Heat Wave Miscellany

Actually the heat wave is in its last day today in Philadelphia, with more reasonable weather coming tomorrow. Perspiring or not, here are a few notes on recent listening and more.

I’ve been greatly enjoying Brian Mulligan’s new album on Bridge Records, called “Old Fashioned”. Brian was the soloist in my Songs for Adam back in 2009 with the Chicago Symphony. He continues to sound marvelous, with a rich and powerful baritone. His program for the CD features songs from the turn of the 20th century, items that perhaps your grandparents loved – “Because”, “I Love You Truly”, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, “Roses of Picardy” and the like. There is no hint of parody or camp, these are sincere and honest interpretations of genuinely touching material. Perhaps these songs mean a lot to me because my parents knew and loved some of them, and because I got to know them from the sheet music I inherited from various aunts and uncles. My father used to sing/hum the odd phrase from a couple of them. These family connections reinforce for me the sentiments expressed in the songs. Craig Rutenberg is the elegant pianist.

Awaiting their turn in my CD player: Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit (Wet Ink Ensemble, New World Records); John Harbison’s Requiem (Nashville Symphony, Naxos) and an album of orchestral music of George Perle (Seattle Symphony, Bridge Records).

Philadelphia musical organizations are announcing their coming seasons. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society did this a while ago; the programs I find of interest are too numerous to mention, but some new music highlights include a program with the Jack Quartet with percussionist Colin Currie and, on various concerts, works by Brett Dean, Christopher Cerrone, Iva Bittová and more. There will also be lots of Beethoven, including a complete cycle of the piano sonatas, the majority handled by Jonathan Biss. A brochure from the always thoughtfully programmed Lyric Fest just came in the mail; an evening-length premiere by Daron Hagen is of special interest. Orchestra 2001’s season is modest, but performances of works by George Crumb and Rene Orth deserve attention.

Lastly, August Read Thomas sent me a link to a short video about her new opera, featuring the astonishing Nicole Paris:

 

Work Before Work

It’s back to the day job this week, but I managed to finish a couple of projects during the Christmas break that is coming to an end. I Heard You, for tenor and piano, is my contribution to Lyric Fest’s Walt Whitman celebration this spring. Whitman calls the poem “Music”, but that seemed an awkward title for a song, so I used the first words of the text. Here is the poem (WordPress is determined to keep me from displaying the proper lineation for the poems – sorry Walt!):

Music

I heard you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last Sunday morn I passed
the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walked the woods at dusk, I heard your
long-stretched sighs, up above, so mournful;
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I heard the
soprano in the midst of the quartette singing.
—Heart of my love! you too I heard, murmuring low, through one of the
wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last night
under my ear.

I took full advantage of the imagery in the text, using a polytonal harmonization of “O God Our Help In Ages Past” for the organ; rapid figures for the winds of autumn; references to Verdi and Wagner for the opera singers; and the Westminster Chimes motif for the last lines. My plan is to add another short song to this setting, making a pair of two Whitman love songs. Here is the other text:

Sometimes with One I Love

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs). 

The other project where I reached the double bar was a set of Four Sketches for the Imani Winds. These are brief movements with titles referring to different things music can do:

I. Calling
II. Dancing
III. Remembering
IV. Grooving

I could have called it “Four Ings”, but I figured it better not to lean on the playful title Cowell used for a set of six piano pieces called Six Ings. (Don’t you wish you had written a piece called “Scooting”?)

The Four Sketches will be premiered on a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this coming February 15.

Advent Miscellany

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.

Election Eve Miscellany

  • 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.

Thank You, Lyric Fest

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.

“Waltzing” at Westminster

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:

 

waltzing

“Waltzing the Spheres” Premiere

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:

IMG_3988

and with Laura:

IMG_3991

and here’s a rogue’s gallery of composers (L to R: Maurice Wright, myself, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djustrom, and Ben Boyle):

IMG_3989

“Waltzing” with Lyric Fest

Unknown-1I 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.

To-Do List

The questionnaireIt isn’t entirely about picking up a pencil and staring at a blank sheet of manuscript paper, this composing thing. As a way of letting you know about some things that are happening soon, here is a list of stuff I have to do in the next 6 weeks or so:

– I have a considerable backlog of scores that are not in as nice shape, graphically speaking, as I would like, and I haven’t yet supplied the master copies of them (well, these days, PDF files) to Theodore Presser Co., my publisher. However, I am slowly addressing the issue with the help of master editor/engraver Ken Godel. Ken has recently sent me files of both the piano/vocal and chamber ensemble versions of my song cycle Holy the Firm, and I am proofing them one more time. I hope to finish this in the next few days.

Bridge Records has sent me the first draft of the booklet for the CD of my vocal music they will be releasing soon. I need to proof this, not only for the content (texts of the songs, bio notes, etc.) but to offer suggestions on the graphic appearance and layout. This needs to be done by this coming Monday.

– The Folger Consort will be performing my Songs and Dances from “The Tempest” in January, and I need to get the score and parts to them by the middle of this month. The varied instrumentation of the piece (it is scored for a wide array of early instruments) will be handled by a different, larger array of performers than was the case at the premiere some 15  years ago, and parts have to be devised to reflect this division of labor.

– In January I will be playing the slow movement, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, from my Piano Quintet, with the Daedalus Quartet on a program at Penn. Again, that score needs to be cleaned up graphically – my Finale chops have improved a bit since 1996, as has the program itself, of course. The Daedalus wants to see the parts by the beginning of December. (By the way, the Daedalus gave a wonderful concert yesterday at Penn, with works by Schulhoff, Korngold and a rare performance of the Schoenberg Ode to Napoleon, with pianist Charles Abramovic and baritone Randall Scarlatta as narrator. It’s a remarkable piece. Charlie described it to me afterwards as being “as crowd-pleasing as Schoenberg from that period gets.” I had only heard the piece live once before, a performance at Columbia University, with, of all people, Wallace Shawn as narrator.)

– My new song for Lyric Fest on a text by Susan Scott Thompson is also due in December; I want to look it over one more time before sending it in – for once I finished something far enough in advance that I have time to make final adjustments after letting the piece rest for a bit. It’s amazing what you see when you come back to a score after even a few weeks.

Deadline Approaching

Not much posting happening lately as I am pushing to finish up the piano consortium commission. Three movements are complete; two remain – the first and last in the set. The opening movement is nearly done: a harsh, dark chorale, dark in register, bitter in affect, with ornaments that mutter or sweep upward. There will be fanfares and a toccata for the finale.

A few items before I go back to work:

– Kile Smith posts more eloquently than I – and more comprehensively – about last week’s Lyric Fest program.

– my colleague Guthrie Ramsey has been writing a series of very substantial posts springing from his course on African-American music – the first one is here. He also has a guest post by Penn grad composer Erica Ball, writing about a recent visit to Penn by Brett Sroka and his group Ergo.

– Minnesota Public Radio offers a conversation with Maria Schneider here.

-the fine composer Hayes Biggs (a friend of mine from Columbia U days) has redone his website – there’s audio and more to explore.

I’ll be back after the piano piece is done…