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:

Quiet, Please – Recording in Progress

Visit Mary Mackenzie’s Twitter feed and her Instagram page for updates on the recording sessions taking place at Florida State University this week. Mary and pianist Heidi Williams are recording several pieces of mine, having performed them earlier this season – the performance I heard at FSU in November was fabulous. It sounds like they are covering a lot of material very efficiently, only three more songs to do tomorrow.

Listening on the Road

IMG_1031I knew I would be spending a lot of time in the car for my trip to North Carolina this past November, so I brought a good-sized stack of CDs, more than I could possibly go through. Here the ones I got to:

Mahler: Symphony #9.  Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor. Decades after conducting the premiere, Walter recorded Mahler’s last completed symphony in a reading that is notable more for its serenity than its angst.

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. This isn’t a trio plus soloist album, but an integrated whole, a quartet – true to the Bad Plus ideal of being a band. The material consists entirely of originals, with each member of the ensemble contributing.

Harbison: The Great Gatsby Suite; Darkbloom; Closer to My Own Life. Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller, conductor. I was there for the performance that preceded the recording of this music from Harbison’s opera, and found the Suite a compelling narrative in its own right. Darkbloom was inspired by Nabakov, while Closer to My Own Life sets texts by Alice Munro, with my friend and advocate Mary Mackenzie sounding radiant in her recorded debut as soloist.

Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde. Deborah Voigt; Thomas Moser; Petra Lang; Peter Weber; Robert Holl; Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Christian Thielemann, conductor. It won’t make you forget the Windgassen/Nilsson/Böhm version, but there is much to savor in this live recording. I was most impressed by Voigt and Lang, as well as the gorgeous orchestral playing.

Eric Chasalow: Are You Radioactive, Pal? There are many practitioners of electronic music but not so many great pieces. But Eric Chasalow’s work constitutes an exception to that rule because he is that rare combination: an artist with complete technical mastery of the medium who is also a first-class composer. Superb performances by Daniel Stepner, violin, and Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone, on pieces that combine live player with electronic sound; the remainder of the album is for fixed media alone.

Duke Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige. This is a 3-disc set of RCA recordings from 1944-46. One astonishing track after another, with compositional ingenuity and brilliant performances in full bloom. Besides excerpts from the title composition, the album includes The Perfume Suite and some remakes of earlier Ellington hits. Even the novelty numbers are a delight; who can resist Ray Nance on Otto, Make That Riff Staccato?

Vocal music at Florida State

Mary Mackenzie, soprano, and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, gave a fabulous performance at Florida State University last Friday that featured a big chunk of my song catalog. The program included the sets Holy the Firm and Three Sacred Songs, plus the individual songs Waltzing the Spheres and Shadow Memory. They closed the program with my arrangement of How Can I Keep From Singin’? Mary was in dazzling form throughout, particularly  in the big Holy the Firm cycle, with beautiful singing at the service of formidable emotional impact. She’s done the piece a number of times now, and I liked that she is getting more theatrical in the “mad scene” opening of the cycle’s last song, with its juxtapositions of dreaminess and terror. Heidi’s pianism was no less impressive. She played a Fazioli piano with a slightly glassy and sweet tone that could be clattery in less gifted hands. Heidi commanded complete control of balance, color and dynamics, not an easy thing on any instrument, but especially on the Fazioli.

In addition to my music, the program included John Harbison’s Vocalism: A Grand Aria for Soprano and Piano (that’s the composer’s subtitle) on a Whitman text. It is indeed grand: emotionally big-hearted, vibrantly textured. On a very different scale was John’s Seven Poems of Lorine Niedecker, a work premiered at this past summer’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. The piece is a set of seven short songs bound together (played without pause) that can also be understood as one larger song. Mary and Heidi offered a lovely short song by Daniel Crozier as an encore.

I gave a talk on my music the night before the recital. Thank you to Clifton Callender and Michael Buchler for the invitation to speak and for their kind hospitality.

