Three individual songs – The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams), The Pitcher (Robert Francis), and Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris) complete the disc, which also includes solo piano pieces by myself and John Harbison as well as returning Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight to the active catalog.

I’ll end this survey with video from the premiere of the St. Thomas Mass:

Virgil Thomson Award Announced

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced that I am the recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music for 2020. The press release is here.

Needless to say, I count myself very lucky indeed, and am greatly touched that the distinguished jury (listed in the release) would consider my work worthy of this recognition.

I submitted two choral works to be considered by the jury: Carthage (a setting of a text by Marilynne Robinson – she’s an Academy member, maybe I’ll get to shake her hand at the Academy Ceremonial) and my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, my setting of the Latin Mass interwoven with poems reflecting on the Mass texts by Denise Levertov. The latter will be performed by Emmanuel Music at Emmanuel Church in Boston on March 29 at their 10 am Sunday liturgy, and can be heard on a forthcoming CD of my choral music by The Crossing.

The award is for vocal music, so I will survey that part of my catalog in a subsequent post.

“The Avowal” at Emmanuel

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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.

Notes Aligned in Boston

It’s a little ways off, and I don’t have all the details, but I want to let you know about a happy coincidence has taken shape on my schedule of performances. On the afternoon of October 15, Collage New Music with soprano Mary Mackenzie, will premiere my current project, a song cycle called A Sibyl on Susan Stewart poems, at the the Longy School of Bard College in Cambridge, MA. David Hoose will conduct. And that evening, Winsor Music will present the second performance of my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano, this at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA.

Mary Mackenzie, who has done a fabulous job with my music on several occassions, including this CD, will be the soloist for A Sibyl.

I’ve put in a request with Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music to do one of my motets at Emmanuel Church that morning – maybe there will be three performances of my music in Boston that day!

UPDATE: Ryan has confirmed that he will include my music at Emmanuel’s 10 am service that day – it’s a Primosch festival in Boston!

“Nobody is Meant to Clap”

“Nobody is meant to clap, and the music is not presented to an audience for approval; rather, it is meant to guide the mind out of the building into unseen heights and depths”

– from Nico Muhly’s piece in the NY Times on choral music.

This is a big part of why I so love the Emmanuel Music performances of my motets in the context of the liturgy at Emmanuel Church.

There’s a second performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Emmanuel tomorrow, 4/2 at 3 pm. (Probably OK to clap.) Check out this preview video:

Jamie Jordan at Penn, “Alleluia” at Emmanuel

I am a bit frantic as I work to finish a quintet for oboe + piano quartet (requested by Peggy Pearson, to be premiered at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival on June 9), so there is only time for a brief post to say thank you for some recent performances. Jamie Jordan and Steven Beck gave a splendid recital at Penn last week, including excerpts from my Holy the Firm (read more about the program here). Here they are with George Crumb, whose Apparition was a concert highlight. (How it is that Steve read the oversize score for the Crumb off what appeared to be an iPad mini remains a mystery.)

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Holy the Firm was heard in its entirety later last week, as Katie O’Mara, Sarah Cooper, and Rebecca Achtenberg, all students from Westminster Choir College, collaborated with pianist J. J. Penna in a performance as part of the 2017 Art Song Festival at the College. I wasn’t able to attend, but J. J. is such a splendid pianist and admired coach that I am sure the performances were excellent.

On Sunday, Emmanuel Music did my Alleluia on a Ground as part of the weekly Eucharist at Emmanuel Church in Boston. I count myself very lucky to have an ongoing relationship (23 years!) with Emmanuel, with virtuosic performances of my motets in the context of a deeply welcoming community that knows how to listen thoughtfully thanks to decades of Bach cantata performances as an integral part of worship. Thank you to conductor Ryan Turner and all the singers, especially Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellow Sarah Yanovitch who was angelic in the little solo near the end of my piece, and spectacular in BWV 51 later in the service.

Rehearsing in the Emmanuel sanctuary:

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Emmanuel Music warming up before the service:

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And the cantata in full flight:

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Tuesday Miscellany

– the Prism Quartet plays with guests Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane on June 9th at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia and June 10th at Symphony Space in New York. It’s the next installment of Heritage/Evolution, a project featuring new work by top jazz saxophonists, created for Prism.

