“Songs and Dances” at the Cathedral

I had never expected to hear the piece again in this instrumentation. I am speaking of my work for soprano, baritone and early instruments called Songs and Dances from ‘The Tempest’. It was premiered by the Folger Consort in 1998, with Ellen Hargis and William Sharp as the soloists, and subsequently recorded by them for Bard Records. But the idea of another early music group taking on the piece seemed to me rather unlikely. Nor did I expect the Folger to revive it. Yet there we were this past weekend, in Washington’s National Cathedral, with the Folger, William Sharp, and a different soprano, Rosa Lamoreaux. 

I was very happy with the performances. Bill has lost nothing in the sheer beauty of his voice and his skill at charming characterization. Rosa’s voice was new to me, and proved to be a real find: lovely in timbre, smoothly flexible throughout her range, and finely nuanced. The core members of the Folger – Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall – were joined by several musicians from Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia’s baroque orchestra, the guest ensemble for the program. Gwyn Robert’s lyrical recorder playing – from haunting bass to brilliant sopranino – taught me how much recorder playing involves an essentially voice-like conception. Lisa Terry and and Robert Eisenstein provided the foundation for the ensemble with their viols and Fran Berge enriched the palette of timbres with her kemenje and vielle (the latter two being fiddle-like instruments). Christopher Kendall’s lute filled out the harmonic texture as well as adding touches of delicate melodic tracery. Danny Villanueva’s percussion offered tasty color and rhythmic verve. Anna Marsh helped out with atmospheric psaltery in one movement and served as a third recorder player in another. All the early instrument performers were good sports about dealing with my writing for instruments with which I was not very familiar.

The Folger and Tempesta attracted big audiences, with perhaps 800 on Saturday night and somewhat less on Friday. I was touched to see a big portion of the audience stand when I took my bow Saturday night.

The whole ensemble is shown here, except for Danny, who is in the next picture, and Anna – sorry, didn’t get a shot of you, Anna! L to R: Lisa Terry, Robert Eisenstein, Rosa Lamoureux, Bill Sharp, Christopher Kendall, Gwyn Roberts, and Fran Berge. IMG_3763

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The soloists in action, with Christopher Kendall on lute:

IMG_3698Last minute adjustment of a viol chord – I didn’t know Robert would be playing a seven string viol capable of a low d-flat:

IMG_3726Rosa and I after the show:

IMG_3844The composer ponders the score. With a performance this fine, I really had no reason to look so concerned:

IMG_3758 - Version 2Many thanks to my dear friend Peter Hoyt for coming up from South Carolina for the concerts and for taking these pictures.

More pictures from the National Cathedral here.

Tempest in Washington DC

056320W3I’ll be heading to Washington soon for performances of my Songs and Dances from ‘The Tempest’ this coming Friday and Saturday – details here.

Although I have posted many times about the difficulty of getting a work performed a second time, this is one piece that I thought would be truly unlikely to be reprised. It is scored for an ensemble of early instruments – medieval and renaissance strings and winds – accompanying soprano and baritone soloists. While it is not unheard of for an early music group to take on a new piece, (consider Kile Smith’s Vespers), it is certainly uncommon, and after the first performances of Songs and Dances in the late 90s I figured I would never hear it in its original scoring again, so I made a version for modern instruments, which has been done a couple of times. But now the Folger has revived the piece, putting it on a program with incidental music for the play by the seventeenth century composer Matthew Locke – this is the same juxtaposition that they offered on their CD that includes my Tempest music. William Sharp and Rosa Lamoreaux are the soloists for this weekend’s performances. (The image at left, with its quote from the play, is taken from the Folger website.)

Here’s a listing of the movements for the piece, and a program note:

 1. A Tempestuous Noise
sopranino recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, very small suspended cymbal

2. Come Unto These Yellow Sands
soprano, treble viol, bass viol, lute, dumbek

3. Solemn Music of Ariel
tenor recorder, 2 bass viols, lute

4. The Master, the Swabber, the Boatswain, and I
baritone, alto recorder, treble viol, bass viol, lute

5. Full Fathom Five
soprano, bass recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B

6.Flout ‘em and Scout ‘em / Be Not Afeard
baritone, alto recorder, vielle, kamenji, bass viol, citole, harp, psaltery, tambourine

7a. A Solemn and Strange Music
alto recorder, 2 bass viols

7b. Honor, Riches, Marriage Blessing
soprano, lute

7c. Earth’s Increase, Foison Plenty
baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute

