“A Sibyl” and “Quintet” in Boston

At the moment I am on the Amtrak coming home from a busy and marvelous trip to Boston for performances of two works. Collage New Music, with soprano Mary Mackenzie and conductor David Hoose premiered my new song cycle on text by Susan Stewart, called A Sibyl. It’s a demanding and varied challenge for the soloist, and Mary brought terrific intensity and subtle nuance to the piece. The instrumentalists were no less fine, partly on their individual merits, partly because of the ESP that develops among long-term colleagues. I had been impressed in rehearsals by the detail David Hoose gave to expressive details, and it paid off beautifully.

There was a similar sense of commitment from Winsor Music when they played my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano yesterday evening. The piece is highly varied in expressive character, and many of the comments I received focussed on the third movement, an instrumental version of my song Who Do You Say That I Am. The movement is warmly lyrical and quite tonal (you could probably make a lead sheet of it), standing in strong contrast to the preceding severely dissonant movement. I was worried as to whether the contrasting voices heard in the piece would hang together, but the fiercely committed performance overcame any doubts.

I’m deeply grateful to both ensembles for their passionate advocacy of my music.

Here are a few pictures from the trip. I wish I had a shot with Mary Mackenzie from the Collage concert, but I had to get going to the Winsor event, so I only got the one picture, this with conductor David Hoose:

Here’s a shot from after the Winsor concert. L to R: Kendra Colton, Peggy Pearson, Rafael Popper-Keizer, JP, Gabriela Díaz, John Harbison, Rane Moore:

More on “A Sibyl”

  • David Hoose speaks about the Collage New Music season, including this Sunday’s concert, featuring the premiere of A Sibyl, in this Boston Musical Intelligencer interview.
  • There are a number of YouTube videos featuring soprano Mary Mackenzie, who will be the soloist for A Sibyl. These include several of my own music. Here’s Mary singing two songs with pianist Heidi Louise Williams; the first is on a text by Susan Scott Thompson, the second sets words by Susan Orlean.

Mary and Heidi have recorded these songs and several others for a CD to be released later this season on Albany Records.

  • here are some excerpts from Sacred Songs and Meditations, a big set of vocal and instrumental pieces based on plainchant and other ancient melodies. The ensemble is the 21st Century Consort led by Christopher Kendall, with members of the Folger Consort and choirs of the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C.

  • Read about Susan Stewart, author of the texts for A Sibyl, here and here. Susan published a volume of new and selected poems this year, entitled Cinder. The title poem is the first of her texts that I set, some 18 years ago. Listen to Susan Narucki sing it, again with the 21st Century Consort and Christopher Kendall.

“A Sibyl” Premieres in Boston

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the Sibyl of Cumae in the Sistine Chapel

Written on a Fromm Foundation commission, A Sibyl is a cycle of six songs on texts by Susan Stewart, whose poetry I have set in several other pieces – Holy the Firm, Dark the Star, and Songs for Adam. Susan wrote the poems specifically for this new project. Collage New Music will premiere the piece at the Longy School in Cambridge, MA on October 15, 2017 at 3 pm. (There will be a pre-concert chat at 2 pm.) Mary Mackenzie will be the soprano soloist and David Hoose will conduct. Here’s my program note on the piece:

When I asked my friend Susan Stewart to write a set of poems for a new work for soprano, she responded with reflections on the mysterious prophetess spoken of in Virgil and Ovid. The sibyl sings of her prophecies written on leaves, and of how the god possesses her; she warns Aeneas before his descent to the underworld; she celebrates the moon. Having been granted eternal life, but failing to ask for eternal youth, she is reduced to no more than her voice. I understand the sibyl as an archetype of the musician who sings for us of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love; who guides us in moonlit and shadowy places; and whose prophetic voice resounds unendingly, in power, and in vulnerability.

A Sibyl was written for Collage New Music on a commission from the Fromm Music Foundation. I am grateful to the Foundation, to Collage, and to Mary Mackenzie for making this work possible, and to Susan Stewart for words to sing.

Mary has performed many pieces of mine, and she recorded Sacred Songs and Meditations with the 21st Century Consort, led by Christopher Kendall.

She has also recorded a big 2-CD collection of songs by various composers with pianist Heidi Williams that will include four pieces of mine, to be released on Albany later this season.

Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa published an interview with me on the Collage website – I talk there about working with Susan’s poetry and my history with Collage.

 

“A Sibyl”, Wagner, and Chopin

I wasn’t teaching at my day job this summer for the first time in a while, so I had a little more time than usual – but the unbridgeable gap between what one hopes to accomplish and what actually happens remained wide. Still, a few things got done.

