“A Catskill Eagle” at SongFest

I am way overdue in posting about this, but realizing that June will be over in a few hours motivates me to try to catch up and write about my visit to SongFest this past May.

SongFest is a remarkable training program for young singers, with an exceptionally fine faculty and gifted students. It is based at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. In addition to master classes and coachings, SongFest presents a number of concerts open to the public. I was there for one of those concerts because the program’s director, Rosemary Hyler Ritter, invited me to write a new song in honor of John Harbison’s 80th birthday. John has regularly been on the SongFest faculty, coaching his own work and conducting each year a concert of Bach cantatas. My new song was premiered at a performance honoring both John and William Bolcom, another 80th birthday celebrant and SongFest faculty member (they are part of that class of ’38, the birth year of an unusual number of  important American composers). A Catskill Eagle sets a passage from Moby Dick; I wrote about the song here. Kyle Ferrill was the baritone for my premiere, and I played piano. Kyle gave a beautiful performance, with gorgeous sound and expert musicianship. The concert also included an exquisite performance of my Shadow Memory by soprano Victoria Browers and pianist Javier Arrebola. This is a setting of a text by Susan Orlean that was commissioned by SongFest a few years ago. Throughout the concert there were superb performances of wonderful pieces; Bolcom’s haunting Jane Kenyon settings, Let Evening Come, and Harbison’s searing Simple Daylight were standouts for me, but I enjoyed everything I heard. Here’s the program:

And here are a few pictures from my visit. There was a pretty great view of Disney Hall from the window of my Colburn dorm room:

some very smart posters in the Colburn practice rooms:

Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris at a coaching:

Victoria and Javier at the Shadow Memory run-thru in Zipper Hall:

John Musto, Amy Burton, Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris at a post-concert meal at which we stayed up past midnight so as to celebrate Bill’s actual birthday that day:

The Greek Orthodox cathedral where the Harbison-led Bach concert took place, with the BVM looking like a ’20’s movie star:

and with Jesus watching you from the dome:

I also visited the Catholic cathedral. I was a bit disappointed by the interior; the light fixtures make the space visually too busy. But I was greatly moved by the tapestries of saints old and new; my pictures of these didn’t come out well, go here to get some sense of these.

I’m very grateful to have had a chance to be part of SongFest this year. Congratulations to Rosemary for her ongoing commitment to this important program, and for making new music an integral part of it.

Bass and Voice

Two blogs I enjoy reading are those of bassist Michael Hovnanian and baritone Kyle Ferrill. Both performers offer interesting technical comments on performing, whether it be bass fingerings in standard repertoire or larynx positioning and its impact on vocal timbre. I am neither a bassist nor a singer, but these insights are helpful to me as a composer. Every bit of information like this helps me ground my work in the physical realities of music making.

Hovnanian is also very funny regarding life as an orchestral musician. In a more serious vein, he offers in this post some interesting stats on the near impossibility of getting a second performance of your orchestral piece, and the disappearance of repertoire from the recent past.

I will have the privilege of working with Kyle next week on my new Melville setting called A Catskill Eagle, which we will premiere at SongFest in Los Angeles on May 25.

“A Catskill Eagle”

I’ve finished a short song for baritone and piano, setting a Melville text. I’m calling the piece A Catskill Eagle, and the words are taken from chapter 96 of Moby-Dick:

And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

I must say that while I find much of the chapter is obscure, this is a fine passage, speaking of idealism and the need to soar above sorrow. I can’t claim to have remembered this bit from sophomore American Literature class in high school; rather I came upon it in a handsomely illustrated children’s book that I shared with my children.

My setting is for baritone and piano. The piece is set for a premiere at SongFest on May 25, a program honoring SongFest composers-in-residence William Bolcom and John Harbison. This will take place at 7 pm in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. I will accompany baritone Kyle Ferrill; it’s a nice coincidence that Kyle tried out a song of mine several years ago when he was a student at SongFest, and now he is returning as faculty. I’m afraid I’ve given myself a lot of rapid scale passages in the piece, reflecting the soaring eagle – I better post this and get back to practicing!