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.

“Variations” at Temple University


Thank you to the fine young pianists who took on my Piano Variations yesterday at Temple University. Students in Lambert Orkis’s Modern Keyboard Music class offered a recital including works by Curt Cacioppo, Rodion Shchedrin, Sergio Calligaris, Michael Djupstrom, George Crumb, and myself. Five students shared my Variations, each one doing a few from the set (as pictured above, from left to right):Nam Hoang Nguyen, Anna Kislitsyna, Gretchen Hull, Alessandra Tiraterra, and (at the far right) Silvanio Reis. That’s Siang Ching Ngu, who played the Djupstrom piece, standing at Silvanio’s right. Lambert is seated on the piano bench.

It was fascinating to hear the varied gifts of these young artists reflected in the diverse expressive worlds of the variations. I wish I could hear each one of them play the whole set! I am very grateful to Lambert Orkis for introducing these pianists to my music.

A few more pictures from dinner afterward:










Snow Day Miscellany

Well, not a snow day in the sense of schools being closed (it’s a Saturday, anyway), but it has been snowing much of the day here in Philadelphia – on April 9. Several things to catch up on here:

  • the Prism Quartet performance in New York that included my Stratigraphy was reviewed by Musical America. The complete review is behind a paywall online, but here’s what Bruce Hodges had to say in connection with my own piece:

    The afternoon ended with Stratigraphy (2016) by James Primosch, also on the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Introducing his piece, Primosch mentioned he was inspired by geology—the word refers to the analysis of strata—and by spectralism, after reading pianist Marilyn Nonken’s book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age (2014, Cambridge University Press). Also director of piano studies at NUY’s Steinhardt School, Nonken has long been at the forefront of contemporary piano music, and has commissioned many new works. Here, as a guest with the ensemble, she offered clean, expertly balanced keyboard sound, often in delicate tracery—a welcome counterpoint to the saxophones. Primosch makes maximum use of the instruments’ contrasting timbres, framing the quartet with the piano—the latter often at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Each of the six movements has its beauties, but I was most struck with “Game of Pairs” (a nod to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra), and the motoric sparkle of “Geochronologic.”

  • Pianist Geoffrey Burleson gave a very fine performance of my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift in its New York City premiere at Bargemusic last night. He ably captured the contrasting moods of this set, and the virtuosic aspects of the piece were completely under control. Geoff also played a movement from the piece earlier in the week at a Music & More program, also in NYC. I was thoroughly impressed by the remainder of Geoff’s program, which included music by Yehudi Wyner, Missy Mazzoli, and David Rakowski, plus Geoff’s own piece based on Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse, along with the fruits of Geoff’s researches into the solo piano music of Saint-Saens, new territory for me.
  • The distinguished pianist Lambert Orkis is having an array of his Temple University students play my Piano Variations at Temple this coming Monday at 2:45 in Rock Hall. Each of his students is taking on a few variations from the piece, a set that is based on the first movement from my Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer, a work I wrote for Lambert back in 2001. Knowing the piano and synth version was unlikely to receive many performances, I made this version for piano alone of the big first movement of the sonata. It will be fascinating to hear the varied approaches these talented young artists take to the piece. There is an excerpt from the score here.

Here’s a shot of Geoff and I after his performance:IMG_1260

Groovin’ on WRTI

9131_largeKile Smith has programmed the last movement of my Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer, “Daddy-O’s New Groove”, on his WRTI new music program, Now is the Time. It will be heard tonight, January 9th, at 9 pm (Eastern Time) on WRTI’s all-classical stream, and will later be archived on the program’s web page. Lambert Orkis is the superb performer (that’s him in the middle on the cover of the Bridge recording with Dick Wernick at right).

Recent Listening

imagesBeethoven: The Violin Sonatas. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Lambert Orkis, piano. Deutsche Grammophon.

I will be working on a violin and piano sonata in the not-too-distant future, so I have been feeding my ear with some listening, starting with the Anne-Sophie Mutter/Lambert Orkis complete Beethoven sonatas. These are extraordinary performances. The rhythmic unanimity of the pair is positively uncanny, especially given the judiciously flexible approach to pulse. Lambert is able to balance chords with stunning consistency and make broken-chord accompaniments hum discreetly, yet articulately. But these details are not the whole story – the larger scale forms are made transparent by the careful calibration of climaxes, by well-chosen tempi, by contrasts of finely delineated character. I recommend the set without reservation.

