Many musicians are offering their performances and compositions online during this time of isolation, so I want to make my small contribution.
Here is a setting of a poem by Susan Scott Thompson called “Waltzing the Spheres”. I first encountered it when I heard it read on a PBS broadcast at the time of 9/11. I knew immediately I wanted to set it, but never got around to it until years later when I set it on a commission from Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest. You can read Lyric Fest artistic director Suzanne DuPlantis’s blog post about the piece here, and the entire poem is posted here.
The crisis we are in feels somewhat like 9/11, so it seems like the right piece to offer now.
I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful singers do the piece. Kiera Duffy (famous for her performance in Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves”) gave the premiere with pianist Laura Ward; Kelly Ann Bixby has performed it; Meredith Lustig sang it on a New York Festival of Song program; and Mary Mackenzie recorded it for her album Vocalisms. Here Mary sings it with pianist Heidi Williams:
It may be at this challenging moment that the best way we can “hold each other closer in the turn” is by keeping our physical distance from one another – at the same time we cling to one another with our hearts.
Darn it, it’s not Christmas until it’s Christmas. Don’t tell me it’s the “Christmas Season”. It’s Advent, and it’s a shame to lose this beautiful time for quiet contemplation.
There, having gotten my bit of Bah, Humbug out of my system, I can take a break from working on new pieces for the Imani Winds and for Lyric Fest to offer a brief list of miscellaneous items:
- Thank you to Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward for the intensely touching performances of my “Cinder” and “Bedtime” last month as part of a Lyric Fest program. “Cinder”, to a Susan Stewart text, is the most often excerpted piece from Holy the Firm, while “Bedtime” is an independent item, a Denise Levertov setting. Suzanne is an uncannily charismatic performer who connects strongly with listeners, and Laura has no limitations at the piano.
- Thanks as well to Kristina Bachrach and Daniel Schlosberg for their powerful performance of my “Every Day is a God” (also from Holy the Firm) earlier this month. This was part of the celebration marking the anthology of art songs for soprano and piano being issued by New Music Shelf. Thanks as well to the curator for the collection, Laura Strickling for including me in the volume. The entire Holy the Firm cycle is available from the Theodore Presser Company.
- I’ve received word that my work for soprano and six instruments, A Sibyl, also on texts by Susan Stewart, will be performed at the Florida State University New Music Festival which runs January 31 through February 2. Marcia Porter will be the soloist, and Alexander Jiménez will conduct.
- Recent listening has included:
- The complete Mozart piano sonatas with Mitsuko Uchida on Phillips. What can I say, I adore her sound, her phrasing, the airborne joy of her playing. More of these sonatas are worth programming than the 4 or 5 that are commonly done.
- Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins. One of the supreme classics, of course. I do wish Tommy Flanagan was more forward in the mix. “Blue 7” famously elicited a Gunther Schuller analysis, included in this volume.
- Tiptoe Tapdance – Hank Jones. Oh, for some small fraction of the harmonic wisdom on display in this solo album, the imagination, the fluency. I hear hints of Teddy Wilson at times. Jones’s version of “It’s Me Oh Lord” included here was reprised on his beautiful album with Charlie Haden, Steal Away.
- Faure – the Nocturnes – Paul Crossley. CRD Records. Superb playing, but I just don’t get these pieces. The harmony is sometimes conventional, but often manages to be strange yet boring. The rhythmic stasis doesn’t help, inducing a state of claustrophobia. Friends tell me this is great stuff; I will give it another try at some point.
- A blessed Christmas to all – see you in the New Year.
- First things first: I hope you are either planning to go vote tomorrow, or are perhaps reading this while waiting in line to do so.
- Thank you to The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally for the beautiful first performance they gave of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage. In a ten minute piece, I asked a lot of the group in terms not only of vocal virtuosity, but in variety of expression. They certainly delivered, as they always seem to do. I am very grateful. Unfortunately, no review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- I am struggling hard to make progress on my new piece for the Imani Winds, set for a February premiere in Philly, but to be rehearsed for the first time in December, so there is much to do on the piece this month. At the same time I have been polishing the performance materials for Matins, the work for oboe, strings and chorus that Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers will perform in January. Conductor David Hoose has helped me improve the notation – there are a lot more cautionary accidentals in the score than there used to be, for example – and some re-spellings that I am not sure I always agree with. But I have accepted 98% of David’s suggestions and corrections, and am happy to do what I can to make sure the performers can give their best.
- Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward will perform two of my songs on upcoming Lyric Fest concerts: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm sets a Susan Stewart poem and is my most performed piece; and Bedtime, a Denise Levertov song from nearly 30 years ago, which was later memorably sung by Dawn Upshaw at her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Check the Performances page for more info on all the concerts I am mentioning.
- Recent and not so recent listening has included:
- some old George Shearing sides from the 1940s from a Proper box set. I’m afraid this was disappointing, with saccharine ballads and frantic bop solos, though he sometimes hits a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
- A 1982 DG disc of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic in his Divertimento (forgettable), Halil with Rampal (colleagues I respect speak well of this piece, but it didn’t hold me), the Dance Episodes from “On the Town” (delightful) and Rostropovich playing the Three Meditations from “Mass” (it’s not really a cello and orchestra piece. However, like Anne Midgette who wrote about Mass in the Washington Post, I had the piece from which this cello work is extracted memorized before I knew any better, so I find it hard to judge the music now. (I wonder if she was raised Catholic as was I?))