7d. A Graceful Dance, a Confused Noise
soprano recorder, 2 alto recorders, lute

8. No More Dams
baritone, rebec, vielle, citole, nakara

9. Where the Bee Sucks
soprano, alto recorder, bass viol, lute

10. Our Revels Now Are Ended
soprano, baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B

Program Note
Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”
came about because Folger Consort member Christopher Kendall, who knew my work as composer and pianist from his “other” consort – the 21st Century Consort – had heard my Four Sacred Songs, a set of arrangements of plainchant melodies for soprano and a sextet of modern instruments. Christopher wondered if an arrangement of those songs could be made for the old instruments of the Folger Consort. I thought about that for a bit but ultimately decided I would rather write a fresh piece for the Folger, eventually realizing that a piece composed for the ensemble in residence at the Folger Library should really be a Shakespeare piece. My first plan was to concoct an anthology of texts from various Shakespeare plays, but I set that aside in favor of focusing on a single play, perhaps the most musical of Shakespeare’s creations, The Tempest. My suite of short pieces includes settings of songs from the play as well as a few speeches. I have also included some instrumental music, as suggested by the evocative stage directions. I hope lovers of the play will forgive me for re-ordering the texts so as to create a satisfying musical sequence that does not in all cases correspond to the sequence of the play itself.

The texts are by turns playful, drunken, evocative, and profound. Throughout they are imbued with a magical atmosphere that is unique in Shakespeare. I hope I have reflected some of this atmosphere in my music.

The challenge for a modern composer to write for the instruments of another time is formidable. You spend your life as a composer building up an image in the inner ear of what, for example, the cello sounds like in various contexts – it is difficult to set these things aside when presented with a cello-like object such as the vielle. But, at least to some extent, set them aside you must. As a pianist I feel especially ill-equipped to write for these instruments since my own instrument’s repertoire begins about a century after the newest music the Folger Consort normally plays! I lack a personal connection with the repertoires of these instruments. Still, I love the sounds of the ancient instruments, and love the repertoires the Folger so beautifully engages. So I have tried to create a sound world that would both suit the instruments and perhaps challenge them a little, all the while serving Shakespeare’s texts.

The endless patience and goodwill of the members of the Consort have played no small role in the creation of this piece. I am grateful for the chance to adventure with them to Prospero’s enchanted realm where we might enjoy the “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”

 

To-Do List

The questionnaireIt isn’t entirely about picking up a pencil and staring at a blank sheet of manuscript paper, this composing thing. As a way of letting you know about some things that are happening soon, here is a list of stuff I have to do in the next 6 weeks or so:

– I have a considerable backlog of scores that are not in as nice shape, graphically speaking, as I would like, and I haven’t yet supplied the master copies of them (well, these days, PDF files) to Theodore Presser Co., my publisher. However, I am slowly addressing the issue with the help of master editor/engraver Ken Godel. Ken has recently sent me files of both the piano/vocal and chamber ensemble versions of my song cycle Holy the Firm, and I am proofing them one more time. I hope to finish this in the next few days.

Bridge Records has sent me the first draft of the booklet for the CD of my vocal music they will be releasing soon. I need to proof this, not only for the content (texts of the songs, bio notes, etc.) but to offer suggestions on the graphic appearance and layout. This needs to be done by this coming Monday.

– The Folger Consort will be performing my Songs and Dances from “The Tempest” in January, and I need to get the score and parts to them by the middle of this month. The varied instrumentation of the piece (it is scored for a wide array of early instruments) will be handled by a different, larger array of performers than was the case at the premiere some 15  years ago, and parts have to be devised to reflect this division of labor.

– In January I will be playing the slow movement, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, from my Piano Quintet, with the Daedalus Quartet on a program at Penn. Again, that score needs to be cleaned up graphically – my Finale chops have improved a bit since 1996, as has the program itself, of course. The Daedalus wants to see the parts by the beginning of December. (By the way, the Daedalus gave a wonderful concert yesterday at Penn, with works by Schulhoff, Korngold and a rare performance of the Schoenberg Ode to Napoleon, with pianist Charles Abramovic and baritone Randall Scarlatta as narrator. It’s a remarkable piece. Charlie described it to me afterwards as being “as crowd-pleasing as Schoenberg from that period gets.” I had only heard the piece live once before, a performance at Columbia University, with, of all people, Wallace Shawn as narrator.)

– My new song for Lyric Fest on a text by Susan Scott Thompson is also due in December; I want to look it over one more time before sending it in – for once I finished something far enough in advance that I have time to make final adjustments after letting the piece rest for a bit. It’s amazing what you see when you come back to a score after even a few weeks.

