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.

Two New Videos

This afternoon I heard about two new videos posted on YouTube. The first is a trailer for Descent/Return, the new album on Albany with Ryan McCullough, piano, and Lucy Fitz Gibbon, soprano. Ryan put together a score follower video with excerpts from the record. I joked to Ryan that my first score follower video means I have now truly made it as a composer.

The other video was posted by Emmanuel Music as part of a series of postings sharing their performances during the pandemic. There’s a chat with Emmanuel’s artistic director Ryan Turner and myself (enjoy my lockdown beard), followed by three movements from my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. This happens to be the major work on Carthage, the new album by The Crossing that is coming out later this month.

To be clear, the new album is with The Crossing, not Emmanuel. It’s just a nice coincidence that Emmanuel chose to share this video during the same month The Crossing’s cd is coming out.

Carthage is Coming

That’s the cover art for the upcoming Navona CD of my choral music, to be released May 22. I am so happy and grateful to be able to share this exquisitely performed and engineered album which documents the three pieces I have written for The Crossing and three of the pieces I have done for Emmanuel Music. I don’t think of myself as a choral guy, but out of a catalog of roughly a hundred pieces, I count 16 involving chorus, so that’s not an insignificant number, even though most of the pieces are relatively short. I’ll write some posts about each of the pieces on the record in the weeks leading up to the CD release date.

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.

“A Sibyl”, Wagner, and Chopin

I wasn’t teaching at my day job this summer for the first time in a while, so I had a little more time than usual – but the unbridgeable gap between what one hopes to accomplish and what actually happens remained wide. Still, a few things got done.

The most important task accomplished was completing A Sibyl, my Fromm commission for Collage New Music. This is a cycle on texts by Susan Stewart that she wrote specifically for the project, and is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Mary Mackenzie will be the soloist. I estimate the piece will run about 25 minutes. There are six songs, setting poems that build on what can be found in Virgil and Ovid about the mysterious figure of the Cumaean Sibyl in somewhat the way Susan built her texts for my Songs for Adam (a work for baritone and orchestra) upon the Biblical stories. Collage has set the premiere of A Sibyl for the afternoon of October 15, the same day Emmanuel Music will do a motet of mine in the morning at Emmanuel Church, and Winsor Music will do my recent quintet for oboe and piano quartet in the evening. Three performances in Greater Boston in a single day is an amazing trifecta of good luck – more details to follow.

I spent many summer hours at the piano, working on the B-flat minor Scherzo of Chopin and playing through the piano score of Die Walküre. On the basis of playing that score, I can confirm a few things you already knew about the Wagner: yes, it really is very long;  yes, if you had a dollar for every diminished seventh chord in the piece you could retire today, and yes, the harmony in the Todesverkündigung is impossibly gorgeous. What I had not realized is how many passages throughout the opera are essentially recitative of a relatively straightforward kind – the “endless melody” you read about in your undergrad music history textbook is not quite so endless as Wagner fools us into thinking.

I still get bothered by the amount of literal repetition in the Chopin Scherzi; I suppose I wish the pieces were actually four more ballades. At least there is less literal repetition in the B-flat minor than in the B-minor, the other one I have practiced. Much of my time was spent on baffling questions of fingering – when it is better to stretch, when to cross…  Fingering remains a mystery to me – I often don’t realize when I am doing something unnecessarily awkward, or don’t see what could be a viable alternative. The cliché about the easiest fingering not necessarily being the best fingering is not terribly helpful when “easiest” and “best” seem to be moving targets that shift from day to day. Pianistic issues aside, engaging with pieces by playing them is essential nourishment for me – as a composer, but also as a person, and I was glad to have a little more time for that nourishment over this past summer.

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: