Report from Boston and Tallahassee

I’m grateful for two recent performances that I traveled to hear: Matins was done by Peggy Pearson, oboe, and the Cantata Singers, conducted by David Hoose, in Boston’s Jordan Hall; A Sibyl was performed at the opening concert of the Florida State University Festival of New Music.

The Cantata Singers rehearsed in a hall in a suburb called Melrose:

which did not come close to the gorgeous acoustic of Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory:

Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture with Peggy, but here I am with David Hoose and an oddly glowing stage behind us:

I had time to do a few other things while in Boston, including my first visit to the Gardner Museum in many years:

 

 

 

 

May I say that the food at the cafe was excellent:

On Friday I heard my first Boston Symphony concert in Symphony Hall (having previously only heard them at Tanglewood):

 

 

The orchestra sounded fabulous as did pianist Martin Helmchen. The Saariaho was consistent with my impressions of much of her work – very beautiful and a little too static for my taste. The Sibelius symphonies continue to baffle me and doing two in a row didn’t help much. The famous acoustics of Symphony Hall actually seemed to me to be a little too rich – good for the Saariaho and Sibelius, but a little blurry for the Mozart.

I lingered in Boston to attend an Emmanuel Music celebration of John Harbison’s 80th birthday. It was good to have another chance to hear his Sixth Quartet, and the evening also included a set of John’s pop songs, with the composer at the piano.

In Florida, the featured guest composer was Georg Friedrich Haas, and I heard a number of his pieces throughout the festival. The music struck me as uneven, severe at times and sensuous at others, a strange mix of fascinating and dull.

My own work, the song cycle A Sibyl was performed by soprano Marcía Porter, and and ensemble of faculty and grad students, with Alexander Jiménez conducting. One festival highlight was a concert by the Meitar Ensemble – guests visiting from Israel – who offered a blazing performance of Grisey’s Talea among other works.

I’m grateful to all who made these performances of my music possible. Next on the schedule is a premiere with the Imani Winds, on February 15 in Philadelphia.

Matins in Boston, A Sibyl in Tallahassee

Two significant performances of my vocal music are coming up in the next several weeks:

  • The Cantata Singers are reviving my Matins later this month, a piece for oboe, strings and chorus that they co-commissioned along with Winsor Music 15 years ago. (This is just the second performance of the piece; here’s hoping somebody takes up the piece for its third performance sooner than 2033.) The fabulous Peggy Pearson, who has been a wonderful champion of my music, commissioning and performing my Oboe Quartet and Oboe Quintet, will be the soloist. I first got to know Peggy and her playing through her work with Emmanuel Music, with whom she masterfully plays the prominent oboe parts in the Bach cantatas performed at Emmanuel Church. Matins, which sets poems of Hopkins and Mary Oliver, will be heard at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, with David Hoose conducting, January 25 at 8 pm. I will give a pre-concert lecture on the whole program, which includes the Bartók Divertimento and the Pärt Te Deum, at 7 pm.
  • A Sibyl, my song cycle on texts written expressly for the project by Susan Stewart, will be on the first concert of the 2019 Florida State University Festival of New Music on January 31. Among the splendid musicians performing my piece are soprano soloist Marcia Porter, conductor Alexander Jiménez, Deborah Bish, clarinet; Nina Kim, violin; Evan Jones, cello;  Justin Ball, percussion; a flutist whose name I don’t yet know; and pianist Heidi Louise Williams, who is at the keyboard for the recent Albany cd featuring my music, Vocalisms, with Mary Mackenzie, soprano. It was Mary who was soloist in the premiere of A Sibyl, performed by Collage New Music and conducted by David Hoose – funny how threads of connection weave together in this business.

Quintet for oboe, strings and piano with Winsor Music

The third of the three performances coming up for me in and around Boston this coming Sunday, October 15, will be Winsor Music’s program at St. Paul’s in Brookline (pictured) at 7 pm. The piece is scored for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano – sort of a piano quintet, but with oboe instead of one of the violins. It was premiered last summer at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival. Peggy Pearson, who requested the piece, will be the oboist, with Winsor Co-Artistic Director Gabriela Diaz, violin; Mark Berger, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; and Sally Pinkas, piano. It will be wonderful to work with these splendid players, some of whom I have known for a long time. The fabulous Peggy Pearson first played my music when I wrote Matins for her, a work for oboe, strings and chorus that was premiered by Cantata Singers back in 2003, with David Hoose conducting. (It’s David who will conduct the premiere of my new song cycle, A Sibyl, with Collage New Music and soprano Mary Mackenzie earlier in the day on the 15th.) Peggy later commissioned and premiered my Oboe Quartet with Winsor Music – you can hear the result by going here and scrolling down. (The strings in that recording are members of the Apple Hill Quartet; the score is available for online perusal here.) I met Sally many years ago when we both played on a concert, the exact location of which I no longer recall, though I think it was in the Boston area. I do remember that I played a work by the superb Israeli composer Yinam Leef. Years later I had contact with Sally and her husband Evan Hirsch when Penn presented them playing George Rochberg’s huge cycle for two pianos called Circles of Fire. Sally never had a chance to play my music until now, and I am delighted that she has taken on this piece. I’ve heard Gabby Diaz and Rafael Popper-Keizer perform with Emmanuel Music, and Rafael tells me he played my Four Sacred Songs a number of years ago, though I missed that performance. Mark Berger is new to me; he joined the Lydian Quartet in 2014. In short, it’s an all-star group!