The recital (along with the one the ladies gave at Southern Mississippi University earlier in the week) served as preparation for a CD recording including my music, set to take place next month. On the basis of the concert last week, it will be a remarkable document.

Here’s a post-concert shot, with Heidi on the left:

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Many Songs in Tallahassee and Hattiesburg

I enjoyed two coaching sessions last week with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams. These two ladies will be performing most of my voice and piano song output later this year, and then recording almost all of that material for an eventual CD release. On Friday, November 20, at Florida State University in Tallahassee, they will perform:

  • Three Sacred Songs (arrangements of old plainchant melodies)
  • Holy the Firm (a big cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw)
  • the individual songs Waltzing the Spheres and Shadow Memory (texts by Susan Scott Thompson and Susan Orlean, respectively)
  • an arrangement of How Can I Keep from Singin? (dating from some 20 years ago, it was written for an all-Primosch show at the Cleveland Museum of Art)

The performance will also be given at Southern Mississippi University in Hattiesburg on Tuesday, November 17. I’ll be there in Florida, and will give a talk at FSU, but will have to miss my Mississippi debut – I’ll be in NYC for the Juilliard performance of From a Book of Hours.

Both of these women are quite fantastic musicians. I’ve known Mary for some time, and she has done my work beautifully on several occasions, including a performance and recording of my piece for modern instruments, early instruments, and choir, Sacred Songs and Meditations (that recording has been in the can for a while, I imagine the release shouldn’t be too far off.) Heidi was new to me, and she is a real find, getting a beautiful piano sound, capable of subtle rhythmic nuance, ably partnering Mary. The rather virtuosic piano writing in Holy the Firm holds no terrors for her. Check out her very impressive disc Drive American, with music by John Adams, Joan Tower, Daniel Crozier, Chen Yi, Augusta Read Thomas, and William Bolcom.

The individual songs mentioned above are not (yet) handled by Theodore Presser, my usual publisher. Check out sample pages from these songs on the score excerpts page. There is a recording of Shadow Memory (Lisa Williamson, soprano and Rami Sarieddine, piano) on the “solo voice” audio excerpts page. A video of Kelly Ann Bixby, soprano, and Laura Ward, piano, doing Waltzing the Spheres is here. Send me an e-mail <jamesprimosch at gmail dot com> if you want purchase PDFs for any or all of these individual songs – click on the titles above to purchase the cycles.

Here is the inevitable post-coaching selfie. That’s Mary on the left, then Heidi in the middle.

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Upcoming this season in Athens, Tallahassee, and Philadelphia

I want to call your attention to a couple of items recently added to the performances page:

Youmee Kim, a member of the piano faculty at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, was part of the consortium that commissioned my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. She will play the piece in Glidden Hall on the OU campus this coming September 27. I’ve written about the piece here.

– I first met soprano Mary Mackenzie at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival several years ago when she performed my Three Sacred Songs, and she has since performed my music a number of times. Mary will include that same set of arrangements of chant melodies (Jesu Dulcis Memoria, and Christus Factus Est) and a carol (O Fillii et Filliae) on a program with pianist Heidi Louise Williams at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL, on November 20. The Three Sacred Songs were later orchestrated for chamber ensemble, with another arrangement added, to make the Four Sacred Songs, which are included on the Bridge Sacred Songs CD. Mary and Heidi are planning a CD that will include several pieces of mine, including the big cycle Holy the Firm, the individual songs Shadow Memory, and Waltzing the Spheres, plus an arrangement of How Can I Keep From Singin’?

Gary White will lead the Philadelphia Sinfonia in my Variations on a Hymn Tune at the Temple Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA, next January 24. I wrote the piece for the Council Rock school district in Bucks County, PA, basing it on a 19th century hymn tune “Ebenezer”, written by Welsh composer Thomas J. Williams. Although I came to know the tune with the text “Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow”, my music does not reflect that lugubrious title!