“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:

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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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.

Darkness and Light at Emmanuel

Definite word of this didn’t come in before I sent out my recent e-newsletter (what? you aren’t signed up? go to the home page, scroll down to the lower right and click), but I am happy to report that Emmanuel Music will do my motet One With the Darkness, One with the Light at Emmanuel Church’s 10 AM Eucharist on April 26. Emmanuel is at 15 Newbury Street in Boston, MA. This is a happy coincidence as I will be in town to attend the performance of my Oboe Quartet in Brookline that evening.

The motet is based on a lovely text extracted from Wendell Berry‘s sequence “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer“, found in his Collected Poems, 1957-1982, a poem I first came across in the anthology Upholding Mystery, edited by David Impastato.

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.

Upcoming Events

The performances page has been updated, with dates now in place for spring concerts by Peggy Pearson/Winsor Music, and the Philadelphia Sinfonia. A few more events will likely flesh out the schedule a bit, including a possible performance of the Piano Quintet at Penn, and a revival of a motet at Emmanuel Church. I’ll also be participating in an Exquisite Corpse project for Network for New Music, but more about that in another post.