“Four Sketches” Premiere

Heartfelt thanks to the Imani Winds for their beautiful first performance of my Four Sketches for woodwind quintet this past Friday. This is a group of virtuosi who not only can play anything, but deeply understood my music, grasping its expressive intent and using their formidable chops to project it powerfully to the audience. It was a thrill to be part of their program, featuring music by members of the ensemble present (Jeff Scott) and and past (Valerie Coleman) as well as music by Ligeti, Harbison, and Schifrin – a thrill because of the group’s palpable connection with the sellout audience. Thank you as well to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society – the organization that presented the concert and commissioned the piece. Here’s hoping Imani gets more chances to play the work – I’ll of course keep you informed about that. Read Peter Dobrin’s review of the concert from the Philadelphia Inquirer here. (Unfortunately, I didn’t see a group press picture with the ensemble’s new flutist – Brandon Patrick George –  on their website just yet. That’s the Imani’s original flutist, Valerie Coleman, seated in the picture at left. Photo credit: Matt Murphy)

Work Before Work

It’s back to the day job this week, but I managed to finish a couple of projects during the Christmas break that is coming to an end. I Heard You, for tenor and piano, is my contribution to Lyric Fest’s Walt Whitman celebration this spring. Whitman calls the poem “Music”, but that seemed an awkward title for a song, so I used the first words of the text. Here is the poem (WordPress is determined to keep me from displaying the proper lineation for the poems – sorry Walt!):

Music

I heard you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last Sunday morn I passed
the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walked the woods at dusk, I heard your
long-stretched sighs, up above, so mournful;
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I heard the
soprano in the midst of the quartette singing.
—Heart of my love! you too I heard, murmuring low, through one of the
wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last night
under my ear.

I took full advantage of the imagery in the text, using a polytonal harmonization of “O God Our Help In Ages Past” for the organ; rapid figures for the winds of autumn; references to Verdi and Wagner for the opera singers; and the Westminster Chimes motif for the last lines. My plan is to add another short song to this setting, making a pair of two Whitman love songs. Here is the other text:

Sometimes with One I Love

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs). 

The other project where I reached the double bar was a set of Four Sketches for the Imani Winds. These are brief movements with titles referring to different things music can do:

I. Calling
II. Dancing
III. Remembering
IV. Grooving

I could have called it “Four Ings”, but I figured it better not to lean on the playful title Cowell used for a set of six piano pieces called Six Ings. (Don’t you wish you had written a piece called “Scooting”?)

The Four Sketches will be premiered on a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this coming February 15.

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.

Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival

I’ll be giving a presentation on my music tomorrow, June 26th, at the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, held at the Mannes School of Music at The New School. Imani Winds is a superb quintet that presents this festival (now in its sixth year) as a means to offer both performance coaching and career guidance for young players. Emerging composers participating get to write for the talented instrumentalists at the festival. While the composers will be working on instrumental pieces, I will offer something of a contrast by speaking about my vocal music, including excerpts from Holy the Firm, Songs for Adam, and Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus.

Here’s the Imani Winds playing Wayne Shorter’s Terra Incognita: