Recent Listening – American Composers

Some of these are new, some are not, but all are worthy of your attention. Excellent performances as well.

Paul Moravec: Sanctuary Road. Oratorio Society of New York, Kent Tritle. Naxos.
Another substantial choral work by Paul on an American theme, after his The Blizzard Voices – in this case, the theme is the Underground Railroad,  There is a generosity to the writing that suits the grand forces and the big topics.

Paul Schoenfeld, Steven Stucky, John Harbison: Three American Violin Sonatas. Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Jon Kimura Parker, piano. Naxos
Eclectic, effective writing from Schoenfeld; one of the works in traditional genres to which Stucky turned late in life; always thoughtful, always fresh Harbison.

George Perle: Serenades. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose conductor. Wenting Kang, viola; Donald Berman, piano. BMOP/sound
Ranging from 1962 (Serenade No. 1 for viola and chamber orchestra) through 1968 (Serenade No. 2 for eleven players) and on to 1983 (Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber orchestra). Though they range over 21 years, Perle’s coherent harmonic language and witty rhythmic gestures obtain throughout. I think the best item here is No. 3 – I believe I was at the premiere in NYC!

Gerald Levinson: Now Your Colors Sing. various performers. Innova.
A splendid 2-cd survey of work by a composer truly deserving of a much higher profile. A student of Messiaen and Crumb, a visitor to Bali, Levinson’s music is more than the sum of those influences. Extraordinarily refined harmony, highly colorful orchestration, clear and expressive formal shapes, all at the service of a profound expressive impulse.

John Harbison: String Trio; Four Songs of Solitude; Songs America Loves to Sing. Camerata Pacifica. Harmonia Mundi.
At the moment, the compositional pendulum has swung back to the exploration of extended instrumental techniques of the kind that were of interest in my earliest student days. Given that context, it’s a pleasure to hear pieces where the pitches really matter. There’s a big serious string trio, a group of four lyrical violin pieces, and a set of pieces based on American folk and traditional tunes, written in the hope that the tunes would work the way the chorales work in Bach’s music, as part of a shared repertoire among listeners. I’m afraid the tunes are not as widely known as they may once have been, but, as with Bach, you can still enjoy the compositional ingenuity, the brilliant instrumental writing, and the sheer rollicking joy of this music.

Friday Afternoon Miscellany

  • through November 30, listen to the Minnesota Opera’s production of Paul Moravec‘s latest opera, The Shining, here.
  • Hear the U. S. premiere of Richard Wernick‘s … and a time for peace, with Katherine Kracht, mezzo-soprano, and the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein on November 18 at Carnegie Hall.
  • The NY Times is planning to cut its writing on the arts, according to a piece linked to by ArtsJournal. This is terrible news for classical music in general and new music in particular. The latter will be especially hard hit by the paper’s apparent preference to avoid covering one-night alone performances. The point of music criticism is not so much to provide information about date night options, but to contribute to a conversation around the art and the artists. Perhaps sites like this can help, but even such sites tend to cover the big institutions, which are not always where the greatest – or at least not the only – musical interest may be found.

Heard in 2014

This is the first installment in a series of posts listing some discs I enjoyed in 2014.

Shake the Tree
Robert Carl (Innova)
Three works for piano by a composer with a transcendent vision, an epic quality I associate with Shapey, Rochberg and Crumb, all of whom were Robert’s teachers. The highlight here for me was the title piece, an unbroken arc lasting 20 minutes for piano, four-hands. Donald Berman and John McDonald are the indomitable pianists for this monumental journey, while Moritz Eggert offers a set of short pieces called Braided Bagatelles and Erberk Eryilmaz plays the spacious Piano Sonata No. 2, “The Big Room”.

Useful Knowledge
Paul Moravec (Naxos)
Two works with voice and a set of character pieces for piano by the 2004 Pultizer Prize winner. Soprano Amy Burton is soloist for Vita Brevis, a deeply touching set of five songs on texts by various poets; Simon Mulligan is brilliant in Characteristics, each piece inspired by a different musical colleague; and Randall Scarlata is featured in a quirky and ultimately moving cantata on a text by Benjamin Franklin, Useful Knowledge.

Secrets of Antikythera
Andrew McPherson (Innova)
Andrew is the only composition student of mine at Penn who came to the school having already earned a degree from MIT with a double major in music and electrical engineering. Those two areas of expertise come together in the title work from this album, scored for the magnetic resonator piano, an instrument devised by Andrew in which the strings of a standard grand piano are set in motion by electromagnets without having first been struck by the piano’s hammers. This resource is available simultaneously with the possibility of playing the instrument conventionally. The result is an uncanny array of sustained sounds that spring naturally from the piano’s timbre, yet offer a great contrast with the conventional piano attack. Impressive as Andrew’s command of technology may be, he is also an eloquent composer, well capable of sustaining the 38 minute title work. Pieces for solo violin and solo viola, the later with the accompaniment of the magnetic resonator piano, round out the disc. Performances by Martin Shultz, violin; Nadia Sirota, viola; and Ryan MacEvoy McCollough are uniformly fine.

