“Holy the Firm” at soirée

This coming Sunday, pianist Jason Wirth will be holding a soirée at his home studio. It’s a program of contemporary song and will include soprano Lily Arbisser  (pictured) doing four of the five songs from my Holy the Firm. This takes place Sunday, Nov. 26 at 6 pm. The address is 101 W. 143rd St. Apt. 20, in Manhattan. A nice coincidence: Lily was a student of Susan Stewart at Princeton, and Susan is the author of “Cinder”, one of the poems I set in Holy the Firm.

Go here for the live stream of the event.

(photo credit: Arielle Doneson)

“Holy the Firm” at Penn and at Westminster Choir College

h-the-fSoprano Jamie Jordan will be offering three songs from my cycle Holy the Firm as part of her recital with pianist Steven Beck at Penn tomorrow evening (2/22/17) – go here for more on the concert, and click here for a PDF of the program. The piece will be heard again later this week, as  J. J. Penna has programmed the complete cycle as the closing event of Westminster Choir College’s 2017 Art Song Festival. I don’t yet have the name of who will be singing at Westminster, but J. J. will be playing piano and I will update this post with the singer’s name as soon as I get it. The concert is this Saturday, 2/25, at 7:30 in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus. More information here. UPDATE: vocal duties for Holy the Firm will be shared by Katie O’Mara, Sarah Cooper, and Rebecca Achtenberg, all students at Westminster.

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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“Holy Mighty”

I just learned from my colleague Jay Reise that our vocal music is to be heard in Moscow this coming September 26 in a concert at the Myaskovsky Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Ekaterina Kichigina, soprano, and Mikhail Dubov, piano, will offer Jay’s Satori and excerpts from my own Holy the Firm. Works by George Crumb will also be heard.

The title of my piece is translated as “Holy Mighty” in the concert announcement, which is interesting because it brings to mind a traditional prayer in the Orthodox tradition called the Trisagion:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

Though I wasn’t thinking of the Trisagion (my title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard), perhaps the person preparing the announcement intended to recall it.

Ms. Kichigina performed my songs in Moscow last season, read more about that here.

“…That Passeth” at Rice

A quick note to say that soprano Arielle Carrara and pianist Sarah Bouse will do “…That Passeth All Understanding” at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music tomorrow, March 22, at 5:30 in Duncan Recital Hall as part of Arielle’s senior recital. This setting of a Denise Levertov poem is the first piece in the cycle Holy the Firm that I wrote for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish back in 1999. You can see the first page of “…That Passeth” at the Sheet Music Plus page for H the F. The chamber version of the cycle is included on the new “Sacred Songs” cd.

Penn’s Voice

Mary Mackenzie’s recital at Penn last week featured several pieces by Penn faculty, both current and retired. She opened with the Three Early Songs of George Crumb, and I mean early – these were written when George was still a teen, intended for his wife Liz to sing. (Come to think of it, I don’t know if they were married at the time, or still just high school sweethearts.) Although George denies it, there are hints of his mature idiom here, and not just in the nocturnal cast of the texts and settings. There is a moment in the second song where the piano pedal is held down while a repeated figure is played softer and softer. That use of resonance, a resounding, echoing effect, is an essential thumbprint of Crumb’s music, part of the acoustic of his native West Virginia landscape, with sounds reverberating amid the hills and valleys.  Mary offered more Crumb in the second half of the concert, his little Poe setting, The Sleeper, which was written for a Jan DeGaetani Carnegie Hall recital (I was there!)*

There was more music by Penn emeriti as well, both pieces from the late 60s. George Rochberg’s Eleven Songs sets short texts by his son Paul. It was Paul’s early death that led George to reconsider his aesthetic outlook and reject serial technique, while embracing a broad range of musical possibilities, including 19th century tonal practice. While he never engaged serialism again, George still did write atonal music, such as this set of songs. This was fiercely expressionist music, full of vivid gestures and often anguished in tone. To me the piece sounded somewhat dated; some of the gestures may have carried a certain amount of shock value fifty years ago, but piano clusters and sprechstimme vocal effects don’t in themselves mean a great deal. They can’t make up for a piece’s lack of substance. The set dragged, and although they are short songs – and were well-performed – they felt long.  In contrast, Richard Wernick’s Moonsongs from the Japanese, did seem to me to hold up. The piece is written for soprano and two pre-recorded sopranos (though it could, I suppose, be performed by three sopranos.) These settings of short haiku-like poems were concise in a way that the Rochberg songs were not, and although they too were of their time in the use of non-synchronized passages and non-pitched phonemes, these devices felt integrated and did not call attention to themselves in the way that the special effects in the Rochberg did. The use of pre-recorded female voice, the exploration of phonemes and the wide-ranging melodic gestures brought Babbitt’s Philomel to mind, though the pitches made sense in Wernick’s piece in a way that, for me, Babbitt’s pitches do not. Moonsongs was written for Neva Pilgrim, and when I heard a dub of the tapes Neva had made for the piece decades ago, I knew the sound quality would not be acceptable, so Mary and I made a fresh version of the tape. Her astonishing virtuosity meant this was not a lengthy job; only a few takes were needed for a given section. I would like to go back to the materials and polish my editing of the piece a bit, but we managed to get something together that was quite effective.

