Election Eve Miscellany

  • First things first: I hope you are either planning to go vote tomorrow, or are perhaps reading this while waiting in line to do so.
  • Thank you to The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally for the beautiful first performance they gave of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage. In a ten minute piece, I asked a lot of the group in terms not only of vocal virtuosity, but in variety of expression. They certainly delivered, as they always seem to do. I am very grateful. Unfortunately, no review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • I am struggling hard to make progress on my new piece for the Imani Winds, set for a February premiere in Philly, but to be rehearsed for the first time in December, so there is much to do on the piece this month. At the same time I have been polishing the performance materials for Matins, the work for oboe, strings and chorus that Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers will perform in January. Conductor David Hoose has helped me improve the notation – there are a lot more cautionary accidentals in the score than there used to be, for example – and some re-spellings that I am not sure I always agree with. But I have accepted 98% of David’s suggestions and corrections, and am happy to do what I can to make sure the performers can give their best.
  • Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward will perform two of my songs on upcoming Lyric Fest concerts: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm sets a Susan Stewart poem and is my most performed piece; and Bedtime, a Denise Levertov song from nearly 30 years ago, which was later memorably sung by Dawn Upshaw at her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Check the Performances page for more info on all the concerts I am mentioning.
  • Recent and not so recent listening has included:
    • some old George Shearing sides from the 1940s from a Proper box set. I’m afraid this was disappointing, with saccharine ballads and frantic bop solos, though he sometimes hits a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
    • A 1982 DG disc of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic in his Divertimento (forgettable), Halil with Rampal (colleagues I respect speak well of this piece, but it didn’t hold me), the Dance Episodes from “On the Town” (delightful) and Rostropovich playing the Three Meditations from “Mass” (it’s not really a cello and orchestra piece. However, like Anne Midgette who wrote about Mass in the Washington Post, I had the piece from which this cello work is extracted memorized before I knew any better, so I find it hard to judge the music now. (I wonder if she was raised Catholic as was I?))
    • A Recital of Intimate Works, which is an album of varied keyboard pieces performed by pianist Andrew Rangell on a 1996 Dorian disc. I am not sure that these pieces all qualify as intimate – not all the movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles, for example – but it is very freshly programmed. A piano album that includes Froberger, Sweelinck, Messiaen, and Enescu, plus Mozart (the sublime Rondo in A minor) and transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven certainly gets my attention. Beautifully played and recorded.
  • I’ve been greatly enjoying The Library Book by Susan Orlean – it’s great reporting, it’s great writing, it’s great fun, and, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s greatly touching. But this is the writer whose work gave me the text for a moving song, Shadow Memory:

The video is with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, who are the fabulous performers on Vocalisms, the new disc from Albany that includes Shadow Memory plus nine more of my songs.

Vocalisms

Vocalisms, the new two-CD set featuring my music as well as works by Harbison, Rorem, and Daniel Crozier, has been released by Albany Records. Soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Heidi Louise Williams perform my Shadow Memory (text by Susan Orlean), Waltzing the Spheres (Susan Scott Thompson), Three Folk Hymns (based on How Can I Keep From Singing?, Be Thou My Vision, and What Wondrous Love is This?), and the first recording of the piano version of Holy the Firm, (various authors) the 1999 cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. There’s a complete track listing at the Albany website.

The album makes a fine survey of contemporary American piano-and-voice song, with a mix of pieces by two senior composers (Rorem and Harbison) along with music by two mid-career types (Dan and myself.) The title comes from the opening piece, Harbison’s Vocalism, a Whitman setting that was commissioned by SongFest, the same organization that commissioned Shadow Memory.

I met Mary when she did my Three Sacred Songs about ten years ago, and she has been a wonderful advocate for my music ever since. Heidi came to my attention through her collaboration with Mary, and, as with Mary, I’ve been thrilled to hear her performances. It’s a wonderful combination of two smart artists who each have a gorgeous sound and superb musicianship. Their partnership is impeccable and they command every mood, whether serene or playful, mysterious or exuberant, often with no small emotional wallop, whether it’s the melancholy of Shadow Memory or the devastating deathbed scene that closes Holy the Firm. I’m profoundly grateful for their work.

I am delighted with the quality of the recording as well, as realized by producer Peter Henderson and engineer Paul Hennerich.

This is Mary’s fourth release on Albany, which says something for their well-justified belief in her merit. I can’t provide a direct link, but go to the Albany website and do an artist search to see her complete list of Albany albums, including the 21st Century Consort’s Cathedral Music, featuring my Sacred Songs and Meditations. And do the same for Heidi, whose Albany releases include a wonderful disc of contemporary American piano music called Drive American. You’ll want to browse the Albany catalog in general – the firm is admirable for its commitment to new music.

While there is a brief soundclip from the new album at the Albany page, you can see videos of Mary and Heidi doing two of the songs from the album here. That page also includes material from the Cathedral Music cd.

The score of Holy the Firm is available from the Theodore Presser Co., while the other songs are available from me directly – just send me a message.

Here are the three of us – Mary on the left – after a 2015 coaching session.

Contraption in Florida

When I visited Florida State University this past February, I was happy to meet a gifted pianist named Iris Cheng, a student of the marvelous Heidi Louise Williams in the graduate program there. I had a fine coaching session with Iris on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and am pleased to report she has programmed two movements from the piece – “Nocturnal Obsessions” and “Contraption” – for an upcoming recital. The concert will take place on Tuesday, April 18, in Longmire Recital Hall at FSU at 7:30 pm. Thanks to Iris and to Heidi for calling her student’s attention to the piece!

