Recent Listening – American Composers

Some of these are new, some are not, but all are worthy of your attention. Excellent performances as well.

Paul Moravec: Sanctuary Road. Oratorio Society of New York, Kent Tritle. Naxos.
Another substantial choral work by Paul on an American theme, after his The Blizzard Voices – in this case, the theme is the Underground Railroad,  There is a generosity to the writing that suits the grand forces and the big topics.

Paul Schoenfeld, Steven Stucky, John Harbison: Three American Violin Sonatas. Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Jon Kimura Parker, piano. Naxos
Eclectic, effective writing from Schoenfeld; one of the works in traditional genres to which Stucky turned late in life; always thoughtful, always fresh Harbison.

George Perle: Serenades. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose conductor. Wenting Kang, viola; Donald Berman, piano. BMOP/sound
Ranging from 1962 (Serenade No. 1 for viola and chamber orchestra) through 1968 (Serenade No. 2 for eleven players) and on to 1983 (Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber orchestra). Though they range over 21 years, Perle’s coherent harmonic language and witty rhythmic gestures obtain throughout. I think the best item here is No. 3 – I believe I was at the premiere in NYC!

Gerald Levinson: Now Your Colors Sing. various performers. Innova.
A splendid 2-cd survey of work by a composer truly deserving of a much higher profile. A student of Messiaen and Crumb, a visitor to Bali, Levinson’s music is more than the sum of those influences. Extraordinarily refined harmony, highly colorful orchestration, clear and expressive formal shapes, all at the service of a profound expressive impulse.

John Harbison: String Trio; Four Songs of Solitude; Songs America Loves to Sing. Camerata Pacifica. Harmonia Mundi.
At the moment, the compositional pendulum has swung back to the exploration of extended instrumental techniques of the kind that were of interest in my earliest student days. Given that context, it’s a pleasure to hear pieces where the pitches really matter. There’s a big serious string trio, a group of four lyrical violin pieces, and a set of pieces based on American folk and traditional tunes, written in the hope that the tunes would work the way the chorales work in Bach’s music, as part of a shared repertoire among listeners. I’m afraid the tunes are not as widely known as they may once have been, but, as with Bach, you can still enjoy the compositional ingenuity, the brilliant instrumental writing, and the sheer rollicking joy of this music.

More Pix From Tanglewood

First, a few shots of the campus being gorgeous:

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Now, some composers. Left to right, Casey Ginther, Augusta Read Thomas, Bun-Ching Lam:

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Gerald Levinson, Yehudi Wyner, and John Harbison at a rehearsal of Levinson’s Here of most amazing now:

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Here’s the ensemble for the Levinson:

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(Jiyeon Kim, guitar; Blair Francis, flute;Nicholas Tisherman, oboe and english horn; Mary Patchett, saxophone; Matthew Howard, percussion; Jakob Alfred Paul Nierenz, cello, Nash Tomey, double bass. Obscured at left is pianist George Xiaoyuan Fu, piano.)

Harbison and Levinson at Jerry’s dress rehearsal:

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Bright Sheng conducting his own Deep Red:

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Yehudi Wyner at a rehearsal for his new work on an Elizabeth Bishop text, Sonnet: In the Arms of Sleep:

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Yehudi’s singers at work – Lucy Shelton, Paulina Villareal, and Quinn Middleman:

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John Harbison conducting a Dallapiccola rehearsal:

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The dress rehearsal for the late Gunther Schuller’s Magical Trumpets. The piece is scored for 12 trumpets – or, to be more precise: 1 piccolo trumpet in F, 1 D trumpet, 3 B-flat trumpets, 3 C trumpets, 1 cornet, 1 flugelhorn, 1 bass trumpet in E-flat, and 1 bass trumpet in B-flat. Jonathan Berman is conducting.

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Michael Tilson Thomas rehearsing the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in the Copland Orchestral Variations:

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MTT exhorting the players as they work on the Ives Holidays Symphony. That’s Marzena Diakun on the podium next to him; the blonde head between the first two violins is that of another conductor assisting in the Ives, Ruth Reinhardt. Christian Reif rounded out the team of conductors for the Ives.

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More composers now – a blurry shot of a pre-concert chat with John Harbison, Charles Wuorinen, Helen Grimes, Shulamit Ran, and program annotator Robert Kirzinger:

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One more group shot: Robert Kirzinger, Yehudi Wyner, Eric Chasalow, myself, Augusta Read Thomas, and I’m sorry to say I don’t know the name of the gentleman on the far right – help me out by identifying him in the comments, please.

