“A Sibyl” Premieres in Boston

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the Sibyl of Cumae in the Sistine Chapel

Written on a Fromm Foundation commission, A Sibyl is a cycle of six songs on texts by Susan Stewart, whose poetry I have set in several other pieces – Holy the Firm, Dark the Star, and Songs for Adam. Susan wrote the poems specifically for this new project. Collage New Music will premiere the piece at the Longy School in Cambridge, MA on October 15, 2017 at 3 pm. (There will be a pre-concert chat at 2 pm.) Mary Mackenzie will be the soprano soloist and David Hoose will conduct. Here’s my program note on the piece:

When I asked my friend Susan Stewart to write a set of poems for a new work for soprano, she responded with reflections on the mysterious prophetess spoken of in Virgil and Ovid. The sibyl sings of her prophecies written on leaves, and of how the god possesses her; she warns Aeneas before his descent to the underworld; she celebrates the moon. Having been granted eternal life, but failing to ask for eternal youth, she is reduced to no more than her voice. I understand the sibyl as an archetype of the musician who sings for us of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love; who guides us in moonlit and shadowy places; and whose prophetic voice resounds unendingly, in power, and in vulnerability.

A Sibyl was written for Collage New Music on a commission from the Fromm Music Foundation. I am grateful to the Foundation, to Collage, and to Mary Mackenzie for making this work possible, and to Susan Stewart for words to sing.

Mary has performed many pieces of mine, and she recorded Sacred Songs and Meditations with the 21st Century Consort, led by Christopher Kendall.

She has also recorded a big 2-CD collection of songs by various composers with pianist Heidi Williams that will include four pieces of mine, to be released on Albany later this season.

Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa published an interview with me on the Collage website – I talk there about working with Susan’s poetry and my history with Collage.

 

“Dark the Star” at Florida State

My Dark the Star for baritone and chamber ensemble was selected to be performed at the Florida State University Festival of New music next week. Here are the details:

Thursday, February 2, 2017, 7:30 pm: Dark the Star

Evan T. Jones, baritone
Deborah Bish, clarinet
Greg Sauer, cello
Heidi Williams, piano
Peter Soroka, percussion
Alexander Jimenez, conductor
Opperman Music Hall
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL

A great deal of music is packed into the three days of the Festival – go to the Festival website for more information.

Special guest performers for the Festival include the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, and violinist Monica Germino. The featured composer is Louis Andriessen. I’ve never met Andriessen, but I played his 1963 work Registers for piano at the 1977 Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam. This graphic score is very different from the later music for which he is principally known, with its influences from minimalism and Stravinsky. You can get some sense of what the score looks like in this video, though the image is quite reduced in size. (A shame the performer in the video is not identified.)

Heidi Williams, the pianist for the performance of Dark the Star, is in the midst of a big CD project with soprano Mary Mackenzie, including quite a lot of my vocal music. I will linger in Florida after the Festival to attend a recording session for my Three Folk Hymns with Mary and Heidi. (Mary just gave a wonderful performance at a Collegium Institute event at Penn, along with pianist Eric Sedgwick.)

Here’s the first movement of Dark the Star in the Bridge recording made by the forces for whom the piece was written: William Sharp, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor.

Quiet, Please – Recording in Progress

Visit Mary Mackenzie’s Twitter feed and her Instagram page for updates on the recording sessions taking place at Florida State University this week. Mary and pianist Heidi Williams are recording several pieces of mine, having performed them earlier this season – the performance I heard at FSU in November was fabulous. It sounds like they are covering a lot of material very efficiently, only three more songs to do tomorrow.

Vocal music at Florida State

Mary Mackenzie, soprano, and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, gave a fabulous performance at Florida State University last Friday that featured a big chunk of my song catalog. The program included the sets Holy the Firm and Three Sacred Songs, plus the individual songs Waltzing the Spheres and Shadow Memory. They closed the program with my arrangement of How Can I Keep From Singin’? Mary was in dazzling form throughout, particularly  in the big Holy the Firm cycle, with beautiful singing at the service of formidable emotional impact. She’s done the piece a number of times now, and I liked that she is getting more theatrical in the “mad scene” opening of the cycle’s last song, with its juxtapositions of dreaminess and terror. Heidi’s pianism was no less impressive. She played a Fazioli piano with a slightly glassy and sweet tone that could be clattery in less gifted hands. Heidi commanded complete control of balance, color and dynamics, not an easy thing on any instrument, but especially on the Fazioli.

In addition to my music, the program included John Harbison’s Vocalism: A Grand Aria for Soprano and Piano (that’s the composer’s subtitle) on a Whitman text. It is indeed grand: emotionally big-hearted, vibrantly textured. On a very different scale was John’s Seven Poems of Lorine Niedecker, a work premiered at this past summer’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. The piece is a set of seven short songs bound together (played without pause) that can also be understood as one larger song. Mary and Heidi offered a lovely short song by Daniel Crozier as an encore.

I gave a talk on my music the night before the recital. Thank you to Clifton Callender and Michael Buchler for the invitation to speak and for their kind hospitality.

The recital (along with the one the ladies gave at Southern Mississippi University earlier in the week) served as preparation for a CD recording including my music, set to take place next month. On the basis of the concert last week, it will be a remarkable document.

Here’s a post-concert shot, with Heidi on the left:

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Many Songs in Tallahassee and Hattiesburg

I enjoyed two coaching sessions last week with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams. These two ladies will be performing most of my voice and piano song output later this year, and then recording almost all of that material for an eventual CD release. On Friday, November 20, at Florida State University in Tallahassee, they will perform:

  • Three Sacred Songs (arrangements of old plainchant melodies)
  • Holy the Firm (a big cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw)
  • the individual songs Waltzing the Spheres and Shadow Memory (texts by Susan Scott Thompson and Susan Orlean, respectively)
  • an arrangement of How Can I Keep from Singin? (dating from some 20 years ago, it was written for an all-Primosch show at the Cleveland Museum of Art)

The performance will also be given at Southern Mississippi University in Hattiesburg on Tuesday, November 17. I’ll be there in Florida, and will give a talk at FSU, but will have to miss my Mississippi debut – I’ll be in NYC for the Juilliard performance of From a Book of Hours.

Both of these women are quite fantastic musicians. I’ve known Mary for some time, and she has done my work beautifully on several occasions, including a performance and recording of my piece for modern instruments, early instruments, and choir, Sacred Songs and Meditations (that recording has been in the can for a while, I imagine the release shouldn’t be too far off.) Heidi was new to me, and she is a real find, getting a beautiful piano sound, capable of subtle rhythmic nuance, ably partnering Mary. The rather virtuosic piano writing in Holy the Firm holds no terrors for her. Check out her very impressive disc Drive American, with music by John Adams, Joan Tower, Daniel Crozier, Chen Yi, Augusta Read Thomas, and William Bolcom.

The individual songs mentioned above are not (yet) handled by Theodore Presser, my usual publisher. Check out sample pages from these songs on the score excerpts page. There is a recording of Shadow Memory (Lisa Williamson, soprano and Rami Sarieddine, piano) on the “solo voice” audio excerpts page. A video of Kelly Ann Bixby, soprano, and Laura Ward, piano, doing Waltzing the Spheres is here. Send me an e-mail <jamesprimosch at gmail dot com> if you want purchase PDFs for any or all of these individual songs – click on the titles above to purchase the cycles.

Here is the inevitable post-coaching selfie. That’s Mary on the left, then Heidi in the middle.

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