Here’s a program listing and note on the Quintet:

I. Variations
II. Dirge
III. Poem (after Kathleen Norris)
IV. Signals and Dances

The variations of the first movement of my Quintet are not on a melody but on a chord progression first proposed by the strings and piano. Four variations and a coda follow, increasingly rapid in their surface. Next come two slow movements, the first very dark, marked “wailing” at its climax; the second consoling, inspired by a poem by Kathleen Norris called “Who Do You Say That I Am?” that offers increasingly ecstatic responses to the Biblical question. The finale opens with a raucous call to attention, and the various dances that follow are sometimes bluesy and sometimes folk-like. Late in the game, some fragments of the previous movements unexpectedly return, and what was left open at the end of the first movement now finds affirmation.

With her request for this piece, Peggy Pearson granted me a third opportunity to write for her profoundly eloquent oboe, this time alongside the comparably gifted voices of her colleagues in La Fenice. I am deeply grateful.

Oboe Quartet in Philly, “Come Brothers All…” in Boston

Brilliant musicians who had previously played my music in other contexts separately came together to play my Oboe Quartet at Penn last Friday. Oboist Peggy Pearson, who commissioned the piece, collaborated with members of the Daedalus Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at Penn. The result was superb, richly shaded, strongly shaped. The premiere of an oboe quintet by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, the intensely strange Janáček first quartet, and a Haydn quartet arranged with oboe substituting for one of the violins rounded out the program. Anna’s piece was wonderfully varied and imaginative. She conjures memorable musical images that sound the way life feels. Peggy’s playing here, as throughout the evening, was extraordinary for her ability to subtly blend with the strings.

I traveled on to Boston the next day and attended the Cantata Singers benefit that evening:

This was held at the Liberty Hotel, which served as a jail until surprisingly recently.

Now some touristy pictures taken while walking from the subway to the benefit. Beacon Hill does look a little like some of the smaller streets in Philadelphia, though the buildings are typically three stories in Philly, not four: IMG_1912

 

The St. Gaudens memorial to Colonel Shaw and his African-American Civil War regiment:

IMG_1910(“Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat…” – from “For the Union Dead”, Robert Lowell) which is right across from the State House:

The next morning I went to Emmanuel Church, looking in on John Harbison before the service as he rehearsed a Victoria motet and a movement from his own And Mary Stood.

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Sunday afternoon – this 11th century corpus was a favorite piece:

 

Then Sunday evening was the first performance of my little contribution to Winsor Music’s “Songs for the Spirit” project, Come Brothers, All; Come Sisters, Too on a text by Georgia Douglas Johnson. Kendra Colton demonstrated the tune, then the audience joined in a reprise, with satisfying energy. Just before the performance:

It was great to have another chance to hear Anna’s quintet, plus the Haydn from Friday. The Winsor program closed with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, with clarinetist Rane Moore joining the Daedalus in a powerful rendition of this profoundly melancholy piece.

Thank you to all these musicians for your beautiful performances! I look forward to coming back to Boston for a Winsor Music concert next season that will feature a performance of my recently completed Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano.

Anna Weesner’s New Quintet

I mistakenly tweeted yesterday about the new work by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner as an oboe quartet, but it’s actually a quintet – string quartet and oboe. This is the piece of hers we will hear on the upcoming concert at Penn (this Friday, 3/24) with Peggy Pearson and the Daedalus Quartet – go here for more details on the concert. Read an interview with Anna at the Winsor Music website (in connection with the Boston performance of the piece on Sunday, 3/26). Here’s Anna’s program listing and note for the new quintet:

Love Progression: A Personal Essay
for oboe and string quartet

The personal essay strikes me as a mode for exploring a chosen topic in a way that might be equal parts reflective, studious and cheeky.  By ‘love progression’ I mean to refer to one of the common four-chord progressions on which a million and a half pop songs are based.  Because why not?  Common currency, my currency, history’s currency.  The mix of it. ( . . . or by ‘love progression’ did I mean the progression of love?)

The piece falls into six sections and is played without pause.

