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!

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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):

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