Back from Florida State and Recording Session

I’ve returned from the Florida State University Festival of New Music. My Dark the Star for baritone and chamber ensemble was to have been performed there, but the baritone, Evan T. Jones, suffered a terrific attack of laryngitis, and the performance had to be cancelled. I did hear a rehearsal of the other musicians for the piece – Deborah Bish, clarinet; Greg Sauer, cello; Heidi Louise Williams, piano, Peter Soroka, percussion; and Alexander Jimenez, conductor – and it was clearly going to be a great performance. It’s a pity Evan was ill. Here’s hoping those performers get another shot at the piece some other time.

The Festival was a substantial event, with six concerts in a few days, presenting works by 23 composers. You can find all the details here, though with the Festival being over I am not sure how long the website will be up.

The featured guest composer was Louis Andriessen. He had several works performed; my favorite was a chamber work called Zilver in which process struck a healthy balance with melody and harmony. There was a memorable program by the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo which featured a number of imaginative miniatures by Kurtág as well as short commissioned works in his honor. The most striking of the latter was Jason Eckardt’s Toll, a solemn processional of sounds created with extended techniques. Amy Williams’ own solo piece Cineshape 4 was striking for its athletic and smart piano writing.

Here’s Andriessen at a pre-concert talk:

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Thank you to everyone at FSU, in particular Clifton Callender and Evan A. Jones, co-chairs of the Festival committee, for the tremendous amount of work that went into making the Festival happen. Even though my piece didn’t get performed, I am very grateful to have been there.

I lingered in Tallahassee after the festival to attend a recording session for two of my Three Folk Hymns. These are songs based on “Be Thou My Vision” and “What Wondrous Love Is This?”, and were recorded by Heidi Williams (FSU faculty, who was to have played piano in the ill-fated Dark the Star performance), and soprano Mary Mackenzie. Both ladies were in excellent form, and this was the least stressful recording session I have ever participated in! (It didn’t hurt that we only had to do about 8 minutes of music.) I worked with composer Daniel Crozier to produce the session. Dan was extremely helpful with noting small details for which we needed to record patches – I just find it very hard to decide if we are covered for particular spots, and my comments were more in the vein of coaching suggestions. The recording engineer was Paul Hennerich of The Pan-Galactic Company, and he captured a rich and colorful sound. Heidi used FSU’s Fazioli piano, an instrument with a unique timbre, quite different from a Steinway. It is savory, sumptuously resonant, yet a bit bright. It brought to mind an exotic after-dinner liqueur. It could easily become clattery in the hands of someone less skilled than Heidi, but she drew an astonishing array of bewitching color from the instrument. I am greatly looking forward to the CD for which this was the last session. It will come out on Albany later this year, a two-disc set featuring music by Daniel Crozier, Ned Rorem, and John Harbison as well as a big chunk of my own vocal catalog.

Here’s the setup in FSU’s Opperman Music Hall:

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Heidi at work:

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the view from the driver’s seat:

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check out the oddly grained and highly finished interior of the case:

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Even the underside of the instrument is beautiful:

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Mary and Heidi when the session was over:

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And here is the whole team with Heidi and Mary in front, and, standing behind them, Paul Hennerich (engineer), Anne Garee (piano technician), myself, and Dan Crozier, (co-producer).

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Upcoming this season in Athens, Tallahassee, and Philadelphia

I want to call your attention to a couple of items recently added to the performances page:

Youmee Kim, a member of the piano faculty at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, was part of the consortium that commissioned my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. She will play the piece in Glidden Hall on the OU campus this coming September 27. I’ve written about the piece here.

– I first met soprano Mary Mackenzie at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival several years ago when she performed my Three Sacred Songs, and she has since performed my music a number of times. Mary will include that same set of arrangements of chant melodies (Jesu Dulcis Memoria, and Christus Factus Est) and a carol (O Fillii et Filliae) on a program with pianist Heidi Louise Williams at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL, on November 20. The Three Sacred Songs were later orchestrated for chamber ensemble, with another arrangement added, to make the Four Sacred Songs, which are included on the Bridge Sacred Songs CD. Mary and Heidi are planning a CD that will include several pieces of mine, including the big cycle Holy the Firm, the individual songs Shadow Memory, and Waltzing the Spheres, plus an arrangement of How Can I Keep From Singin’?

Gary White will lead the Philadelphia Sinfonia in my Variations on a Hymn Tune at the Temple Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA, next January 24. I wrote the piece for the Council Rock school district in Bucks County, PA, basing it on a 19th century hymn tune “Ebenezer”, written by Welsh composer Thomas J. Williams. Although I came to know the tune with the text “Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow”, my music does not reflect that lugubrious title!

Sticky post: Recent Recordings

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Vocalisms includes 10 of my songs for soprano and piano, performed by Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Louise Williams. The album also features songs by John Harbison, Ned Rorem, and Daniel Crozier. You can find it at the Albany Records website, or Amazon. 

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Sacred Songs is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and was released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music.  A review by Christian B. Carey on the Musical America website is here; another is at Audiophile Audition, by Steven Ritter. Composer Daniel Asia discusses the album at the Huffington Post here.