On Your Metronome Mark…

I’ve have been practicing a lot in preparation for this coming Sunday’s Notes of Thanks concert in honor of Network for New Music’s Linda Reichert. That concert will feature the premiere of my Two Sketches (scroll down), and I will be covering the piano part. Some of that practicing has involved a metronome, so it seems a good time to review this excellent piece by Nathan Cole on metronome usage, inspired by the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony, Robert Chen. I think the essential point is to not use the metronome in a passive way.

“Notes of Thanks” is Coming

Go here for tickets to the upcoming “Notes of Thanks” concert in honor of Network for New Music’s outgoing artistic director Linda Reichert on April 29 at 1:30 pm. The concert features 10 premieres, including my Two Sketches. (Scroll down for the portion of that post about the new piece.) There’s a nice article by Linda about her experiences with Network on New Music Box.

All-American Piano

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There was an exceptionally warm and focused audience at last night’s recital at Penn. Linda Reichert and I offered an all-American program that bound together various programming threads – besides the American angle, there were three Philadelphia composers (Primosch, Levinson, and Persichetti); we heard French musical thought filtered through American voices (Levinson, Copland); and experienced the contrast of stream of consciousness (Persichetti) and aphoristic (Harbison) modes of expression.

I thought Linda did a great job on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, with the slow movement called “Nocturnal Obsessions” being a highlight: subtly pedaled, exquisitely balanced (on a not terribly friendly piano), full of atmosphere and Chopin-esque languor.

It was a thrill for me to share the Copland Sonata with my listeners, especially such attentive ones – there was a nearly uncanny quiet in the room during the very soft passages in the finale of the Copland. The piece has its technical challenges, but it is not as pianistically difficult as some of the other great American sonatas (including Barber, Ives, Carter, Rochberg, Wernick, Harbison…). However, I find the emotional intensity of the Copland draining, intense in both its breadth and depth of feeling. The short movements of the Harbison – wry, cryptic, droll, graceful, brusque – offered a welcome contrast with the high drama of Copland’s long-lined narrative.

Now I really must finish up the little piece I am doing for Network’s April 4 Harbison concert so I can attend to my commission from The Crossing – blogging is going to stay infrequent for a while, folks…

Above, I am at the Steinway. Here are Linda and myself after the show (too bad iPhoto can’t do anything to make my sport coat lay flat):


Harbison: Leonard Stein Anagrams

Here’s a program note on the Leonard Stein Anagrams by John Harbison that I will be playing on this Wednesday’s concert with Linda Reichert at U Penn:

Leonard Stein Anagrams
1. I’d learn tones
2. Note slid near
3. End tonal rise
4. Liar, send tone!
5. Listen, a drone (A silent drone)
6. Learns to dine
7. LA trend: noise
8. Rise tone, lad!
9. Linen ear-dots
10. Tender as lion
11. Rest: no denial
12. Earns toil-end
12A. Done: entrails

Pianist, conductor, teacher, and longtime assistant to his mentor Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein (1916-2004) (pictured at left) was an important presence for new music in Los Angeles for decades. He directed the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC from its founding in 1975 until his retirement in 1991. In 1994 Stein founded the recital series Piano Spheres, and it was for this organization that John Harbison wrote his Leonard Stein Anagrams. Gloria Cheng played the premiere in 2009. (Note that the last movement is labeled “12A” because of Schoenberg’s (and Stein’s) triskaidekaphobia.)

John Harbison writes:

            It has been a privilege, melancholic and joyful, to make these Leonard Stein Anagrams for Piano Spheres, a chance to reflect on a rich twenty-year friendship.

Leonard Stein was a direct link to Schoenberg, and to all of the performers and composers of the Second Viennese School. He was also constantly alert to everything that was happening in concert music bringing his wit, critical intelligence, passion, and high standards to bear, in his disarmingly informal style. Just his voice on the phone could make the day—when he called to celebrate his mutual birthday with Rose Mary Harbison, or just to report west-coast news, with his unique blend of enthusiasm and scepticism.

