Vocal Music Highlights

With the announcement that I have received the Virgil Thomson Award for vocal music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I thought it would be a good idea to post about my music for voice, and point out some highlights.

Work titles given as links will take you to either an online perusal score or to the Theodore Presser Company’s webpage for that piece.

You can find all my vocal music listed here (use the links near the top of the page to get to the vocal section) and there are videos and audio clips here.

I think two of my very best pieces in any medium are the two song cycles I wrote for the Chicago Symphony: From a Book of Hours (Rilke texts), and Songs for Adam (Susan Stewart). The Rilke set is for soprano and was premiered by Lisa Saffer, with Antonio Pappano conducting.  The recording on the video/audio page is with Susan Narucki, soprano and Sarah Hicks conducting the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute. Given the near impossibility of any but a very few composers receiving repeat performances of their orchestral music, I made a version of the piece for soprano and chamber ensemble. A recording of that version is on Sacred Songs, a disc of my vocal music on Bridge. Susan Narucki is again featured, with the 21st Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall. Here’s a track from the Rilke cycle:

Songs for Adam is for baritone and orchestra, and was premiered by Brian Mulligan, with Sir Andrew Davis leading the CSO. Susan Stewart, whose poetry I’ve set several times, wrote a set of texts specifically for this project. I’ve started sketching a version for piano quintet, since the original has yet to be performed a second time.

The Sacred Songs cd also includes 3 other pieces for voice and chamber ensemble. I want to mention the baritone cycle on that record. Dark the Star sets texts by Rilke, Susan Stewart, and a psalm verse in a set of nine short movements that play continuously. Here’s a sample, with William Sharp, baritone:

A recent cycle with chamber ensemble was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, and premiered by soprano Mary Mackenzie with Collage New Music in Boston. Called A Sibyl, the texts that Susan Stewart wrote specifically for the project speak of the mysterious prophet-like figure written about in The Aeneid. The ensemble is pierrot ensemble plus percussion.

If I am counting correctly, I have written 29 songs for voice and piano, some grouped into cycles, some independent pieces, and some existing in orchestrated versions with chamber ensemble. I think my most widely performed piece is “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm. This was my first Susan Stewart setting. Mary Mackenzie sings it on Vocalisms, an Albany release, with Heidi Williams, piano:

Vocalisms also includes the complete Holy the Firm, the Three Folk Hymns, and some independent songs. Holy the Firm was written for Dawn Upshaw, and she toured with the cycle and subsequently with “Cinder” as part of a set of pieces by American composers roughly of her generation. I orchestrated Holy the Firm for soprano and chamber ensemble, and Susan Narucki sings it on the Sacred Songs album:

There are two piano and voice sets based on pre-existing melodies. The Three Sacred Songs use chant melodies plus an early Renaissance carol, with Latin texts; the Three Folk Hymns are in English, and use the popular tunes “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, “Be Thou My Vision”, and “What Wondrous Love is This”. Here’s the first of the Folk Hymns, again with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams:

None of these cycles need be performed complete. Excerpts from Holy the Firm beyond “Cinder” can work well; I’ve played piano for performances of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” paired with “Cinder”.

Turning to choral music, I’ve written a number of motets for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday services of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The first, Meditation for Candlemas, on a Denise Levertov text. This is the only a cappella piece of mine that is available from the Theodore Presser Company – contact me directly for any of the others. While several of these short a cappella works are virtuosic in their demands, others would be accessible for high school, college, or community choirs. For example, Alleluia on a Ground was written for the Mendelssohn Club here in Philadelphia, and the recently premiered Wind, Carry Me was written for a choir of high school students. Note that among these motets are some two-voice pieces: one for treble voices – One With the Day, One With the Night, on a Wendell Berry text – and one for male voices – Journey, on a Meister Eckhart text.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory for chorus and orchestra was also written for the Mendelssohn Club, and is featured on a Innova disc. Here is the second movement, setting Denise Levertov’s “Of Rivers”:

I have two other pieces for chorus and instruments. Matins sets texts by Hopkins and Mary Oliver, and was written for the Cantata Singers. The piece calls for a small complement of strings and features a concertante oboe part, written for Peggy Pearson. Set for a premiere next month is a piece based on a Bach chorale, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”. Commissioned by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Bladwin-Wallace University, the piece is scored for chamber chorus and string quartet.

