Vocalisms

Vocalisms, the new two-CD set featuring my music as well as works by Harbison, Rorem, and Daniel Crozier, has been released by Albany Records. Soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Heidi Louise Williams perform my Shadow Memory (text by Susan Orlean), Waltzing the Spheres (Susan Scott Thompson), Three Folk Hymns (based on How Can I Keep From Singing?, Be Thou My Vision, and What Wondrous Love is This?), and the first recording of the piano version of Holy the Firm, (various authors) the 1999 cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. There’s a complete track listing at the Albany website.

The album makes a fine survey of contemporary American piano-and-voice song, with a mix of pieces by two senior composers (Rorem and Harbison) along with music by two mid-career types (Dan and myself.) The title comes from the opening piece, Harbison’s Vocalism, a Whitman setting that was commissioned by SongFest, the same organization that commissioned Shadow Memory.

I met Mary when she did my Three Sacred Songs about ten years ago, and she has been a wonderful advocate for my music ever since. Heidi came to my attention through her collaboration with Mary, and, as with Mary, I’ve been thrilled to hear her performances. It’s a wonderful combination of two smart artists who each have a gorgeous sound and superb musicianship. Their partnership is impeccable and they command every mood, whether serene or playful, mysterious or exuberant, often with no small emotional wallop, whether it’s the melancholy of Shadow Memory or the devastating deathbed scene that closes Holy the Firm. I’m profoundly grateful for their work.

I am delighted with the quality of the recording as well, as realized by producer Peter Henderson and engineer Paul Hennerich.

This is Mary’s fourth release on Albany, which says something for their well-justified belief in her merit. I can’t provide a direct link, but go to the Albany website and do an artist search to see her complete list of Albany albums, including the 21st Century Consort’s Cathedral Music, featuring my Sacred Songs and Meditations. And do the same for Heidi, whose Albany releases include a wonderful disc of contemporary American piano music called Drive American. You’ll want to browse the Albany catalog in general – the firm is admirable for its commitment to new music.

While there is a brief soundclip from the new album at the Albany page, you can see videos of Mary and Heidi doing two of the songs from the album here. That page also includes material from the Cathedral Music cd.

The score of Holy the Firm is available from the Theodore Presser Co., while the other songs are available from me directly – just send me a message.

Here are the three of us – Mary on the left – after a 2015 coaching session.

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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Late Advent Miscellany

– I’ve been listening to the Andrew Hill album Point of Departure. It’s an all-star session, with Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Richard Davis and Tony Williams along with Hill on piano. The music is richly polyrhythmic, thanks both to Hill’s writing and to the contributions of the performers. Dolphy’s playing is simply electric – there is something so alive in his playing – and Williams is endlessly and astonishingly inventive. The track called Dedication captures the emotional impact of the blues without using blues vocabulary.

– Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams have wrapped up the recording sessions I recently mentioned. But I want to add some words of acknowledgement for piano technician Anne Garee who made frequent crucial adjustments to the Fazioli, and for producer Peter Henderson and engineer Paul Hennerich – Heidi describes them as a “dream team”, and reports they knew just how to draw out of the musicians their very best.

– if you are in need of a little holiday humor, try re-visiting this and this.