During one of his appearances at the Token Creek Festival, Leonard was delighted to discover our tradition of making anagrams from names of the summer’s composers and performers. Leonard Stein (and Arnold Schoenberg) yielded nice results. When I began this piece, I found, in Leonard’s hand, six of them, based on his name, which he had discovered the old (pre-computer) way, repositioning the letters, crossing out each one he’d used. Naturally, I’ve used all six of his “finds” in the piece. At least four interesting ones didn’t go in, held perhaps for another piece.

These short movements, which are interrelated, use no letter-to-pitch correspondences. They react to the movement titles, assembling fleeting images of Leonard, present and absent.

Levinson: Morning Star

The opening piece on the Feb. 26 program Linda Reichert and I will play at Penn is a work for piano four-hands, Morning Star, by Penn alum Gerald Levinson. Here is Jerry’s program note on the piece:

Morning Star was originally conceived as an anniversary present for my wife, Nanine Valen, in the hope that we could play it together four hands (you may note that the two players must sometimes operate in close proximity). A few years later, at the time of the birth of our first son Ari (on our anniversary), I expanded the piece somewhat. Eventually, after our second son Adam was born I revised it again, and rededicated it to my wife and both sons – and had to face the fact that it had grown beyond our domestic performance capacity.  It was first performed, and recorded, by James Freeman and Charles Abramovic. It is a study in gently flowing melody, couched in refined harmony, aiming at a luminous and rather timeless atmosphere. In his notes for the recording, Paul Griffiths has written: “The basic B-flat major-ish tonality is …  felt as a root of resonance rather than as a site of action. The uses of the extremes of the keyboard, of major chords with added notes, and of mutings (achieved when one player lightly touches the strings sounded by the other) all accentuate resonance effects, which evoke the distant light suggested by the title, and the inscription from Job: ‘Were you there when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’”

Reichert and Primosch at Penn

UnknownI am in the home stretch of practicing for next week’s recital at Penn with my good friend Linda Reichert. Here is our program, entirely American music:

LEVINSON:  Morning Star
PERSICHETTI:  Winter Solstice
HARBISON:  Leonard Stein Anagrams
PRIMOSCH:  Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift
COPLAND:  Piano Sonata


I will play the Harbison and Copland, and Linda covers the Persichetti and my own piece (in its Philly premiere). We will jointly offer the Levinson, a four-hand piece. The concert is next Wednesday, February 26, at 8:00 pm in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, 3340 Walnut Street (corner of 34th and Walnut) on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Admission is free and there will be a modest reception to follow. I will be gradually posting program notes over the next several days.

That’s Fisher-Bennett Hall pictured above.

“Amazing” to-do list

Hard to believe it’s already been a week since I got back from my trip to Boston. I should have made more progress by now with the two tasks at the top of my to-do list:

– The first is to finish my piece for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert here in Philadelphia. This is part of what I have been calling their HarbFest, a week of concerts and other events devoted to the music of John Harbison. Network has commissioned a few new pieces for the April 4 program, all based on American folk tunes that John used in his chamber work Songs American Loves to Sing. That set will be heard, as well as new music by Anna Weesner, Terell Stafford, Bobby Zankel, and Uri Caine and myself. Harbison will join with trumpeter Stafford and students from Temple University to play some jazz tunes at the concert.

My piece is called Meditation on ‘Amazing Grace‘. I am using the tune in minor, with the notes of the melody treated as dissonant color tones above the accompaniment, rather than sounding the notes of the tonic triad. For example, the first two notes of the tune (in b-flat minor) are F-natural and B-flat, but these are harmonized with a G dominant seventh. The tune is played by muted trumpet, while piano and contrabass provide a long-ringing, floating accompaniment.

