Bach, Mahler, Murail, Eastman

Alex Ross recently posted a list of concerts and operas he attended during a recent European trip. I haven’t been to Europe lately, but I did get to a memorable and varied series of concerts in Philadelphia recently. Here are some brief comments.



I was delighted to see the Church of the Holy Trinity filled for a program of Bach cantatas – it seats about 1100! Very fine performances, with the singers and obbligato players ably commanding Bach’s long lines. The second aria in BWV 170 is a contender for the strangest Bach aria ever, with the organ playing the obbligato while the violins in unison play the bass!


My favorite pieces here were the Murail works and the Messiaen. The latter was written on the death of his mother, while the former on the death of his teacher Messiaen; good to hear those in succession. The big hall at the Barnes is not ideal for every concert situation, but it worked for the spectralist pieces with their emphasis on resonance, sculpted in sensuous layers in Marilyn’s virtuosic performance. Here’s how the piano was set up, followed by a shot from the Q and A with Marilyn and Robert Whalen, co-artistic director, along with Katharine Skovira, of the concerts at the Barnes.



  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered the Mahler 3rd in its last subscription set of the season. I was there for the May 19 performance.


This was a magnificent performance of a staggering piece. Certainly hearing the orchestra in full cry was thrilling, but I was constantly struck by the intensely eloquent solo playing – trombone in the first movement, offstage “posthorn” (I assume played on trumpet?) in the third, to name just two of many. Karen Cargill’s voice was richly sonorous, and the choirs were splendid. Am I the only person who hears an echo of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” in the cello tune of the finale?

  • The last event in my recent bout of concert going was the final concert of the Julius Eastman retrospective presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda.






The ensemble pieces were intriguing, but the highlight for me was the a cappella solo performance of Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc by Davóne Tines. He was positioned at the lectern pictured above. His powerful bass-baritone cast an incantatory spell as he repeated the work’s few short musical phrases, a setting of this text:

Saint Michael said
Saint Margaret said
Saint Catherine said
They said
He said
She said
Speak Boldly
When they question you

The piece served as an invocation, and I sensed an unusual concentration in the audience; it was exceptionally quiet during the pauses between phrases, giving us a chance to attend to the reverberation The Rotunda offers.

Hear Davóne singing music of Caroline Shaw here, and Jerome Kern here.

Stratigraphic Premiere

The Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Marilyn Nonken have been preparing the premiere of my Stratigraphy for a concert at U Penn this coming Saturday, March 19 at 7:30 pm in Rose Recital Hall. Rose is on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia. Go here to snag one of the last tickets available.

Here is a program note on Stratigraphy:

  1. Chronostratigraphic
  2. Hommage to Lutoslawski
  3. Game of Pairs
  4. Geochronologic
  5. Poem (after Christina Rosetti)
  6. Scalable

The New Oxford American Dictionary states that stratigraphy is “the branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.” I first came upon this word in pianist Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano. There she uses the term to refer to the layering effects created by musical shapes and their resonances in the works of spectralist composers such as Murail and Dufourt. While my piece for saxophone quartet and piano is not spectralist, I chose the title partly to honor Marilyn as the work’s first pianist, and partly to reflect my interest in exploring layered and juxtaposed strands of musical material.

In addition to the title of the entire set, I have used scientific terms for the first and fourth of the pieces. There is no special significance to these titles, other than that they are fun to say! Hommage to Lutoslawski makes use of a single chord from a piece by that composer. Game of Pairs refers to the movement of the same title in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra where pairs of instruments focus on particular intervals. Poem was suggested by Christina Rossetti’s Sleeping at Last. Wikipedia tells us “scalability is the capability of a system, network or process to handle a growing amount of work”, and in Scalable I have given my players scales and more that test the “scalability” of the ensemble.