The one non-Penn composer on the program was John Harbison. Mary’s performance of his Simple Daylight, six songs on texts of Michael Fried, was harrowing. It was an interesting contrast with the Rochberg – there is anguish in both pieces, but there is much greater musical substance in John’s piece. The emotional power of the piece springs directly from it’s detailed craft. It’s one of John’s darkest pieces, and one of my favorites.

Mary closed the program with a complete performance of my cycle Holy the Firm. Singing from memory, she vividly conveyed the ecstatic and contemplative aspects of the piece, with full command of the mad scene that is the final song. H the F will be on the upcoming Bridge CD, in its chamber ensemble version, as performed by Susan Narucki. I’ve been very lucky with performers of this piece, and Mary Mackenzie’s performance continues that lucky streak.

Eric Sedgwick was Mary’s unflappable pianist. As someone remarked to me, “he’s one of those Zen guys”, meaning Eric is the kind of pianist who works wonders while appearing to barely move. The piano part for Holy the Firm is very notey, and Simple Daylight is intricately worked, but no problems were posed for Eric. He is the kind of player whose trills – fast and wonderfully smooth – are played purely with the fingers; no helpful forearm rotation required. He partnered Mary impeccably.

I am writing this after my return from Cornell where Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift was performed – more about that in my next post.

Here’s a picture from Mary’s concert. (l to r: George Crumb, Mary Mackenzie, Richard Wernick, and Eric Sedgwick)

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* Not only was I there, but this was the occasion for one of those only-in-NYC moments: I got in the elevator to go find Jan and the composers whose songs she had premiered that night. In the elevator with me were Teresa Sterne (the force behind Nonesuch records in those days, including Jan’s unsurpassed recording of Ancient Voices) and Issac Stern. Ms. Sterne asked Mr. Stern the following question: “Is it true that you once received a review that said, ‘He left no tone un-Sterned’?” The answer was yes.

Many, Many Philadelphians

Lyric Fest took an inclusive view of who counts as a Philadelphia composer in preparing this past Sunday’s survey of the city’s contributions to song repertoire – natives, residents, those who studied here, even those who summered near here as a child (Sondheim). Barber and Rorem were represented, but also Rorem’s students, down to the second generation. There was a exquisite very early song by George Crumb, an intriguing multi-part setting of Stevens by Persichetti, a charming song by Kile Smith on a 17th century text, and much more (the full list of composers is here). I was there to hear my “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm, and I was delighted by a powerful performance from soprano Randi Marrazzo and pianist Laura Ward. Their reading was a bit slower than some others I have heard, and the song seemed to thereby gain in expressive intensity. I think they connected strongly with the audience – there was that extra moment of silence after the piece ended.

Lyric Fest performs “Cinder”

I just found out that Lyric Fest, an organization here in Philly devoted to, as their website puts it, “connecting people through song”, will include my “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm on their upcoming October 14th concert. The program is at 3:00 pm and will be held at the Academy of Vocal Arts here in Philadelphia. Under the title “Old City ~ New Song”, Laura Ward, Randi Marrazzo, and Suzanne DuPlantis, the artistic directors of Lyric Fest, have put together an array of songs by Philadelphia composers, including premieres by Allen Krantz and Thomas Lloyd.

“Cinder” is probably my most popular song. Dawn Upshaw, who premiered Holy the Firm, extracted the song from that set and toured with it. The piece has been sung at memorial services, at Songfest, and was featured at a presentation by the Joseph Campbell Foundation at an event called the Parliament of the World’s Religions several years ago. When I told Susan Stewart (the author of the text for “Cinder”) about the Parliament, she remarked “I thought that’s what happens when we die.”