There will be two CDs featuring my vocal music coming out in the next few months. First, The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, has recorded an entire album of my choral music, including the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for the group. This piece interweaves the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems reflecting on the Mass texts, again by one of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov. My Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, also written for The Crossing, is included and gives its name to the album. Settings of e. e. cummings, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry round out the disc. Second, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough perform five of my songs on an Albany Records disc to be called Descent/Return. That’s also the name of the pair of songs from the soprano and ensemble cycle A Sibyl that I arranged for soprano and piano which are included on the album. Three individual songs – The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams), The Pitcher (Robert Francis), and Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris) complete the disc, which also includes solo piano pieces by myself and John Harbison as well as returning Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight to the active catalog.

I’ll end this survey with video from the premiere of the St. Thomas Mass:

Recording in Ithaca

It’s been a week now since I drove up to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY to assist in the recording of several of my pieces being made by soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. This involved the set of piano preludes called Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (go here to find out about that title, and more about the piece.) Lucy joined Ryan for piano versions of two songs from A Sibyl, a set of songs for soprano and sextet that was premiered last fall by Collage New Music and Mary Mackenzie. I’m calling the pair I’ve arranged for piano Descent/Return. Lucy also introduced two recent individual songs: The Old Astronomer, on a text by Sarah Williams, and The Pitcher, with a poem by Robert Francis. Who Do You Say That I Am?, with words by Kathleen Norris – a song premiered last year by Susan Narucki and Donald Berman – completed my portion of the repertoire being recorded. I say portion because by the time I got to Ithaca, Lucy and Ryan had set down two major pieces by John Harbison: the song cycle on Michael Fried poems, Simple Daylight, and the big Piano Sonata No. 2. All this music will be issued on a CD from Albany Records. Hard to say what the release date might be; laying down the tracks is only the beginning of a process that includes editing, mastering, taking care of the CD booklet, etc. My guess is that it will come out some time in the 18-19 season.

Pianist Andrew Zhou produced the sessions: keeping track of the takes, making sure every note got covered; confirming details of the score; encouraging, critiquing, nitpicking. The sessions could not have gone so smoothly without him, and I am very grateful for his work.

Lucy and Ryan had already performed this program earlier in the week at Bard College and Cornell; I think it is always good to have some experience performing a piece before heading into the studio, and they were extremely well-prepared. Both artists were happy to accept last-minute input on interpretation – not that I needed to ask for tweaks of anything other than the most minute details. I was thrilled with their passionate and elegant performances, hair-raisingly intense at the music’s biggest moments. Their command of this repertoire was complete. It’s going to be a fabulous CD.

Here are some pictures from the sessions, including several taken by Qiushi Xu, a doctoral candidate at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She is a visiting student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, studying (in her words) the “intersection between piano sound, technology, culture and art convention.” Recording took place in a re-purposed chapel at Cornell:

Ryan at work:

In the recording booth:

 

 

 

checking the score of Pure Contraption:

 

Ryan and Lucy consulting and at work:

 

there was a little time during the weekend to check out the local rugged terrain:

 

and a gorgeous organ in a chapel on campus:

 

one last shot, this from after the recital with the same repertoire given at Penn this past week:

Fitz Gibbon and McCullough at Bard, Cornell, and Penn

Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough just gave a recital yesterday at Bard College featuring my music and that of John Harbison. The program will be repeated at Cornell on Thursday, Feb. 15 and at University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, February 21 at 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall, found in Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia.

It’s a nice program in that it brings together a mix of voice and piano songs plus piano solo pieces by myself and by an important mentor of mine, John Harbison. Here is the repertoire for the concert:

Primosch:
Descent/Return (texts by Susan Stewart; these are piano arrangements of  two songs from my recent work for soprano and chamber ensemble, A Sibyl)
The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams)
Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris)
The Pitcher (Robert Francis)
Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (set of piano preludes commissioned by a consortium of twelve pianists, including Ryan McCullough. Read more about the piece here. The score is published by the Theodore Presser Company.)

Harbison:
Simple Daylight (this is a cycle of six songs on texts by Michael Fried)
Piano Sonata No. 2

The songs of mine will be new to Philadelphia; in fact, the performance at Bard yesterday was the first time out for the Francis, Williams, and Stewart settings. Ryan and Lucy will be recording all this material for eventual CD release.