Summer Solstice Miscellany

– my Shadow Memory, a voice and piano song on a text by Susan Orlean, will be performed at 7:30 pm this coming Saturday, June 24, 2017 at SongFest. The concert takes place in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School. Soprano Bahareh Poureslami and pianist Nathan Cheung will perform. You can read more about the piece here and here.

IMG_2336– I went to see the National Orchestral Institute’s concert at the University of Maryland last Saturday. This is a training orchestra, in existence for 30 years now, and the playing is at a very high level. It has to be at that level to take on a program like last Saturday’s: Sun-Treader of Carl Ruggles, Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, and the John Harbison 4th Symphony. David Alan Miller, director of the Albany symphony, conducted. This was a program of pieces that I never expected to hear in person. (I’m afraid there is an awfully long list of very good pieces that fall into that category.) Sun-Treader – not exactly a light-hearted concert opener – sounded rather like a Second Viennese School work in its expressionist grandeur, probably not what Ruggles had in mind, except for the grandeur part. The Stucky Concerto is full of the orchestral brilliance one associates with that composer, but there is emotional heat as well, notably in the big variations set that forms the second movement. John Harbison’s 4th Symphony is in five movements, ranging widely over a varied expressive terrain. It thinks, it’s playful, and in the remarkable Threnody that constitutes the fourth movement, it looks into an abyss. Throughout the piece there is an overarching intelligence, expressed in the unexpected but logical formal shapes.

It was terrifically impressive to hear the young players tackle this challenging program. You will be able to hear for yourself, as the program was recorded for eventual release on Naxos. All praise to David Alan Miller, who continues to be an extraordinary champion of American music – at one point on Saturday, John Harbison referred to him as the Koussevitzky of our time.

Here is John, along with Will Robin, at a pre-concert chat:

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– It wasn’t on my summer reading list (that was only a partial list anyway), but I picked up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day at the recommendation of my friend Guthrie Ramsey, and am enjoying it greatly. This is partly for the familiarity of its Philadelphia setting, but more importantly for being touching and funny and thought-provoking. The NY Times review puts it well: “cerebral comedy with pathos.”

Early May Miscellany

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–  Anna will be playing my Piano Variations. She was one of the students who shared in a performance of the piece in 2016, having had the work brought to her attention by Temple U professor Lambert Orkis. More about the piece here.

– there was a very strong performance by the Lark Quartet at their 30th anniversary concert in NYC this past Monday. After urgent, authoritative playing in the Debussy Quartet, they offered a premiere for string octet by Andrew Waggoner in which the original members of the Lark joined the current members. The piece, called Ce morceau de tissu, was striking for its fierce antiphonies and roiling textures. It was impressive how Andrew was able to maintain high energy in the piece; sustained fast music is no small challenge to write. After intermission, the Harbison String Quartet No. 6 had its NYC premiere. In four movements, the piece begins with the first violin placed some distance from the rest of the quartet, gradually arriving at a conventional playing location, and the “3 + 1” conception returns later, though the positioning of the player remains normal. It was interesting to hear this quartet and Harbison’s Presences two weeks apart; two chamber works for strings featuring concertante writing for a member of the ensemble, though Presences is mostly at a higher dramatic temperature than the quartet with its lyrical and dancing textures. Both works linger in the mind.

No less intriguing was a chance to hear the Harbison Sixth in close juxtaposition with the recent Mario Davidovsky Sixth Quartet as played by the Juilliard Quartet on Sunday here in Philadelphia.  Both memorable pieces by senior masters, but with very different languages, of course. Mario’s piece is called Fragments, and its essentially athematic discourse relies on the careful deployment of characterful elements that, in Mario’s words: “do not offer the necessary pitch/rhythmic information to denote them clearly as motives, but can be described in basic ‘expressive’ terms as being very fast, percussive, or lyrical, etc.” These fragments are combined, juxtaposed, and transformed, with the result being mercurial, dramatic, playful and poetic by turn. The writing is animated by vividly alert textures that retain the influence of Mario’s days in the electronic music studio; at times it is as though an electronic component is embedded in the purely acoustic piece. The work was brilliantly played by the Juilliard on a program that also included the Mendelssohn a minor quartet and Beethoven Op. 130, with the Grosse Fuge – whew!

Here’s John Harbison with Andrew Waggoner and Kathryn Lockwood of the Lark after the concert:

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and Andy with his wife Caroline Stinson, cellist in the Lark:

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– I visited the Guggenheim the morning after the Lark performance, and I strongly recommend their current show, filled with myriad strong pieces! I lingered at works by Pollock, Klee, many Kandinskys, a Bonnard (not normally one of my favorites), Mondrian, and many more. I found this Picasso especially moving, spending a long time looking at the supremely elegant curving lines:

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You might complain that this is an “easy” work to like, compared with, for example, some of the Kandinskys in the show. But “easy” in art is never easy.

“Presences” in NYC

This is a belated note on last Monday’s Weekend of Chamber Music program in New York at the Bathhouse Studios. Yet another fine young string quartet (there seem to be so many these days) – this one called the Verona – opened the program with Haydn’s Op. 50, Nr. 1, transparent and articulate. This was followed by the NYC premiere of John Harbison’s Presences. The piece is a chamber concerto for cello and five additional strings, in this case the Verona joined by Jeremy McCoy, double bass. Caroline Stinson of the Lark Quartet was the cello soloist. Commissioned as a memorial work for a cellist, it was the passionate moments of the piece that struck me the most, which is not to overlook the playful aspects. The inclusion of the double bass gives the music a three-dimensional quality, a certain heft and weight. I must admit Verklarte Nacht crossed my mind during the performance; not the vocabulary, but the richly ardent character of the discourse. The second half of the program was the Schubert Quintet in an eloquent performance notable for some tempi that were a bit more brisk than usual.

I plan to be back in New York on May 1 when the Lark plays the NYC premiere of Harbison’s Quartet Nr. 6 and a premiere by Andrew Waggoner at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall – tickets here.

Here’s a shot from last Wednesday. Left to right: Abigail Rojansky, Dorothy Ro, John Harbison, Caroline Stinson, Warren Hagerty (obscured), Jonathan Ong, and Jeremy McCoy.

Oboe Quartet in Philly, “Come Brothers All…” in Boston

Brilliant musicians who had previously played my music in other contexts separately came together to play my Oboe Quartet at Penn last Friday. Oboist Peggy Pearson, who commissioned the piece, collaborated with members of the Daedalus Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at Penn. The result was superb, richly shaded, strongly shaped. The premiere of an oboe quintet by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, the intensely strange Janáček first quartet, and a Haydn quartet arranged with oboe substituting for one of the violins rounded out the program. Anna’s piece was wonderfully varied and imaginative. She conjures memorable musical images that sound the way life feels. Peggy’s playing here, as throughout the evening, was extraordinary for her ability to subtly blend with the strings.

I traveled on to Boston the next day and attended the Cantata Singers benefit that evening:

This was held at the Liberty Hotel, which served as a jail until surprisingly recently.

Now some touristy pictures taken while walking from the subway to the benefit. Beacon Hill does look a little like some of the smaller streets in Philadelphia, though the buildings are typically three stories in Philly, not four: IMG_1912

 

The St. Gaudens memorial to Colonel Shaw and his African-American Civil War regiment:

IMG_1910(“Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat…” – from “For the Union Dead”, Robert Lowell) which is right across from the State House:

The next morning I went to Emmanuel Church, looking in on John Harbison before the service as he rehearsed a Victoria motet and a movement from his own And Mary Stood.

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Sunday afternoon – this 11th century corpus was a favorite piece:

 

Then Sunday evening was the first performance of my little contribution to Winsor Music’s “Songs for the Spirit” project, Come Brothers, All; Come Sisters, Too on a text by Georgia Douglas Johnson. Kendra Colton demonstrated the tune, then the audience joined in a reprise, with satisfying energy. Just before the performance:

It was great to have another chance to hear Anna’s quintet, plus the Haydn from Friday. The Winsor program closed with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, with clarinetist Rane Moore joining the Daedalus in a powerful rendition of this profoundly melancholy piece.

Thank you to all these musicians for your beautiful performances! I look forward to coming back to Boston for a Winsor Music concert next season that will feature a performance of my recently completed Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano.

More Piano Concertos to Remember

BBC Music Magazine recently posted a list of “Forgotten Piano Concertos”, and most of them are news to me. But I want to supplement the list with some concertos by American composers that very much deserve greater attention.

Richard Wernick’s Piano Concerto was written for Lambert Orkis and recorded for Bridge with the composer conducting Symphony II, an ensemble originated by musicians from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s orchestra. There are exceedingly few American composers who are not underappreciated, but Wernick’s tautly constructed and passionately heartfelt music truly should be more widely recognized. Lambert Orkis is best known as a superb chamber musician, but acquits himself brilliantly as a concerto soloist, and Symphony II is highly impressive. The piece is not on YouTube, but the following offers a sample of a recent Wernick chamber work.

Richard Goode is one of our most distinguished pianists in the standard repertoire, but earlier in his career he played and recorded several pieces by the late George Perle, including his Concertino for Piano, Winds and Timpani, and the Serenade Nr. 3 for piano and orchestra. Along with Perle’s solo Ballade, these pieces were recorded by Goode for Nonesuch, with Gerard Schwarz conducting his Music Today Ensemble. That album is available through Arkiv Music, but the Serenade performance was re-issued on a two-disc Bridge compendium of Perle’s music, along with a recording of the Concerto No. 2 with Michael Boriskin and the Utah Symphony under Joseph Silverstein that was originally released on Harmonia Mundi. Perle was a leading music theorist, explicating a variety of 20th century musics, with special emphasis on the Second Viennese School, but he should be no less renowned for his compositions. His piano writing is always attractive, with plenty of lyricism, but, most characteristically, fleet toccata-like textures. (Previously I wrote about Perle’ piano music here.) I nominate the Serenade No. 3 for revival. Here is the first movement:

Melinda Wagner’s Extremity of Sky is a piano concerto that was written for Emmanuel Ax. This is a grandly-scaled four-movement work by a master of the orchestral medium. The piano writing is no less eloquent, idiomatic but fresh, and harmonically rich, with perhaps some Messiaen influence. The slow movement, contemplative and dramatic by turns, is deeply touching. The piece is not yet commercially recorded, but as an example of her music, here is the opening movement of her Trombone Concerto:

Pianist Robert Miller died much too young, cutting short a career devoted to new music of many varieties, from Babbitt to Crumb, and including a 1978 Piano Concerto by the then 40-year old John Harbison. The piece was recorded for CRI with Miller, and the American Composers Orchestra, with Gunther Schuller conducting. Re-issued on CD by CRI as part of a disc of several early Harbison pieces, the album is now available through New World Records. Harbison’s concerto is one of the pieces that marked his turn toward a more direct and open idiom, sometimes characterized as neo-romantic, though jazz, Bach, and Stravinsky are perhaps more fundamental to his musical interests. The Concerto is not on YouTube, but as a sample of his orchestral writing, here is a later work, the Symphony No. 2.

I could continue this list for a while, with pieces by Peter Lieberson and Christopher Rouse among many others. Suggestions in the comments for additional pieces are, of course, welcome.

Listening on the Road

IMG_1031I knew I would be spending a lot of time in the car for my trip to North Carolina this past November, so I brought a good-sized stack of CDs, more than I could possibly go through. Here the ones I got to:

Mahler: Symphony #9.  Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor. Decades after conducting the premiere, Walter recorded Mahler’s last completed symphony in a reading that is notable more for its serenity than its angst.

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. This isn’t a trio plus soloist album, but an integrated whole, a quartet – true to the Bad Plus ideal of being a band. The material consists entirely of originals, with each member of the ensemble contributing.

Harbison: The Great Gatsby Suite; Darkbloom; Closer to My Own Life. Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller, conductor. I was there for the performance that preceded the recording of this music from Harbison’s opera, and found the Suite a compelling narrative in its own right. Darkbloom was inspired by Nabakov, while Closer to My Own Life sets texts by Alice Munro, with my friend and advocate Mary Mackenzie sounding radiant in her recorded debut as soloist.

Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde. Deborah Voigt; Thomas Moser; Petra Lang; Peter Weber; Robert Holl; Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Christian Thielemann, conductor. It won’t make you forget the Windgassen/Nilsson/Böhm version, but there is much to savor in this live recording. I was most impressed by Voigt and Lang, as well as the gorgeous orchestral playing.

Eric Chasalow: Are You Radioactive, Pal? There are many practitioners of electronic music but not so many great pieces. But Eric Chasalow’s work constitutes an exception to that rule because he is that rare combination: an artist with complete technical mastery of the medium who is also a first-class composer. Superb performances by Daniel Stepner, violin, and Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone, on pieces that combine live player with electronic sound; the remainder of the album is for fixed media alone.

Duke Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige. This is a 3-disc set of RCA recordings from 1944-46. One astonishing track after another, with compositional ingenuity and brilliant performances in full bloom. Besides excerpts from the title composition, the album includes The Perfume Suite and some remakes of earlier Ellington hits. Even the novelty numbers are a delight; who can resist Ray Nance on Otto, Make That Riff Staccato?

“Gatsby” in Dresden

John Harbison’s magnificent “The Great Gatsby” is having its first European production at the Semperoper in Dresden. Go here for behind-the-scenes videos and still photos. Nice to see the online material, but did they have to use (unidentified) Gershwin side by side with music from the opera? And shouldn’t the composer have been given a more prominent place in the videos?

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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The Call in Carolina

As you know from checking the Performances page, I have several things coming up soon. This week I will be in North Carolina for a performance of The Call by the Carolina Choir at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Susan Klebanow will conduct, and there is music by John Harbison and Allen Anderson on the program as well. I’ll be giving talks at UNC and at Duke during my visit.

Here is the George Herbert text for my piece, as well as a program note.

The Call

Come, My Way, My Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in Love.

– George Herbert (1633)

Thirty years after setting George Herbert’s The Call in a folk style for use by the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University, I have returned to the text with a setting for Emmanuel Church that retains some melodic elements of the first version.

While I usually treat a text in a linear manner from beginning to end, in this piece I have broken open Herbert’s tightly bound form by freely repeating and fragmenting the poem in two contrapuntal Fantasias based on musical motifs from the Chorales that frame the motet.

As was the case with seven previous motets, I gratefully offer The Call as a gift to the Emmanuel community. But this piece is dedicated to a particular member of that community, to John Harbison on his 75th birthday: admired composer, generous advocate, dear friend.

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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