Unknown-1Paul Bley: 12 (+6) in a Row. Paul Bley, piano; Hans Koch, reeds; Franz Koglmann, flugelhorn. Hat Art.

This is an album of 18 succinct free improvisations, some using a Schoenberg or Webern row as a jumping off point, and featuring the three artists in various combinations alongside solo piano tracks. The concision of the individual pieces (none of them longer than five minutes) is an important selling point of the disc – nothing self-indulgent here. Adding further to the appeal are the subtle hints of boogie-woogie or other traditional jazz piano idioms that Bley weaves into the solo pieces; the playing may be spontaneous, but not without a sense of history. Uncommonly focussed and coherent music-making throughout.


Innova Playlist

The second movement of my Fire-Memory/River-Memory is on the current playlist at the Innova Records site. Go here and click on “Listen Up” in the upper right of the page. Scroll down in the pop-up, and you’ll find the second movement of the piece. Of course, there is lots of other stuff worth hearing on Innova by a great many composers – speaking for myself, I have a track on the Prism Quartet “Dedication” album, and there’s also the performance of George Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics in which I play alongside Lambert Orkis.

Vary Pianistic

Theodore Presser Co. has issued my Piano Variations. Thanks to master engraver/editor Ken Godel, the score looks great – see if you agree by going here, scrolling down, and clicking on the link for sample pages.

It has been a long journey to this point. Back in the late 20th Century, pianist Lambert Orkis asked me to write him a piece for piano and synthesizer. This was for a milennium-inspired project he called “From Hammers to Bytes”, a recital program with a big sonata just for piano by Richard Wernick, and a big piece for piano and synth on the second half. Originally Lambert wanted me to write for piano and Clavinova, an instrument that I didn’t find particularly inspiring. We finally agreed on a Kurzweil, which would give me a vastly richer array of sounds to work with, compared with the Clavinova. The result was my Sonata-Fantasia, which Lambert gave a few brilliant performances and subsequently recorded for Bridge Records, along with the new sonata Dick Wernick had written for him. I knew the Kurz, like any other synth, would start to become obsolete the day I drove it off the lot, so to speak, and the more I took advantage of the capabilities of that particular synth, the more I increased the difficulty of playing the piece with some other keyboard. I very much wanted to write the piece for Lambert, but I also wanted to come out of the process with something that other musicians could play. I eventually devised a plan where a portion of the Sonata-Fantasia could, with some adjustments, live again as a solo piano piece. The first movement of the piece is a big set of variations, running about 25 minutes, and that became the now-published Piano Variations.

Lambert wanted me to think about the history of the piano while writing my piece. (You should know that in addition to being an astounding pianist, best known as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recital partner, Lambert has an interest in historical keyboards, and has played and recorded on various old instruments, or modern reconstructions modeled on old keyboards.)  We talked about the ability of the Kurzweil to emulate the sound of historic keyboards, and Lambert tracked down a set of impressive fortepiano samples. (One curious issue arose – when using the fortepiano samples, should I employ notes that are not actually on the fortepiano keyboard? I wrote in two different versions for that moment, one with bass notes lower than any fortepiano can play, one that sticks to the instrument’s actual range.) The stock harpsichord sample in the Kurz was attractive as well. Most of the Kurzweil patches I used are synth sounds of one kind or another, many percussive, some more atmospheric, and some used to modify the attack and decay characteristics of the acoustic piano. But given those samples of early keyboards, it was a short step from there to writing variations that would invoke earlier keyboard idioms – not earlier harmonic or melodic styles, but more matters of keyboard layout and texture. The harmony and melody in my piece remains rooted in the materials in my theme (see the score samples mentioned above), but, for example, there is a variation using a harpsichord patch that is laid out like one of the Goldberg Variations – two voices in canon and a third free voice. The fortepiano variation invokes one of the Schubert impromptus – this in honor of Lambert’s recording of the Schubert on fortepiano. (I permit myself the only actual quotation from an already existing piece in that movement.) The climactic variation has passages modeled fairly closely on the Chopin C-sharp minor etude from Op. 10, and there are other references throughout the piece to Chopin, Messiaen, stride piano, and even the 19th century pianist/composer Kalkbrenner, with a passage that employs his “three-handed” layout: a melody played by the thumbs surrounded by two-handed arpeggios. Contemporary composers are also in the background of some of the variations, with hints of textures you might associate with the music of three of my mentors: George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Mario Davidovsky. The piece thus becomes not just variations on a theme, but a collection of varied approaches to the piano itself.

