David Patrick Stearns on “Alleluia”

Philadelphia Inquirer classical music critic David Patrick Stearns wrote about this past Sunday’s Mendelssohn Club premiere of my Alleluia on a Ground. You can read the full article here (note that the picture is a file photo and not from this past weekend), but here is the relevant portion:

…the best news that came out of this season-ending concert at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion is that two of Philadelphia’s world-class composers  wrote new pieces. [Robert Maggio was the other composer represented by a new piece.] Both were in top form, showing hugely different approaches toward the same text.

They program continued Mendelssohn’s mini-commissioning series of pieces written to the word Alleluia in honor of retired artistic director Alan Harler. For Sunday’s program, James Primosch and Robert Maggio delivered works that felt completely self contained but are full of ideas that should be continued into larger works.

Primosch’s Alleluia on a Ground began with unison vocal lines of such apparent simplicity that they could almost have been Gregorian chants. Yet subtle quirks pointed to a discreet individuality that would never have been heard in music from that world. Many vocal lines had what might be called a hinge note, opening a door into unanticipated but never radical directions. These created a web of contrapuntal writing at home in a religious text setting but going to places specific to Primosch, especially with background and foreground effects.

I like that idea of a “hinge note”, a gateway to a fresh direction. I also appreciated the mention of “background and foreground effects” – perhaps this was suggested most vividly by the juxtaposition of chords for the full chorus and a smaller subset of the group at the climax of the piece. Climactic or not, that three-dimensional effect is something I am always seeking.

I wish I could offer my own comments on the performance, but car trouble kept me from getting to the concert in time. I think it’s the first time I ever missed a premiere! Having heard two rehearsals, I know conductor Paul Rardin and the singers surely did a wonderful job.

Ground Work

Sunday, May 1, at 4 pm, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia will give the first performance of my Alleluia on a Ground. The concert will be at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, 2110 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. More information here.

Here’s my program note:

The Mendelssohn Club’s request for a setting of just the word “alleluia” in honor of Alan Harler meant that I would be working without the formal structure afforded by a more extensive text. Therefore I chose to build my Alleluia on a Ground around a musical structure, a repeated succession of notes. Over this ground I have built a piece that is stark, sober, and mysterious rather than exuberant, becoming grand, but ultimately resting in a quiet peace. A brief quotation from a Gregorian melody near the close gives a source for this sense of mystery.

Alan Harler is the former director of the Mendelssohn Club. The Gregorian quote is a familiar one, the opening phrases of Victimae Paschali Laudes.

Although a ground can be as short as four notes, the ground for this piece is made of four phrases and runs 19 bars. After a unison statement of the ground (I am going to put in an option for the first alto note to be sung an octave lower), the first variation is for the women alone, the second for the men (the portion shown below omits the last bar of the men’s statement):

ground 1

ground 2

ground 3

The next section begins with three part writing, then finally a four voice texture. There are four more sections, each treating the ground with increasing freedom. After a climax involving a juxtaposition of chords from the full chorus and a small semi-chorus, a solo voice intones the chant fragment over hushed triads, with one last statement of the ground’s first phrase to close.

The Mendelssohn Club is a big group – that’s perhaps a little more than half the group in the snapshot below –  and they make a thrilling sound under the expert direction of Paul Rardin (on stage in the picture). Hope to see you Sunday!


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.

Alleluia and A Book of Hours

Two season announcements have come out recently, confirming dates for performances in New York and Philadelphia:

– The New Juilliard Ensemble, conducted by Joel Sachs, will give the New York premiere of my From a Book of Hours on Tuesday, November 17 at Juilliard’s Paul Hall. The soprano soloist will be announced later. This is the chamber ensemble version of a work I originally wrote for the Chicago Symphony, who premiered the piece in 2002, with Lisa Saffer, soprano, and Antonio Pappano conducting. It sets, in German, four poems by Rilke from his collection Das Stundenbuch. I made the chamber version, scored for eleven players, for the 21st Century Consort, with Susan Narucki, soprano and Christopher Kendall, conducting. These forces recorded the piece for my Sacred Songs CD on Bridge.