– I was walking up Fifth Avenue a week ago Sunday, early for a Mass I was going to attend in celebration of the anniversary of a friend’s ordination as a priest. I decided to stop in at St. Patrick’s for a few minutes before continuing on my way to that anniversary celebration. It was shortly before the main Mass of the day at the cathedral, and the following little incident says something about the role of the arts in the liturgy of my denomination. An organ prelude begins: a Bach trio sonata. Pretty classy, no? Then – while the Bach is still going – someone steps up the microphone with a cheery “Good morning and welcome…” The trio sonata became a more or less pleasant, vaguely “church-y” background noise, or, rather, it became clear that it had been understood by those shaping the liturgy as background noise all along. There’s a rather different experience of Bach and of music in general at Emmanuel Church, which I have often written about here. It’s a place where my motets and Bach cantatas and organ works are understood to be an integral part of the service, not just atmosphere. My music takes on a pastoral role in that context.

– try taking this test to see if you can tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed audio files. I’ve been in situations where I felt a musical recording didn’t sound well, with a squished dynamic range, and it turned out to be a compressed file, but I was horrified to see how badly I did on the test, even with decent headphones.

Three Performances in New England

I’m back now from hearing two performances of my Oboe Quartet as well as one of a choral piece at locations in Boston and New Hampshire.

Spring is finally evident at Boston’s Public Garden:

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That shot was taken on Saturday morning before I strolled over to Emmanuel Church:

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where I attended a rehearsal of my motet One With the Darkness, One With the Light. Ryan Turner conducted this short piece, scored for treble voices only. (Sorry, I don’t have everyone’s name!)

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Later that day I was in Peterborough, New Hampshire to hear Peggy Pearson, oboe, and the Apple Hill String Quartet (Elisa Kuder and Colleen Jennings, violins; Michael Kelley, viola; and Rupert Thompson, cello) play Haydn, Brahms, and my new Oboe Quartet, a Winsor Music commission. The performance was in Bass Hall, a handsome room in the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. (More about their playing below, in connection with their Brookline performance.) I visited a park a short walk from the center while waiting for my takeout dinner from the Peterborough Diner (I recommend the onion rings).

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The motet went very well the next morning at Emmanuel. The performances there are consistently strong, but in this case the brevity of the piece and the use of just the treble voices yielded an exceptionally focussed and detailed performance. By a curious bit of synchronicity, the sermon preached by Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew made mention of Wendell Berry, a reference Rev. Grew told me later was written in without him knowing that my motet setting a Berry text would be heard that morning. (photo: Elizabeth Richardson)

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Spring – and the Easter season –  was making itself felt inside Emmanuel, in the form of huge paper or maybe fabric flowers suspended over the nave:

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It was nice to see John Harbison at the service (photo: Elizabeth Richardson):

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There was a full house at St. Paul’s in Brookline for a reprise of the previous night’s concert, the last in the Winsor Music Chamber Series for the season. The Haydn was a transcription of Symphony No. 97 that included oboe with the quartet. I thought the arrangement worked well, and especially enjoyed the warm, fluent bass playing of Lawrence Wolfe, who was not at the NH performance. This was now the third time out for these players in my new quartet, and though they sounded great at the premiere, now they had even greater command of the piece. It was a passionate performance, well-received by an audience that filled the church. After intermission there was one of Winsor Music’s “Song for the Spirit” commissions, a brief hymn-like setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” composed by Eric Nathan, and intended for audience participation, though mezzo Katie Hoyer’s demonstration of the tune was so lovely that it might have made a few of the listeners hesitate to add their voices on the second go-around. The Brahms Quartet in A minor closed the program, in a performance memorable for its long sweeping lines and elegantly shaped details. Here’s a picture from the reception after the concert (L to R: Mike Kelley, Elise Kuder, myself, Peggy Pearson, Rupert Thompson, Colleen Jennings):

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The next morning there was a cardinal outside my window, waiting to say goodbye:

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I’ll be hearing Peggy do the quartet again on June 18, this time with a different group of string players, at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival.