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:


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.