I. the flight
II. the timelessness
III. the questions
IV. the pop song
V. the mad scene
VI. the love coda

–Anna Weesner

Oboe Quartet Comes to Penn

daedalus 3.24.17Oboist Peggy Pearson commissioned and premiered my Oboe Quartet, playing the first performances back in 2015 with members of the Apple Hill Quartet. This week’s performance here in Philadelphia will be the first time the Daedalus plays the work. Mark DeVoto reviewed the first performance of the Oboe Quartet for the Boston Musical Intelligencer – you can read the review here. Preview the piece with audio or the score.

Here’s a program listing and note on the piece: 

1) Moderato
2) Allegro con fuoco
3) Passacaglia: Adagio, ma non troppo
4) Moderato e fluente
5) Moderato; Allegro giocoso

 I first heard Peggy Pearson’s eloquent playing as part of the performances of Bach cantatas at Emmanuel Church in Boston, and I think that baroque context has influenced this quartet. The work’s central passacaglia invokes a baroque form, while the first, second and fourth movements, though not suggesting a baroque idiom, perhaps hint at cantata recitatives and arias without words – lyrical, dramatic, plaintive. The impulse throughout the work is more songful than symphonic. Using a stylized dance, as I do in the finale of the quartet, also reflects baroque practice, though the choreography in my quartet clearly has more to do with a 20th century dance floor than with an 18th century ballroom.

Snow Day Miscellany

I have finished my Oboe Quintet for La Fenice (premiere June 9 at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival), so I have a moment to post about a few things on this snowy, icy day in Philadelphia.

– The performance of my Three Folk Hymns at UC San Diego by Susan Narucki and Donald Berman is coming up on March 15. More info here.

Peggy Pearson and members of the Daedalus Quartet will give the Philadelphia premiere of my Oboe Quartet in a concert at Penn on Friday, March 24th at 8. This happens in Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut. There will be a new piece by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner on the program as well. Preview the piece with the score here and audio here.

– In less happy news, the evaporation of classical music coverage at the New York Times continues.  The decline of the Times – what used to be called “the newspaper of record” –  is particularly distressing. The “moments” – highlights of the week’s events – that have been appearing in the Saturday edition are better than nothing, I guess, but “moments” are exactly what classical music is not about. The Times seems to aspire to be a guide to date night instead of reporting cultural news – the recent spring preview was pathetically sparse. Readers look to the Times for depth and breadth, but neither of those seems to be a priority now. I don’t subscribe to the Times for more white space around the articles and bigger pictures – more words, please! While coverage of major organization continues – so far, new productions at the Met are still covered, and the Philharmonic gets reviewed every week – smaller events, often the ones that involve new music, the kinds of thing that give New York’s musical life its rich texture, no longer have a presence in the paper. And let’s not get started on jazz coverage. The thinning out of content is happening in other parts of the paper – the editorial pages and pages 2 and 3 are now affected. Alex Ross is typically eloquent on the broader picture.

Rossetti’s “Sleeping at Last”

I have lately been demonstrating Robert Benchley’s observation about productivity in that I have a commission for a work for oboe and piano quartet, but instead I have been writing songs (click here and here) for which I do not have a commission. The latest is a setting of Christina Rossetti’s Sleeping at Last. I used some of the sketches for this song in my recent piece for saxophone quartet and piano, Stratigraphy, but it is more a matter of shared motifs and phrases, rather than the one being a strict transcription of the other. You can see a page from the piece on the score excerpts page, and like all the individual voice and piano songs there (except Cinder from Holy the Firm), it is available as a PDF directly from me: jamesprimosch at gmail dot com. Visit the worklist page for a complete listing of my vocal music.

I think I have got this series of songs out of my system, and will now try to focus exclusively on the commission mentioned above, for oboist Peggy Pearson and her colleagues in the La Fenice ensemble.

Ways of Listening

You may have noticed the link at the end of the recent NY Times review of the Tanglewood performance of my Dark the Star – it takes you to a YouTube posting of a track from the Bridge recording of the piece. The recording is by William Sharp, baritone, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor. You really should pick up a copy of the disc (there are links to do that at the Bridge website), but if you disdain physical media (and paying artists for their work!) and want to hear the piece from the beginning, go here. Dark the Star consists of nine movements played without pause, which means the separate videos for each track of the piece interrupt the flow in disconcerting ways, sometimes in mid-phrase – another reason to spring for the physical disc. The pieces from the Sacred Songs cd featuring soprano Susan Narucki are also on YouTube – here’s the first track from the cycle Holy the Firm.

Another way of listening to my work is to visit the audio excerpts link above. I’ve just posted two items:

– under solo voice, you can find the recent premiere of Shadow Memory, with soprano Lisa Williamson and pianist Rami Sarieddine, recorded at SongFest this past June. The piece is on a text by Susan Orlean.

– under instrumental, you’ll find the Oboe Quartet I wrote for Peggy Pearson and the Apple Hill Quartet, this taken from their performance at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA this past spring.

And, yes, I was thinking of this title when I titled this post, though not of the book’s content.