NYFOS in February

Happy to see the NY Times mention my participation in the February 10 concert by New York Festival of Song. The program will feature excerpts from Paul Moravec’s opera-in-progress on Stephen King’s novel “The Shining”, along with music by Chris Theofanidis and Paola Prestini. Not sure what they are planning to include of mine; I’m hoping it will include the little song I did on a Susan Orlean text, which would be a premiere. But I’ll be grateful for whatever they program – NYFOS concerts are consistently fine.

Post-Motet Miscellany

Not post-mortem, but post-motet, meaning I finished the piece I wrote about here, just have to take care of the editing. I’ll post a page or two when it is ready. A few items for your consideration:

– Do the Math on Morton Gould. Gould is one of those composers who seems more prominent as a name than as a composer – people have heard of him, but don’t know his music as much as they should. Iverson’s post is a welcome first step at correcting that. I had a few words about the Gould Third Symphony here.

– a thoughtful piece by John Halle, as cited by Alex Ross. He mentions the New Republic article I wrote about here and here.

– Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell are working on The Shining for Minnesota Opera – the novel, not the movie. Details here, via a message from the MacDowell Colony.

– I’ve been reading The Bernstein Letters, and reading reviews about them as well. I think I come down somewhere in the middle of the critical spectrum – they are sometimes (but not always) fascinating, even if they don’t reveal a great deal about the music he was writing and conducting. I have to get the Burton biography, some folks have been citing the letters as a supplement to that book. Of the many excerpts I could offer, how about this one from Randall Thompson:

Dear Lenny,

I felt grateful to you when I heard that you and the Philharmonic were to play my Second Symphony – “our symphony”. Now that you have done so and I have the way you did it, I have no words worthy to express my gratitude and admiration. At a rough guess this must have been about the six-hundreth performance. I have never heard a more beautiful one, or one that expressed so fully and lovingly what I wanted to say…

Wait a minute – “six-hundreth performance”? Is he exaggerating? by how much, if at all? For those of us who live in the shadow of the problem of the second performance, this is jaw-dropping. We are not talking about the Copland 3rd, but a piece that is rather less well known.

– the idea of intellectual property is being abused on one side (patent trolls) and reviled on the other (“information wants to be free”, meaning, we don’t want to have to pay you for your work). The same journal that published the John Halle piece mentioned above has an interesting article on the matter.

The issue of intellectual property came to mind when I stumbled across this, and this. Aren’t the relevant portions quite similar? (This supposedly has something to do with the other two, if Wikipedia is to be believed, though obviously not musically, just the title.) Does the resemblance bring this and this to mind? As my first composition teacher observed in seminar one day, there are only so many chords to go around.

Icy Miscellany

3-lazy-polar-bears-thumbYes, it’s pretty chilly here in Philly. Blogging has been sparse lately as I have been finishing the third in a set of six songs I am writing on texts of Susan Stewart. The cycle is called “A Sibyl”, and this latest song is one where the Cumean Sibyl is telling Aeneas about his trip to the underworld. My next task will be to complete a revision of the score and parts for my Chamber Concerto, a piece for clarinet and six players that will be done by Network for New Music here in Philadelphia on April 5. Here are a few links to keep you amused while I get back to work.

– my fellow Columbia alum Paul Moravec has a new album of orchestral music performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project that was selected as WQXR’s album of the week. I had been looking forward to the upcoming New York premiere of Paul’s opera The Letter, but this has been delayed until next season. UPDATE: a nice piece on Paul at Deceptive Cadence.

– you can hear performances from Yellow Barn at their website. Current offerings include Eight Songs for a Mad King of Peter Maxwell Davies. An excerpt from the Davies performed by ICE here.

– Lots of electronic music at Penn this spring. Benjamin Fingland, Steve Gosling, and Jessica Meyer present a program including my Icons for clarinet, piano and tape (tape? well, OK, a CD, actually. “Fixed media” is the fashionable term.) on February 13 at 8:00, Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall. Two days later, Network for New Music will screen videos of interviews with electronic music pioneers, more info here. Soprano Stacey Mastrian offers a program at Penn including a Nono work with electronics on March 13, and the Network performance mentioned above is part of their season of electronic music.

– The most inconvenient USB here.