Practically speaking, the synth and piano are arranged at right angles to one another, in the manner of a piano/celesta doubling by an orchestral keyboardist. (Lambert is the principal keyboard for the National Symphony.) Lambert preferred this to the stacking of keyboards that pop performers sometimes prefer, since that arrangement puts significant restraints on conventional piano technique. I had Lambert switch back and forth between instruments a good bit, sometimes playing both keyboards at once. Since the synth was at the left of the piano, this meant there are a few passages where Lambert’s left hand was playing in a high register on the Kurz and his right hand in a low register on the Steinway – perfectly plausible, but seemingly impractical when you look in the score, since it appears the left hand is playing five or six octaves above the right! I remember checking with Lambert repeatedly to make sure we were in agreement about which side the synthesizer would be placed.*

I prepared the piano version of the movement in time for a 50th birthday concert of my music a few years ago, and the superb Stephen Gosling gave the first performance. I finally (thanks to Ken) got around to preparing a clean copy of the score more recently, and the result is there on Presser’s website. Thank you, Lambert, for commissioning the original version of the piece, and thanks to the MacDowell Colony, where a big chunk of the first movement was devised.

I will return to writing for piano in an upcoming consortium commission, about which more soon.

*) I didn’t want to run into the problem I once heard conductor Arthur Weisberg describe in connection with a performance of the Carter Double Concerto, where, before the first rehearsal, he carefully prepared the beat patterns he would need for the closing portion of the piece where the two portions of the ensemble are in different meters. He was startled when he arrived at rehearsal to realize the ensembles were on the opposite sides of the stage from what he expected.

Répons redux

My Répons post below is a longer version of a letter I wrote to the editor of the NY Times Arts and Leisure section. I got word from the Times today that they “hope to print…it in an upcoming issue.” I’ll be interested to see if there is any reaction if the letter appears.

For now, let me add that there used to be a project some 20+  years ago called “AT&T American Encore”, which supported repeat performances of American compositions. The Philadelphia Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic were involved, and the pieces performed as part of this project included works by Harbison, Crumb, Stucky, Argento, Harrison, and Kirchner. It also supported performances of older pieces that seem to me to hardly need special advocacy – the Copland 3rd and Ives’s Unanswered Question. We could surely use an encore for “Encore”, though I would hope that the focus would be more exclusively on recent music.

We are engulfed by a multiplicity of interpretations of older music, but that is not often the case with new music. Think of pieces that have usually been associated with the composer’s own performances. Our perception of Music for Eighteen Musicians changed with the release of the Grand Valley State University recording. Meredith Monk’s work has changed with the appearance of The M6 ensemble. Robert Carl’s fine book on In C documents how the widely varied recordings of the piece speak to its richness. (Read an interview with Robert about the book, conducted by Frank Oteri of the American Music Center’s New Music Box here.) We are used to comparing myriad versions of a Schubert song cycle, but it was an uncommon experience to attend a performance of John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs at Songfest a few years ago with each song performed by a different singer: six different lights cast upon the same musical object, each revealing new facets, new shadows.

To speak of the multiple performance issue from a different angle: I’ve had the privilege of performing Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics with pianist Lambert Orkis on numerous occasions. That piece feels extremely different to me as a performer compared with all those pieces that I’ve played once and had to set aside.  It’s not just a matter of comfort, of having the piece more securely in hand. It’s about a deeper level of understanding the piece. We take it for granted with a Beethoven sonata, but in new music we too often have to do without the depth that repetition alone can provide. Multiple performers, repeat performances – we need them for a healthy new music culture.

Here’s a picture of Lambert and I playing the Crumb at the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival. Jan Orkis assists as page turner and third pianist in the six-hand passages.