Singing and Meditating in DC

Soprano Mary Mackenzie, the 21st Century Consort, the Folger Consort, and members of the National Cathedral Chant Choir all did a great job recording and performing my Sacred Songs and Meditations in Washington, DC last weekend. Mary is quite a find: her sound is sweet and true and rich in all registers, her musicianship is first class, she is musically smart, and she knows how to connect with an audience. The instrumentalists, some of whom I have known for years, were up to their usual high standard. Special thanks go to the folks playing the early instruments, who were cheerful and patient in the face of the unwittingly awkward parts I wrote for their instruments.

The Cathedral is a handsome Gothic structure in northwest DC, about 25 minutes by bus from the National Mall.

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The building was damaged in the earthquake that hit the east coast a while back, and repairs continue:

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A simple font stands in the middle of the nave. The placement and lighting look well, but the base needs some touching up with gold paint:

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Entering the place in the early evening, the late day sun made for some magical projections of color from the clerestory windows that my amateur photography skills can only hint at:

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Unlike the previous performance of the piece at the Cathedral which took place in the transept, this time we worked in what they call the Great Choir, in front of the high altar. The choir stalls are intricately carved:

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Here’s conductor (and director of the 21st Century Consort, as well as lutenist of the Folger Consort) Christopher Kendall (in the dark shirt) consulting with producer Joseph Gascho. The performers, from left to right, are Rachel Young, cello; Sara Sterne, flute; Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Susan Robinson, harp; Gwyn Roberts, recorder; Lee Hinkle, percussion; and Robert Eisenstein, viol.

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The control room was a set up in an office not far from the high altar. This lent a monastic atmosphere to the proceedings; here is engineer Mark Huffman:

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and here is Joseph Gascho speaking to the performers:

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A few shots of the players at work, both “the moderns” (that’s violinist Elisabeth Adkins, with clarinetist Ed Cabarga at right):

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and “the earlys” (Amy Domingues is the viol player at the far right):

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Unfortunately I never got a picture of the men and girls from the Cathedral Chant Choir, directed by Michael McCarthy – before each movement of my piece they sang the incipit of the chant or carol melody on which the movement is based. They sang with uncommon refinement and unanimity of pitch, color and articulation, and I am very grateful for their efforts.

I’ll close with two pictures of the Cathedral – one taken looking down the nave from the choir, the other outside at night. (The netting visible in the interior shot is to protect those in the building from the possibility of falling stones from the earthquake damage – I am told the netting is just a precaution and has not been put to the test.)

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Downtown and Uptown

IMG_0086My unwittingly cubist photo of buildings in downtown New York, including the Freedom Tower, was taken during the first part of my recent visit to New York, where I met Deirdre Chadwick, BMI’s executive director for classical music for excellent coffee and a chocolate chip cookie near BMI’s offices in 7 World Trade Center.

300px-St_Jean_Baptiste_Church,_New_York,_NYThen it was uptown to St. Jean Baptiste Church for a performance of my motet Salve Regina during the installation service for the parish’s new pastor, John Kamas. Kyler Brown led a lovely performance by the choir of St. Jean’s. One member of the choir is Mary Mackenzie, who will be performing and recording my Sacred Songs and Meditations starting the end of next week. Go here for more on the July 8 concert that will include members of both the Folger Consort of early music instruments, and the modern instruments of the 21st Century Consort.

Here’s a picture of me with John, the new pastor at St. Jean’s.IMG_0090

The Parts are in the Mail

I finally got the parts in the mail today for the piece being done at the National Cathedral in July by the combined forces of the 21st Century Consort and the Folger Consort, with soprano Mary Mackenzie. I hope now to get back to more regular blogging. As a start, here is a link a scholarly colleague sent me – you don’t have to be a musicologist to find the site amusing.

Tempestuous broadcast and streaming

My Songs and Dances from ‘The Tempest’ will be heard on Kile Smith’s program Now is the Time this coming Sunday, July 18th at 10:00 pm Eastern Daylight Savings Time. The piece was commissioned by the Folger Consort, the early music ensemble in residence at the Folger Library. Soprano Ellen Hargis and baritone William Sharp sing settings of excerpts from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, alongside instrumental movements suggested by stage directions in the play. Christopher Kendall, Robert Eisenstein, Scott Reiss, and Tina Chancey are the superb multi-instrumentalists.

You can listen to the program on WRTI-HD2 in Philadelphia and streaming on the web at WRTI.org.  An excerpt from the piece is on the audio samples page of my website, jamesprimosch.com, and the CD from which the recording comes is available here.