Boston Adventure, Concluded

Two Arms of the Harbor, my new motet, was premiered at the 10 am Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston this past Sunday. In the past, Emmanuel has slotted my motets after the opening prayer but before the first reading. This time they did the piece after the first reading, in lieu of a responsorial psalm, I suppose. I am not sure this was the best strategy. The readings were very well done, but I think the music had too much expressive weight to successfully work between them. Music between the readings should not overwhelm the scriptures, which are the primary focus of that part of the service, and my piece is too emotionally hot and packed with incident to not be a little overpowering in that spot. At the time I thought about how I would not want to be doing the second reading right after the motet. The vibe in the room was attentive and I think the piece hit home, partly because of how it felt at the time, partly because of the warm comments after the service. Thank you to whoever removed their vocalizing child from the church while my piece was being done!

I was sorry to not hear the church’s rector, Rev. Pamela Werntz preach, but the visiting homilist, Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew (a retired bishop, if I understand correctly) did well. And it was a pleasure to celebrate a baptism as well – congratulations to the Miles Family! I thought Sumner Thompson, bass, did a superb job with the cantata after communion, BWV 158. John Harbison has a good note speculating about this somewhat unusual piece. The aria with chorale – layering a florid (flaying a lurid? sorry.) solo singer with an even more florid violin obligato (Heidi Braun-Hill), a walking continuo bass and a chorale tune sung by the women of the chorus – was the quietly spectacular high point. The text of the final chorale, right out of Luther, is almost surrealistic:

Here is the true Easter-lamb,
offered up by God,
which was, high on the cross’ stalk,
roasted in hot love,
the blood marks our door
faith holds it against death,
the strangler can no longer harm us,

There was a lovely brunch after the service and coffee hour, glad to have a chance to chat with various Emmanuel friends, including fellow blogger Joy Howard, who is Rev. Pam’s spouse.

Sunday evening I attended a fund raiser for Collage New Music. The event featured some chat between the group’s music director, David Hoose, and guest Augusta Read Thomas with some short pieces of Gusty played in first-rate performances. I’m sorry I didn’t catch the name of the violinist and cellist, but the pianist was the splendid Christopher Oldfather – Chris and I go back some 20 years or more, to the first performance of my Three Sacred Songs with soprano Christine Schadeberg. His performance of excerpts from Gusty’s Tracings was stunning. Here are some pictures from the event, including a shot of Gusty and I with Gunther Schuller:


and one with Chris Oldfather:

The coda to the Boston trip was a visit to NYC for the American Music Center annual meeting. The AMC/MTC/ACF merger/re-arrangement was discussed, official decision not yet made until votes are tallied. John Harbison received an award:

Among the friends at the meeting were fellow Columbia alums Eric Chasalow (l.) and Paul Moravec:

Now it’s back to grading papers and chairmanly duties at Penn. But good to see friends, good to hear some music.

Four Russians are…

There’s an old joke about how one Russian is an anarchist, two Russians are a chess game, three Russians are a revolution, and four, well, the traditional completion is that four Russians are the Budapest String Quartet. But Terry Teachout, librettist for Danse Russe, the Paul Moravec “vaudville” opera that premiered tonight in Philadelphia, put a different spin on the joke in his libretto. The setup is the same, but the payoff is the cast of the opera – Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Monteux and Diaghilev, the forces behind the creation of The Rite of Spring. (Yes, Monteux was French, but in this context he was an honorary Russian.) Moravec and Teachout succeeded in their goal of creating a fun piece, with much of the fun in the music with its nods to musicals and sly references to motifs from The Rite. The first note in the opera is the famous first high bassoon note from The Rite – but then it continues in some other direction. At another point the equally famous stomping chord from The Rite dissolves into a music hall waltz – it takes clever craft to do that as well as Moravec did. Center City Opera Theater, with Orchestra 2001 accompanying, did well by the piece, with Jason Switzer as Diaghilev and Christopher Lorge as Stravinsky providing the strongest singing. Bravo to CCOT for their commitment to new work.

Recent listening and reading

LifeMusic III Ying Quartet (Dorian). Strong works by Sebastian Currier, Pierre Jalbert, Paul Moravec, and Lowell Liebermann in polished and passionate performances. The Currier is of special interest as he is emerging as an important voice in the use of electronic media, as in Next Atlantis on this disc.


ModernisticJason Moran (Blue Note). Solo piano, prepared piano, piano with sampler – fresh concepts, virtuosic playing from the recent MacArthur grant winner. (Listen to excerpts here.)




Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas Richard Goode (Nonesuch). I recently returned to this set that was issued several years ago because I am starting to work on a new piano piece and have been feeding my ear with standard repertoire. I believe Goode was the first American to record the entire Beethoven sonata cycle. I love the sheer beauty of piano sound of these recordings – beautiful for the variety of colors Goode can produce, from luscious to crisp and million points in between, beautiful for the warm recording sound. I learn more about these sonatas every time I listen to Goode play them.

The Mind’s EyeOliver Sacks. The most recent collection of case studies by the neurologist and geographer of the human brain’s mysteries. The longest piece here is about the patient Sacks knows best – himself – a journal of notes kept during his struggles caused by a cancerous tumor on his eye, and the partial loss of sight that resulted.