The most important task accomplished was completing A Sibyl, my Fromm commission for Collage New Music. This is a cycle on texts by Susan Stewart that she wrote specifically for the project, and is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Mary Mackenzie will be the soloist. I estimate the piece will run about 25 minutes. There are six songs, setting poems that build on what can be found in Virgil and Ovid about the mysterious figure of the Cumaean Sibyl in somewhat the way Susan built her texts for my Songs for Adam (a work for baritone and orchestra) upon the Biblical stories. Collage has set the premiere of A Sibyl for the afternoon of October 15, the same day Emmanuel Music will do a motet of mine in the morning at Emmanuel Church, and Winsor Music will do my recent quintet for oboe and piano quartet in the evening. Three performances in Greater Boston in a single day is an amazing trifecta of good luck – more details to follow.

I spent many summer hours at the piano, working on the B-flat minor Scherzo of Chopin and playing through the piano score of Die Walküre. On the basis of playing that score, I can confirm a few things you already knew about the Wagner: yes, it really is very long;  yes, if you had a dollar for every diminished seventh chord in the piece you could retire today, and yes, the harmony in the Todesverkündigung is impossibly gorgeous. What I had not realized is how many passages throughout the opera are essentially recitative of a relatively straightforward kind – the “endless melody” you read about in your undergrad music history textbook is not quite so endless as Wagner fools us into thinking.

I still get bothered by the amount of literal repetition in the Chopin Scherzi; I suppose I wish the pieces were actually four more ballades. At least there is less literal repetition in the B-flat minor than in the B-minor, the other one I have practiced. Much of my time was spent on baffling questions of fingering – when it is better to stretch, when to cross…  Fingering remains a mystery to me – I often don’t realize when I am doing something unnecessarily awkward, or don’t see what could be a viable alternative. The cliché about the easiest fingering not necessarily being the best fingering is not terribly helpful when “easiest” and “best” seem to be moving targets that shift from day to day. Pianistic issues aside, engaging with pieces by playing them is essential nourishment for me – as a composer, but also as a person, and I was glad to have a little more time for that nourishment over this past summer.

Notes Aligned in Boston

It’s a little ways off, and I don’t have all the details, but I want to let you know about a happy coincidence has taken shape on my schedule of performances. On the afternoon of October 15, Collage New Music with soprano Mary Mackenzie, will premiere my current project, a song cycle called A Sibyl on Susan Stewart poems, at the the Longy School of Bard College in Cambridge, MA. David Hoose will conduct. And that evening, Winsor Music will present the second performance of my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano, this at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA.

Mary Mackenzie, who has done a fabulous job with my music on several occassions, including this CD, will be the soloist for A Sibyl.

I’ve put in a request with Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music to do one of my motets at Emmanuel Church that morning – maybe there will be three performances of my music in Boston that day!

UPDATE: Ryan has confirmed that he will include my music at Emmanuel’s 10 am service that day – it’s a Primosch festival in Boston!

Back from Florida State and Recording Session

I’ve returned from the Florida State University Festival of New Music. My Dark the Star for baritone and chamber ensemble was to have been performed there, but the baritone, Evan T. Jones, suffered a terrific attack of laryngitis, and the performance had to be cancelled. I did hear a rehearsal of the other musicians for the piece – Deborah Bish, clarinet; Greg Sauer, cello; Heidi Louise Williams, piano, Peter Soroka, percussion; and Alexander Jimenez, conductor – and it was clearly going to be a great performance. It’s a pity Evan was ill. Here’s hoping those performers get another shot at the piece some other time.

The Festival was a substantial event, with six concerts in a few days, presenting works by 23 composers. You can find all the details here, though with the Festival being over I am not sure how long the website will be up.

The featured guest composer was Louis Andriessen. He had several works performed; my favorite was a chamber work called Zilver in which process struck a healthy balance with melody and harmony. There was a memorable program by the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo which featured a number of imaginative miniatures by Kurtág as well as short commissioned works in his honor. The most striking of the latter was Jason Eckardt’s Toll, a solemn processional of sounds created with extended techniques. Amy Williams’ own solo piece Cineshape 4 was striking for its athletic and smart piano writing.

Here’s Andriessen at a pre-concert talk:

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Thank you to everyone at FSU, in particular Clifton Callender and Evan A. Jones, co-chairs of the Festival committee, for the tremendous amount of work that went into making the Festival happen. Even though my piece didn’t get performed, I am very grateful to have been there.