- A Recital of Intimate Works, which is an album of varied keyboard pieces performed by pianist Andrew Rangell on a 1996 Dorian disc. I am not sure that these pieces all qualify as intimate – not all the movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles, for example – but it is very freshly programmed. A piano album that includes Froberger, Sweelinck, Messiaen, and Enescu, plus Mozart (the sublime Rondo in A minor) and transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven certainly gets my attention. Beautifully played and recorded.
- I’ve been greatly enjoying The Library Book by Susan Orlean – it’s great reporting, it’s great writing, it’s great fun, and, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s greatly touching. But this is the writer whose work gave me the text for a moving song, Shadow Memory:
The video is with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, who are the fabulous performers on Vocalisms, the new disc from Albany that includes Shadow Memory plus nine more of my songs.
Last night at Westminster Choir College, Lyric Fest presented a reprise of the program they first offered in Bryn Mawr and Philly this past spring, featuring settings of poetry by American women, and including my “Waltzing the Spheres”, on a text by Susan Scott Thompson. Kelly Ann Bixby, soprano, and Laura Ward, piano, gave a beautifully shaped and deeply touching performance of the piece – indeed, the performances were at a very high level throughout the evening. Thanks also to the CoOPERAtive program for hosting the event, and to the warmly appreciative audience. I am told there will eventually be a video of the concert available online for streaming – will let you know when I hear the details.
A reminder that Lyric Fest will be presenting a program at Westminster Choir College next week, a reprise of this past spring’s concert that included the premiere of my “Waltzing the Spheres”. The concert will be Tuesday, July 15 at 7:30 in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus and is part of the CoOPERAtive program – read more here. Kelly Ann Bixby will be singing my song, with Laura Ward at the piano. Here’s a glimpse of the piece’s opening:
I was very moved by Kiera Duffy’s intense and beautiful performances of my new song Waltzing the Spheres at Lyric Fest’s concerts featuring settings of poetry by women this weekend. While Friday’s performance at Bryn Mawr College was very fine, today’s at the Academy of Vocal Arts was even more powerful and emotionally potent. Laura Ward’s piano accompaniment – for my song, and for the entire program – was varied in color, sensitive in timing and nuance. Laura and her Lyric fest colleagues, Randi Marazzo and Suzanne DuPlantis, are experts at devising satisfying programs, and there was a good bit of material with which I was unfamiliar, including songs by Paul Bowles (setting Gertrud Stein), Florence B. Price, and, of all people, Irving Berlin. Baritone Randall Scarlata offered Berlin’s setting of lines from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (Give me your tired, your poor…”), this from a 1949 show called “Miss Liberty”. I loved Randy’s interpretation of Ives’ “The Greatest Man”, funny and touching in quick succession. The other very fine singers were tenor Joseph Gaines (his “Visit to St. Elizabeth’s”, text by Elizabeth Bishop, setting by Ned Rorem, was memorably harrowing), mezzo Elizabeth Shammash (charming in both another Bishop setting, this one by Lee Hoiby, and the Bowles mentioned above) and Suzanne herself, touching in a Jake Heggie duet with Elizabeth. There were also premieres by Benjamin Boyle, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djupstrom, Daron Hagen, and Maurice Wright, and I thought every piece had something to commend it. I shouldn’t overlook the contribution of actress Michelle Eugene, who, for some of the songs, read the poetry before the setting was performed. I was a little skeptical about this idea beforehand, but after hearing it I think it was a good experiment that helped call attention to the poems. Certainly she read beautifully, with thoughtfully considered shadings of the texts.
UPDATE: David Patrick Stearns’s review of the program is here.
Here I am with Kiera:
and with Laura:
and here’s a rogue’s gallery of composers (L to R: Maurice Wright, myself, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djustrom, and Ben Boyle):
I haven’t been posting for a bit because I have been trying to make progress on my new piece for The Crossing, to be premiered this June here in Philadelphia. But I am lifting up my head from the drafting table to point out that I have a couple of premieres coming up, one with Lyric Fest, the other with Network for New Music. (I’ll write about the Network piece in a future post.) Kiera Duffy, soprano (pictured at left), and Laura Ward, piano, will give the first performances of my Waltzing the Spheres at Lyric Fest concerts Friday, March 28, at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall (7:30 pm) and at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street in Philadelphia (3:00 pm).
At a moment when the voice and piano recital is said to be something of a tough sell, Lyric Fest, like the New York Festival of Song, SongFusion, and SongFest, is an organization finding a good deal of success in its commitment to the medium. Founders Laura Ward, Suzanne DuPlantis, and Randi Marazzo are expert at devising intriguing programs. The upcoming concerts are devoted to settings of American women poets, with some familiar pieces, some little known, and some brand new – besides myself, Abbie Betinis, Benjamin Boyle, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djupstrom, Daron Hagen and Maurice Wright will have new pieces done.
My text is by Susan Scott Thompson. I first came across the poem when I heard it recited on a Bill Moyers program very shortly after 9/11. I found the text terrifically touching, and immediately knew that I wanted to set it. It took a little while to track down the poem and the author, but I did eventually get a letter from Susan granting permission to set the poem. Sadly, she died a few years ago, and never got to hear this setting. You can read an article by Susan that includes the poem and discusses the PBS use of “Waltzing” here.