– While I wrap up that project, I need to keep up my practicing at the piano, for my half-recital (a program shared with Linda Reichert) at Penn is coming up on Feb. 26. I’ll be playing the Copland Sonata, Harbison’s Leonard Stein Anagrams, and, together with Linda, Gerald Levinson‘s work for piano four-hands, Morning Star. Linda will play the Philadelphia premiere of my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and Vincent Persichetti‘s Winter Solstice. While I’ve already written about Contraption, I will try to offer some thoughts on the other pieces in the coming weeks.

Many, Many Pianists

A few times on this blog I have made passing mention of a composition project of mine for a group of pianists. I’ve hesitated to write about it in more detail, partly because the list of pianists was still in formation, partly because I was having trouble getting going on the piece. Well, those two things are still the case, but I think it is time to go public with this.

Business has been slow since the 09-10 season when I had two orchestral premieres in quick succession in Chicago and Albany – an orchestral peak followed by a rather quiet trough. Since paying work was scarce, I decided to create an opportunity myself, and contacted most of the pianists I know, plus several I didn’t know. I invited them to each chip in a little money and I would write a solo piece that they would all promise to play at least once, thus addressing the perennial problem of the non-existent second performance. Somewhat to my surprise, I have come up with a substantial list of wonderful artists who have signed on. There are still one or two possible participants, but here is the list so far:

Daniel Barber
Geoffrey Burleson
Eliza Garth
Judith Gordon
Stephen Gosling
Aleck Karis
Catherine Kautsky
Ryan McCollough
Eric Moe
Christopher Oldfather
Linda Reichert
James Winn

(twelve pianists, one for each tone, I suppose)

It is hard to describe the mega-giga-terabytes of talent on that list without falling into a lot of program note bio cliches. What I propose to do instead is let you know a little about how these folks got on my list in a series of future posts. For now, I’ll just say I am extremely lucky to have this group of artists on board.

I should say there are a number of people who wanted to participate, but felt that their schedules were too overloaded already – as well as a few folks who just politely declined. It was kind of everybody to even consider the notion.

So, a piano piece. It can’t be just a bagatelle, people are paying for this. It can’t be a forty minute sonata as such things are pretty tough to program. So I am thinking of something in the 12 minute range. The next question is, a short sonata? a single movement fantasia? or a set of short pieces? I have been striving toward the third of these formal schemes; as I said in my last post, I am intrigued by the idea of building a form from a number of short movements. For one thing, it gets away from the neo-classical “fast-slow-fast” pattern of movements, a sonata strategy which is perfectly plausible, but maybe a little tired. You might suggest that a variation set would be a way to bring order to a group of short pieces, but, while I enjoy writing variations, I did that relatively recently (in a piece derived from the sonata mentioned above). It is still possible that this new work will turn into a single movement with multiple sections, but right now I am thinking of a group of short pieces that are ordered to form an expressive arc. The difference is perhaps subtle, but it has to do with how much the individual elements get rounded off into relatively independent forms; how much, if any, material recurs; how much the material is developed, and how much it is simply presented. You might say I am thinking along the lines of preludes rather than a fantasy or ballade at the moment, but it is still early in the process. I am still making sketches of different kinds of piano music, being a little indiscriminate, just writing it all down. It is starting to become apparent that some of the sketches will be more fruitful than others, but whether they will grow into little pieces or sections of a bigger piece is not clear.

As for a title, I am thinking of borrowing from Auden’s poem about the unique nature of music: Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift.

Trade Winds from China at Network for New Music

Strong pieces, strong performances at Network for New Music’s “Trade Winds from China” concert tonight. Here I am with some of the participants:

L to R: Linda Reichert, Artistic Director of Network for New Music; Shih-Hui Chen, whose commissioned work, “Our Names” on a text by an aboriginal Taiwanese poet was premiered at tonight’s concert; Chou Wen-Chung – at 87, the old master of East-West musical interaction – his “Ode to Eternal Pine” was played. I am standing between Wen-Chung and his wife. More on Wen-Chung here.