“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:


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:



Now, some composers. Left to right, Casey Ginther, Augusta Read Thomas, Bun-Ching Lam:

IMG_0895 (1)

Gerald Levinson, Yehudi Wyner, and John Harbison at a rehearsal of Levinson’s Here of most amazing now:


Here’s the ensemble for the Levinson:

Version 2

(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:


Bright Sheng conducting his own Deep Red:


Yehudi Wyner at a rehearsal for his new work on an Elizabeth Bishop text, Sonnet: In the Arms of Sleep:


Yehudi’s singers at work – Lucy Shelton, Paulina Villareal, and Quinn Middleman:


John Harbison conducting a Dallapiccola rehearsal:


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.


Michael Tilson Thomas rehearsing the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in the Copland Orchestral Variations:


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.


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:


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.


Back from Tanglewood

There is so much to say about the recently ended Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music that I have been having trouble getting started with a blog post about it all. This won’t be a complete report, just a beginning. I hope to have more to say in subsequent posts – though I really need to get back to the violin and piano piece I am working on for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

My own Dark the Star was performed on the Friday, July 24 program, and magnificently so. The piece is scored for baritone, clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion, but there were two superb young baritones among the Fellows – Dimitri Katotakis and Davone Tines –  so the renowned baritone Sanford Sylvan, coach for the performance, devised a division of labor where the two singers alternated, sometimes even dividing up the text for a single song. I’m not going to alter the score to include two singers, but what Sandy worked out was uncannily effective. The texts for the piece are full of shadows and doubles; plus, in two cases I set the same text twice, so the double-soloist strategy made organic sense. For one phrase near the end, Davone and Dimitri sang in unison to devastating effect. The instrumentalists were superb: Ethan Young, cello; John Diodati, clarinet; Joseph Kelly, percussion; and Pierre-André Doucet, piano. The distinguished pianist Stephen Drury conducted.

Dark the Star opened a well-considered program devised by John Harbison, with threads of connection among the pieces both in terms of form and expression. There was an ecumenical flavor established by including pieces with Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist roots. Sacred song, broadly defined, occupied the first half. My piece was followed by Dallapiccola’s Concerto per la notte di Natale dell’anno 1956, with a 17-piece chamber orchestra conducted by John Harbison and the brilliant Suzanne Rigden as soprano soloist. Intimate and piercingly intense by turns, the piece sets two medieval texts by Jacopone da Todi, along with an instrumental prologue, intermezzo, and epilogue. After intermission, Dark the Star‘s formal strategy of relatively short songs played without pause was echoed in the premiere of Harbison’s Seven Poems of Lorine Niedecker – in this case truly short songs, or perhaps a single song making use of several poems – played continuously and running about 7 minutes. Harbison is able to find fresh piano textures with unobtrusive and economical means, and the vocal writing is equally engaging. Soprano Sarah Tuttle was the appealing soloist, accompanied by veteran pianist Ursula Oppens. (There were several touching instances on the festival when veteran performers handed on their commitment to new music by performing alongside their more junior colleagues, including new works by Michael Gandolfi (Dawn Upshaw with singers Nola Richardson, Alison Wahl, and Zoe Band) and Yehudi Wyner (Lucy Shelton with mezzos Paulina Villareal and Quinn Middleman.)) The closing work on the program was also a set of miniatures, this time instrumental movements for a mixed chamber ensemble: Gerald Levinson’s Here of amazing most now, originally written for an Orchestra 2001 concert in honor of George Crumb on his seventieth birthday. Though not part of the composition, it worked well to have the instrumentalists speak the various haiku or poetic fragments that serve as epigraphs for each movement of the piece. New works by Helen Grime (a vibrant duet for clarinet and trumpet called Embrace) and a quartet for clarinet and piano trio by Shulamit Ran entitled (in Hebrew) Birkat Haderekh (“Blessing for the Road”) rounded out the second half. There was a sense of tenderness in the Ran, not the most common affect in new music concerts.


Here are a few pictures.

At the dress rehearsal for Dark the Star  in Ozawa Hall – Davone Tines:


Dimitri Katotakis:

Version 2

Ethan Young:


and the band:


time for bows:


after the show:


“Team Baritone” – that’s Sanford Sylvan with my two soloists:


Friday Miscellany

— From his various blog posts about his forthcoming book on the Concord Sonata, It’s clear that Kyle Gann has written an extremely insightful, meaty book, a thorough study of this cornerstone piece. Given that, it is appalling to read about the B. S. he is having to endure at the hands of his pre-publication reviewers.

— I was happy to see three of my favorite composers – Harbison, Rochberg and Crumb – get some respect on this best-of-2014 CD list by George Grella (linked to by Alex Ross). I guess I must need more coffee, because at first I read this sentence:

I have mostly grudg­ingly admired Harbison’s com­pos­ing, appre­ci­at­ing how his music was made with­out enjoy­ing it…

as meaning John took no pleasure in it as he wrote it! (Totally my problem, not the author.) I guess some alienation from your own work – as well as some affection for it – is part of the mix for any composer. The new String Trio is fabulous, as Grella suggests, but I don’t agree that it is “surprisingly” good, as I have found John’s music similarly fine all along the way.

— Distressing news about Allan Kozinn here. Hard not to see this alongside the reduced number of classical listings in The New Yorker as a shrinking of the conversation about classical music in print.

Network Sings John Harbison

Network for New Music celebrated the work of John Harbison this past weekend with two concerts and a variety of talks and workshops. It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

The pieces by Harbison ranged chronologically from 1980’s Mottetti di Montale to the premiere of a 2013 work, The Right to Pleasure, commissioned by Network. The focus throughout was on song: instrumental pieces based on folk or pop songs either real or synthetic, as well as vocal settings of texts by Louise Glück, Jessica Fisher, and Eugenio Montale.

Songs America Loves to Sing, featured in Friday’s concert, arranges 10 familiar American tunes for “pierrot” ensemble, with the melodies either treated in witty contrapuntal constructions or as accompanied solos featuring one or another member of the group. It’s simply a delightful piece, wearing its compositionally virtuosic polyphonic garb casually. You would think the phrase “double canon by inversion with a free bass” is a description of a work by Bach, but it also describes Harbison’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues”. The mensuration canons on “We Shall Overcome” sound similarly organic, not imposed.

The remainder of Friday’s concert was taken up with new works by other composers, all based on pieces in the SALTS set. The commissioned pieces included my own Meditation on Amazing Grace; Anna Weesner’s starkly powerful take on We Shall Overcome; Terell Stafford’s Favor, memorable for his masterful performance and inspired by the renditions of “Amazing Grace” he heard in church growing up; Uri Caine’s typically polystylistic treatment of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”; and Bobby Zankel’s Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, built around the similarly named tune about a circle instead of a cycle. Winners of a Network-sponsored composition contest, Luke Carlson and Peter Christian, contributed attractive short works as well. It was a great privilege for me to play my own work and Anna’s with some superb instrumentalist colleagues: Terell Stafford and bassist Mary Javian in my piece, and trumpeter Eric Schweingruber, violinist Hirono Oka, and again Mary Javian in Anna’s.

Sunday was all Harbison, opening with the first six songs from his massive Montale cycle. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley found the operatic qualities in this music, and coupled with Susan Nowicki’s intensely characterized piano accompaniments, the result was a musical setting that made the emotional world of the poetry legible in a way that mere reading could not. Bentley returned in similarly dramatic voice, this time accompanied by a string quintet, for the new work, The Right to Pleasure, which weds four darkly acute poems of Jessica Fisher to economical, tautly made music. The piece disturbs one’s thoughts long after the music has ended. The mood of the Glück settings in Crossroads, sung by Sarah Joanne Davis with great beauty of sound, is less dark, but similarly haunting. Hearing the line “My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer” in a setting by a seventy-five year old composer gives one pause. Not that Harbison was being manipulative – the piece may be concerned with mortality, but it remains clear-eyed in its compassion.

Two lighter instrumental works offered a nice contrast to the vocal pieces. The Fourteen Fabled Folksongs are not pre-existing melodies, but folk-like tunes devised by Harbison. Hirona Oka, violin, and Angela Nelson, marimba, caught the various playful moods of the set in their exceptionally well-etched playing. Thanks Victor, a medley of Victor Young songs arranged by Harbison for string quartet, was offered by young members of the Philadelphia Sinfonia – Stephanie Bonk, Benjamin She, Jamie Ye and Max Song – who played with stylish lilt.

Harbison continues to be one of my favorite composers, creating music with breadth of expressive means, profound musical intelligence, and touching emotional resonance. This is a spiritually nourishing body of work, and I am deeply grateful for its presence in my life.

Go here to stream an interview with Harbison heard on NPR’s Here & Now in which he talks about Songs America Loves to Sing.




Harbison and Network

I’ll be picking up John Harbison at the Philadelphia airport tomorrow as he begins his visit in connection with the concerts, talks, and workshops that Network for New Music is offering. The concerts will be on Friday, April 4, 8 pm, at Temple University’s Rock Hall; and Sunday, April 6, 7:30 pm, this time at the Curtis Institute. Go here for more complete information.

My new piece, Meditation on Amazing Grace, will be on the Friday program – here is my program note on the piece:

My reflection on this familiar tune is rather darker than the version I used to sing to my twins as a lullaby: here I have cast the piece in minor, and framed it with harmonies that imply a key, but not that of the melody. After an introduction, the trumpet takes us through one verse, followed by a repeated and expanded version of the introduction now serving to accompany fragments and embellishments of the melody.

The troubled light I have shone upon the tune was purely a musical thought; but perhaps it has to do with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contention that there is no such thing as “cheap grace”.

I posted the first two Network videos previewing the Friday concert here; Uri Caine and Terrell Stafford are featured in the third:


Harbison on “Sacred Songs”

CD coverWith the imminent release of my  “Sacred Songs” cd on Bridge records, I want to share with you the essay John Harbison graciously contributed for the CD booklet:

Vocal Music in the 21st Century: Is Anything Sacred?

John Harbison

A point of view, an address to both mind and heart, a passionate conviction – isn’t that what we hope for in a piece of music?

What we often get in these times is sophistication, attitude, polish, aggression.  But recently, from an unexpected underground, outlier source, Sacred Music, we are starting to get a reinfusion of meaning, in which the composer and listener inhabit worlds both seen and unseen, in a vocabulary reaching from the oldest to the newest.

The music of James Primosch –– immediate and urgent, private and other-worldly –– invites us to travel with him into dangerous and beautiful territory, no less than a cosmic conversation –– dispute and reconciliation and doubt and accommodation –– with our Maker.

Even if we are holding out hope no Maker ever existed, we can’t help noticing the appearance, in these pieces, of major issues we can’t avoid.

Sacred music. Lord save us! What a scary sounding category.  Orphaned, abandoned, archaic.  Once music’s principal domain, the composer’s main livelihood: think of Josquin and Palestrina saturating their patrons and listeners with sound, while the painters filled the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Bach was one of the last composers to write sacred music with confidence that it represented majority opinion.  The Matthew Passion breathes that confidence, in and out.  But while Bach was still alive, a secular culture was rendering his aesthetic obsolete.  The Mozart Great Mass in C minor, Beethoven Missa Solemnis , Verdi Requiem, Fauré Requiem increasingly require shadings, demurrals, and edits to describe the composer’s relationships to the text.

The 20th century arrived with confidence that religious art had become an archaism, with occasional rear-guard exceptions –– Roualt, Kollwitz, Flannery O’Connor, the later Eliot –– only proving the case.  But let’s pause for a moment to ponder Symphony of Psalms, Moses and Aaron, St. Francis.   Devout, orthodox, inspired masterpieces by composers rooted in their religious traditions.  And other great pieces by composers less anchored in that way –– Dallapiccola’s Concerto per la Notte di Natale, Poulenc’s Gloria, Martin’s Mass for Double Choir.  And within the last few years, Passions of a widely disparate content by Adams, Golijov, MacMillan, music by Jonathan Harvey illuminated by his Buddhist faith, programs of music for the Synagogue by Wyner and Adler.

In James Primosch’s music you hear sacred music’s welcome to listeners of every imaginable stamp.  He embraces age-old advantages: The composer of sacred music is not on the applause meter.  He converses with God, with himself, and with listeners whose mind-set (at least in church) is not evaluative or critical.  The envious colleague, the nagging teacher –– both have stayed home.  The “professionals” are elsewhere.

Who is there?  In Primosch’s experience it is people who wish to be reached, touched, persuaded, or given a space to meditate and reflect.  At performances of the many motets he has composed for Boston’s Emmanuel Church I have heard members of the congregation tell him that the piece has comforted or calmed or excited or occasioned new thoughts.  This is a pastoral function, not something that happens in a tuxedo or tails.

Primosch’s mature style bears the marks of a composer who has learned to come to the point, to speak clearly, thanks to a necessary encounter with his subject matter.  Like Jacob, he wrestled with the Angel, lost, and has been made strong.  His harmonic palette has been culled to make its signifiers more vivid.  He builds it from old acoustic principles–– open fifths in the bass register, piled or intersected triads above, ancient modes linked together at chromatic crossing points.  The fluent melodies sometimes harken back to plainchant. Grounded though he is in all the latest and most current, the surface of his music has become less “modern,” less local.  This makes possible a more radical, pointed kind of emphasis.  The music sounds like it intends to be remembered. Motives are felt, rather than just being useful.  Quiet static moments are driven home, not just waiting for something to happen.

Because of its vivid, fervent expression, Primosch’s music has been taken up by some of our best performers, like the ones on this CD.  They bring a set of four vocal-instrumental pieces (each of which exists also in voice and piano versions).

The first,  From a Book of Hours, is the closest of these pieces to a song cycle.  It is four balanced movements, each carrying forward a dialogue which is also a monologue.

Four Sacred Songs is a set of variations on given tunes, plainchant and folksong, very revealing of Primosch’s melodic sources as a whole.

Dark the Star is a through-composed cantata, the alternation between English and German never interrupting a continuous flow of verbal and musical discourse.

Holy the Firm is an unusual juxtaposition of disparate music and text, from contemplative ritual (Susan Stewart’s “Cinder,” a lapidary piece already in high favor as a separate recital piece) to dramatic-operatic scene (Dillard’s  “Deathbeds”).

Somewhere along the line the composer of sacred music is asked a question, by a fan, a critic, a historian.  It is a question nowadays asked inadvertently with impertinence, a rough paraphrase being, “Do you really believe this stuff?”

The force of the question reinforces something that the composer already knew, that he is a cultural maverick.  The answer, “Yes, as much as that is permitted to me on a given day.”  At the very least, the composer is suggesting that he chooses to spend his day with such companions as Annie Dillard and John Climacus, and wishes to include us in that sojourn.


A word about the author: the catalog of distinguished American composer John Harbison includes numerous sacred works, including a Requiem, the motet Abraham, which was commissioned for the Papal Concert of Reconciliation, and the cantata The Flight Into Egypt, for which he received the 1987 Pulitzer prize. He has conducted Bach cantatas, worked as a jazz pianist, and taught at Tanglewood and MIT.