Prismatic Tickets

Just a short note to say you should book your free tickets for the upcoming Prism Saxophone Quartet concerts at Penn right away – Rose Recital Hall is not that big, and we are issuing tickets to keep track of the head count. Go here to reserve tickets. The concerts are Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19, both at 7:30, and will feature music by Penn faculty, students and alums. My own Stratigraphy, with pianist Marilyn Nonken joining the members of Prism, will be heard at the Saturday concert.

Post-Hiatus Miscellany

My pieces for the Mendelssohn Club and Prism (with Marilyn Nonken) are completed, and while I still need to put in a great deal of practice time on the music I will be playing at Penn on February 17 and 24 (more info below), I want to take a moment and catch up on a few things.

– First of all, a big thank you to the Philadelphia Sinfonia and its music director Gary White for their fine performance of my Variations on a Hymn Tune. I was terrifically impressed by the group and by Gary. Their hard work paid off in a performance that was spirited and elegantly shaped. Likewise, thank you to the Society for New Music for programming my Dancepiece – I heard from Neva Pilgrim that the performance went very well and was warmly received.

– the Eighty-Eight Lately series of concerts at Penn, featuring new and recent music for piano, continues with performances by Gregory DeTurck on February 17 (works by Crumb, Perle and Dutilleux) and by Matthew Bengtson on February 24 (works by Carter, Nancarrow, Melinda Wagner, Bolcom, Ligeti, and Takemitsu). In addition to the music Greg and Matt will play, I will contribute one piece to each program. On the 17th I will play the Berio Sequenza and on the 24th, a movement from Donald Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus. Both concerts are at 8 pm, and take place in Rose Recital Hall, found on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, 34th and Walnut, on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia.

– word has come in of a few additional performances this season. My Oboe Quartet has been programmed by the organization Weekend of Chamber Music. The performers will be Peggy Pearson, who commissioned and premiered the piece; Ari Streisfeld of the JACK Quartet; and Kathryn Lockwood and Caroline Stinson of the Lark Quartet – this is quite an all-star group. They will be at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC on March 25, and at The Cooperage in Honesdale, PA on March 26. On April 1, soprano Sarah Noone will sing my Four Sacred Songs for voice and chamber ensemble at Notre Dame University. And on Friday, April 8, my music will be heard at Bargemusic in NYC for the first time when pianist Geoffrey Burleson plays Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. You can always find a complete list of upcoming performances in the footer at the bottom of each page on this website. That information is also on the Performances page, along with an archive of past events.


The branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.

That’s the definition offered by the dictionary on my Mac’s dashboard. Despite a somewhat scientific aura that recalls titles of modernist pieces (such titles go back to Varese, I guess, and seem a little old-fashioned these days), I like the term “stratigraphy” as the title for my current project, a work for the Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Marilyn Nonken. The premiere will be at Penn on Saturday, March 19. I came across the word in Marilyn’s book, The Spectral Piano, where she uses it to describe the layering strategies employed in works by spectralist composers like Murail and Dufourt. While I don’t think of my piece as spectralist, I am concerned in this new piece with creating contrapuntal structures where the component parts are a little more differentiated than usual, either by rhythmic texture or harmonic process or both. Of course there are also places in the piece where the five instruments function as a single unit, but several spots emphasize contrasting elements. Here’s a fragment from the first movement as an example – just a draft, mind you (notation sounds as written):

stratig excerpt

The “rock layers” here are more juxtaposed than layered (though there is obviously a registral layering going on), but later in the movement things will start happening simultaneously.

The plan is to have a number of short movements exploring a variety of strategies. The players want their parts soon; better get back to work.

Composing for the Piano

88l8telyI was assigned a graduate composition seminar this fall at my day job, and decided to make composing for piano the focus. I further decided to plan a few recitals and talks relating to the course, under the title “Eighty-Eight Lately”, and with the support of a generous grant from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, the following roster of events has taken shape, all on the Penn campus:
September 29, 2015: “The Spectral Piano” – a colloquium with Dr. Marilyn Nonken of New York University – read more below.
October 28, 2015: piano recital by Gregory DeTurck and myself. Greg will play works by Crumb, Perle, and Dutilleux, and I will offer the Berio Sequenza IV. UPDATE: this program has been postponed until February 17, 2016.
January 27, 2016: Marilyn Nonken will return to campus for a recital including pieces she mentioned in her talk this past week. The list of composers may bet tweaked a little, but the plan is for her to play Rakowski, Murail, Carrick, Dufourt, and Kuehn. The Carrick and Kuehn works will be premieres.
February 24, 2016: Matthew Bengtson and I will share a program. I’ll play one or two movements from the Martino Fantasies and Impromptus, and Matt will play Carter, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Bolcom, and Melinda Wagner. Mindy will give a talk on her music earlier that day.
The class so far has only met a few times. In these first meetings we have been spending time with some early 20th century classic, but the main focus of the class will be post-WWII. So far we have looked at:
– Debussy: various Preludes
– Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
– Copland: Piano Variations
– Ives: “Concord” Sonata
– Barber: Sonata
– Bartok: Sonata
– Schoenberg, Six Little Piano Pieces
We will look at the Webern Variations next, with Messiaen to follow.
Marilyn Nonken’s talk this past Tuesday drew upon her elegant and thoughtful book The Spectral Piano, and she talked about the spectralist attitude, with sound itself, – its overtone content and its characteristic attacks and decays – as the stuff of a composition rather than pitches or motives. She discussed the music of Murail, Grisey, Dufourt, and Edmund Campion, as well as playing for us a short work by Joshua Fineberg. You can see a video of the lecture here.

Summer Reading

recently completed:
Lila – Marilynne Robinson. Like its companions in Robinson’s “Iowa” trilogy (Gilead and Home), Lila offers writing that is beautiful in an intense but quiet way, full of a sober wisdom, rich in empathy.

in progress and upcoming:
Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life – Dana Greene
Harvard Composers – Howard Pollack
The Spectral Piano – Marilyn Nonken
Composition in the Digital World – Robert Raines
A Dance of Polar Opposites – George Rochberg
Stomping the Blues – Albert Murray

Having enjoyed Pollack’s book on Copland, I sought out his Harvard Composers at the Penn library. On an nearby shelf was the Raines, a recent book I had not heard about, offering a collection of interviews with contemporary composers. Would any algorithm have suggested the Raines if I searched online for the Pollack? (Amazon does not.) I haven’t seen anything online yet that can replace the peculiar serendipities of libraries.

School’s Out Miscellany

Classes have ended at my day job, just an exam to give and much grading. I will have more time for the project on the front burner, a big piece for violin and piano for Tai Murray and Anton Nel,  commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for a premiere in Philly next February. Here’s Tai playing Copland:

And here Anton plays Mozart:

– Speaking of first-class pianism, Marilyn Nonken will be coming to Penn twice next season, for a colloquium in September, and a recital in January. Go here for a fascinating interview with Marilyn.

– I’ll be in NYC for the BMI Student Awards on May 18, and after the ceremony, will head over to Merkin Hall to hear the New York New Music Ensemble play Lee Hyla and Matthew Rosenblum. Info here.

– don’t forget to check the upcoming performances listing at the very bottom of this page or via the performances link at the top of the page. My music will be heard in LA; NYC; Easton, MD; Philadelphia; and Tanglewood in the next few months.

American Sublime

A seriously important festival of Morton Feldman’s late music here in Philly, June 4 through the 12. Curated by Bowerbird and called “American Sublime” (quite elegant website), the programs include pieces like Triadic Memories. Crippled Symmetry, and the six-hour-long String Quartet #2. Performers include heavy-hitters like Marilyn Nonken, the Jack Quartet, Joan LaBarbara, and more. This is an uncommon series of events, presenting important music that is new to the area. Read the article that inspired the title of the festival here.