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Au Coeur de l’infini

Go here to listen to Au Coeur de l’infini, a work my colleague Gerald Levinson wrote for Olivier Latry, organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The piece is wonderfully imaginative, with Jerry’s fabulous gift for harmony, combined with the striking organ timbres (the uncanny high and low sounds at 1:04 are just one example), making for something that sounds quite fresh while still clearly in the French tradition.

All-American Piano

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There was an exceptionally warm and focused audience at last night’s recital at Penn. Linda Reichert and I offered an all-American program that bound together various programming threads – besides the American angle, there were three Philadelphia composers (Primosch, Levinson, and Persichetti); we heard French musical thought filtered through American voices (Levinson, Copland); and experienced the contrast of stream of consciousness (Persichetti) and aphoristic (Harbison) modes of expression.

I thought Linda did a great job on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, with the slow movement called “Nocturnal Obsessions” being a highlight: subtly pedaled, exquisitely balanced (on a not terribly friendly piano), full of atmosphere and Chopin-esque languor.

It was a thrill for me to share the Copland Sonata with my listeners, especially such attentive ones – there was a nearly uncanny quiet in the room during the very soft passages in the finale of the Copland. The piece has its technical challenges, but it is not as pianistically difficult as some of the other great American sonatas (including Barber, Ives, Carter, Rochberg, Wernick, Harbison…). However, I find the emotional intensity of the Copland draining, intense in both its breadth and depth of feeling. The short movements of the Harbison – wry, cryptic, droll, graceful, brusque – offered a welcome contrast with the high drama of Copland’s long-lined narrative.

Now I really must finish up the little piece I am doing for Network’s April 4 Harbison concert so I can attend to my commission from The Crossing – blogging is going to stay infrequent for a while, folks…

Above, I am at the Steinway. Here are Linda and myself after the show (too bad iPhoto can’t do anything to make my sport coat lay flat):

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Levinson: Morning Star

The opening piece on the Feb. 26 program Linda Reichert and I will play at Penn is a work for piano four-hands, Morning Star, by Penn alum Gerald Levinson. Here is Jerry’s program note on the piece:

Morning Star was originally conceived as an anniversary present for my wife, Nanine Valen, in the hope that we could play it together four hands (you may note that the two players must sometimes operate in close proximity). A few years later, at the time of the birth of our first son Ari (on our anniversary), I expanded the piece somewhat. Eventually, after our second son Adam was born I revised it again, and rededicated it to my wife and both sons – and had to face the fact that it had grown beyond our domestic performance capacity.  It was first performed, and recorded, by James Freeman and Charles Abramovic. It is a study in gently flowing melody, couched in refined harmony, aiming at a luminous and rather timeless atmosphere. In his notes for the recording, Paul Griffiths has written: “The basic B-flat major-ish tonality is …  felt as a root of resonance rather than as a site of action. The uses of the extremes of the keyboard, of major chords with added notes, and of mutings (achieved when one player lightly touches the strings sounded by the other) all accentuate resonance effects, which evoke the distant light suggested by the title, and the inscription from Job: ‘Were you there when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’”

“Amazing” to-do list

Hard to believe it’s already been a week since I got back from my trip to Boston. I should have made more progress by now with the two tasks at the top of my to-do list:

– The first is to finish my piece for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert here in Philadelphia. This is part of what I have been calling their HarbFest, a week of concerts and other events devoted to the music of John Harbison. Network has commissioned a few new pieces for the April 4 program, all based on American folk tunes that John used in his chamber work Songs American Loves to Sing. That set will be heard, as well as new music by Anna Weesner, Terell Stafford, Bobby Zankel, and Uri Caine and myself. Harbison will join with trumpeter Stafford and students from Temple University to play some jazz tunes at the concert.

My piece is called Meditation on ‘Amazing Grace‘. I am using the tune in minor, with the notes of the melody treated as dissonant color tones above the accompaniment, rather than sounding the notes of the tonic triad. For example, the first two notes of the tune (in b-flat minor) are F-natural and B-flat, but these are harmonized with a G dominant seventh. The tune is played by muted trumpet, while piano and contrabass provide a long-ringing, floating accompaniment.

– While I wrap up that project, I need to keep up my practicing at the piano, for my half-recital (a program shared with Linda Reichert) at Penn is coming up on Feb. 26. I’ll be playing the Copland Sonata, Harbison’s Leonard Stein Anagrams, and, together with Linda, Gerald Levinson‘s work for piano four-hands, Morning Star. Linda will play the Philadelphia premiere of my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and Vincent Persichetti‘s Winter Solstice. While I’ve already written about Contraption, I will try to offer some thoughts on the other pieces in the coming weeks.