– Robert Maggio, Jennifer Higdon, Andrea Clearfield and myself are writing short choral “Alleluias for Alan” in honor of the Mendelssohn Club’s recently retired artistic director Alan Harler. Mine will be premiered on March 5, 2015 at the Temple Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia with the group’s new artistic director Paul Rardin on the podium. If I am to set just the word “alleluia”, it means I don’t have the patterning of a text to suggest a musical form; therefore, I’m going to have to come up with my own structure, and I am thinking about a set of variations on a repeated bass or chord progression. We shall see, too early to say for certain what will happen. Read more about the Mendelssohn Club’s upcoming season here.

Honoring Alan Harler

The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia had a lovely celebration in honor of its retiring music director Alan Harler last night – a big crowd, good food, a touching video presentation – and the announcement of a set of four commissions for next season. “Alleluias for Alan” will be a set of new pieces setting that word, or using that word prominently, to be premiered at next season’s Mendelssohn Club concerts, led by new music director Paul Rardin. I will be one of the four, along with Jennifer Higdon, Andrea Clearfield, and Robert Maggio. It’s a great way to honor a conductor who not only led superb performances of standard repertoire over the years, but gave 58 premieres in 27 seasons!

While there are certainly pieces that set the single word “alleluia”, such as this and this, I am wondering whether setting that single word or setting that word plus a few others – perhaps a few psalm verses – might be more practical for giving the piece a life after this performance.

Here are the four “Alleluia-ers” posed with Alan (L to R: Jennifer Higdon, myself, Alan Harler, Andre Clearfield, and Robert Maggio):


Go here for a Mendelssohn Club cd of works by myself, Jennifer, and Andrea.

The Crossing and “Much Magic”

I was happy to see David Patrick Stearns’s positive comments on The Crossing‘s recent concert here in Philly, including some nice words about my piece, Spiralling Ecstatically. David remarks that he doesn’t usually associate me with choral music, which is pretty reasonable, given the fact that my choral music is not widely performed – I suffer, like so many composers, from second performance syndrome. But the fact is that I have written about a dozen choral pieces, five of them since the turn of the century. I am in the process of circulating a batch of scores among choral directors, and perhaps something will come of that; also, I hope the Mendelssohn Club’s CD on Innova of Fire-Memory/River-Memory will have an impact. For now, I’ll direct you to my website, where there is a listing of my choral works, plus some audio and score clips (note that the “chorus” webpage does not yet include the two most recent motets, Two Arms of the Harbor, and Gaudete in Domino).

Opera News on Fire-Memory/River-Memory

I just heard about a review in Opera News of the Mendelssohn Club‘s Innova disc called  “Metamorphosis” that includes my Fire-Memory/River-Memory. If you subscribe, you can find it online – it was posted in October. Here is the discussion of F-M/R-M:

The third work, James Primosch’s Fire-Memory/River-Memory, from 1998, sets two poems by the British-born American poet Denise Levertov. Primosch ranges freely and effectively across the tonal spectrum, holding the listener in his emotional grip even when the harmonic language becomes harsh. The first poem, “What Were They Like?”, is a series of rhetorical questions and answers, posed to victims of the Vietnam War. Toward the end, a solo violin emerges from the choral texture with poignant beauty. The second poem, “Of Rivers” builds grandly and evokes nature’s majesty, as well as the divine, metaphoric ability of rivers to “remember.” This makes an effective counterweight to “What Were They Like?”, emphasizing that the horrors of war must not be forgotten.”

Pretty nice, huh? This for a disc that was named Disc of the Week by WQXR when it was released. Read more about the recording here, here and here. Thank you so much to the Mendelssohn Club and Alan Harler.