I lingered in Tallahassee after the festival to attend a recording session for two of my Three Folk Hymns. These are songs based on “Be Thou My Vision” and “What Wondrous Love Is This?”, and were recorded by Heidi Williams (FSU faculty, who was to have played piano in the ill-fated Dark the Star performance), and soprano Mary Mackenzie. Both ladies were in excellent form, and this was the least stressful recording session I have ever participated in! (It didn’t hurt that we only had to do about 8 minutes of music.) I worked with composer Daniel Crozier to produce the session. Dan was extremely helpful with noting small details for which we needed to record patches – I just find it very hard to decide if we are covered for particular spots, and my comments were more in the vein of coaching suggestions. The recording engineer was Paul Hennerich of The Pan-Galactic Company, and he captured a rich and colorful sound. Heidi used FSU’s Fazioli piano, an instrument with a unique timbre, quite different from a Steinway. It is savory, sumptuously resonant, yet a bit bright. It brought to mind an exotic after-dinner liqueur. It could easily become clattery in the hands of someone less skilled than Heidi, but she drew an astonishing array of bewitching color from the instrument. I am greatly looking forward to the CD for which this was the last session. It will come out on Albany later this year, a two-disc set featuring music by Daniel Crozier, Ned Rorem, and John Harbison as well as a big chunk of my own vocal catalog.

Here’s the setup in FSU’s Opperman Music Hall:

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Heidi at work:

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the view from the driver’s seat:

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check out the oddly grained and highly finished interior of the case:

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Even the underside of the instrument is beautiful:

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Mary and Heidi when the session was over:

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And here is the whole team with Heidi and Mary in front, and, standing behind them, Paul Hennerich (engineer), Anne Garee (piano technician), myself, and Dan Crozier, (co-producer).

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“Dark the Star” at Florida State

My Dark the Star for baritone and chamber ensemble was selected to be performed at the Florida State University Festival of New music next week. Here are the details:

Thursday, February 2, 2017, 7:30 pm: Dark the Star

Evan T. Jones, baritone
Deborah Bish, clarinet
Greg Sauer, cello
Heidi Williams, piano
Peter Soroka, percussion
Alexander Jimenez, conductor
Opperman Music Hall
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL

A great deal of music is packed into the three days of the Festival – go to the Festival website for more information.

Special guest performers for the Festival include the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, and violinist Monica Germino. The featured composer is Louis Andriessen. I’ve never met Andriessen, but I played his 1963 work Registers for piano at the 1977 Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam. This graphic score is very different from the later music for which he is principally known, with its influences from minimalism and Stravinsky. You can get some sense of what the score looks like in this video, though the image is quite reduced in size. (A shame the performer in the video is not identified.)

Heidi Williams, the pianist for the performance of Dark the Star, is in the midst of a big CD project with soprano Mary Mackenzie, including quite a lot of my vocal music. I will linger in Florida after the Festival to attend a recording session for my Three Folk Hymns with Mary and Heidi. (Mary just gave a wonderful performance at a Collegium Institute event at Penn, along with pianist Eric Sedgwick.)

Here’s the first movement of Dark the Star in the Bridge recording made by the forces for whom the piece was written: William Sharp, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor.

Sacred Songs at Penn

sacred-songsThe Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture has asked me to give a talk on my music, to be held next Monday, January 23, at the University of Pennsylvania – details on the poster above. Mary Mackenzie and Eric Sedgwick will perform my Three Sacred Songs, Waltzing the Spheres, and excerpts from Holy the Firm, and I will offer a few comments on the pieces. Mary has done my music several times, including recording a superb CD of Sacred Songs and Meditations – give a listen here.

“Cathedral Music” Released

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I’m delighted to report that Albany Records has released Cathedral Music, a new CD that includes my Sacred Songs and Meditations along with works by Stephen Albert (Cathedral Music) and Christopher Patton (Out of Darkness). I devised the piece at the request of Christopher Kendall, who wanted something for a concert celebrating the new millennium to be performed at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. To honor the notion of “a thousand years of music”, the work is based on ancient sacred tunes – plainchant and more – and is written for a solo soprano, chorus and Christopher’s two consorts: The Folger Consort and The 21st Century Consort. For this recording, Mary Mackenzie is the superb soloist. The piece alternates instrumental fantasias on the old melodies with settings of the tunes for soprano, all scored for a combination of early and modern instruments. Before each movement the men and children of the National Cathedral choirs sing the tune on which the movement is based. In addition to the virtuosic and atmospheric performances by all the musicians, the disc benefits from the lovely resonant acoustic fashioned by engineer Mark Huffman and producer Joseph Gascho.

When I made the piece, I assumed it was sort of a one-off, given the unusual forces required, and would never be performed again. Christopher, bless him, proved me wrong, programming the piece a few years ago prior to the recording session. Go here for a post about the performance and recording, including pictures and personnel credits. Thank you to all concerned, especially Christopher and Mary.

The album has already shown up on YouTube. Here is the first movement: