Heat Wave Miscellany

Actually the heat wave is in its last day today in Philadelphia, with more reasonable weather coming tomorrow. Perspiring or not, here are a few notes on recent listening and more.

I’ve been greatly enjoying Brian Mulligan’s new album on Bridge Records, called “Old Fashioned”. Brian was the soloist in my Songs for Adam back in 2009 with the Chicago Symphony. He continues to sound marvelous, with a rich and powerful baritone. His program for the CD features songs from the turn of the 20th century, items that perhaps your grandparents loved – “Because”, “I Love You Truly”, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, “Roses of Picardy” and the like. There is no hint of parody or camp, these are sincere and honest interpretations of genuinely touching material. Perhaps these songs mean a lot to me because my parents knew and loved some of them, and because I got to know them from the sheet music I inherited from various aunts and uncles. My father used to sing/hum the odd phrase from a couple of them. These family connections reinforce for me the sentiments expressed in the songs. Craig Rutenberg is the elegant pianist.

Awaiting their turn in my CD player: Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit (Wet Ink Ensemble, New World Records); John Harbison’s Requiem (Nashville Symphony, Naxos) and an album of orchestral music of George Perle (Seattle Symphony, Bridge Records).

Philadelphia musical organizations are announcing their coming seasons. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society did this a while ago; the programs I find of interest are too numerous to mention, but some new music highlights include a program with the Jack Quartet with percussionist Colin Currie and, on various concerts, works by Brett Dean, Christopher Cerrone, Iva Bittová and more. There will also be lots of Beethoven, including a complete cycle of the piano sonatas, the majority handled by Jonathan Biss. A brochure from the always thoughtfully programmed Lyric Fest just came in the mail; an evening-length premiere by Daron Hagen is of special interest. Orchestra 2001’s season is modest, but performances of works by George Crumb and Rene Orth deserve attention.

Lastly, August Read Thomas sent me a link to a short video about her new opera, featuring the astonishing Nicole Paris:

 

“Four Sketches” Premiere

Heartfelt thanks to the Imani Winds for their beautiful first performance of my Four Sketches for woodwind quintet this past Friday. This is a group of virtuosi who not only can play anything, but deeply understood my music, grasping its expressive intent and using their formidable chops to project it powerfully to the audience. It was a thrill to be part of their program, featuring music by members of the ensemble present (Jeff Scott) and and past (Valerie Coleman) as well as music by Ligeti, Harbison, and Schifrin – a thrill because of the group’s palpable connection with the sellout audience. Thank you as well to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society – the organization that presented the concert and commissioned the piece. Here’s hoping Imani gets more chances to play the work – I’ll of course keep you informed about that. Read Peter Dobrin’s review of the concert from the Philadelphia Inquirer here. (Unfortunately, I didn’t see a group press picture with the ensemble’s new flutist – Brandon Patrick George –  on their website just yet. That’s the Imani’s original flutist, Valerie Coleman, seated in the picture at left. Photo credit: Matt Murphy)

Work Before Work

It’s back to the day job this week, but I managed to finish a couple of projects during the Christmas break that is coming to an end. I Heard You, for tenor and piano, is my contribution to Lyric Fest’s Walt Whitman celebration this spring. Whitman calls the poem “Music”, but that seemed an awkward title for a song, so I used the first words of the text. Here is the poem (WordPress is determined to keep me from displaying the proper lineation for the poems – sorry Walt!):

Music

I heard you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last Sunday morn I passed
the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walked the woods at dusk, I heard your
long-stretched sighs, up above, so mournful;
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I heard the
soprano in the midst of the quartette singing.
—Heart of my love! you too I heard, murmuring low, through one of the
wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last night
under my ear.

I took full advantage of the imagery in the text, using a polytonal harmonization of “O God Our Help In Ages Past” for the organ; rapid figures for the winds of autumn; references to Verdi and Wagner for the opera singers; and the Westminster Chimes motif for the last lines. My plan is to add another short song to this setting, making a pair of two Whitman love songs. Here is the other text:

Sometimes with One I Love

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs). 

The other project where I reached the double bar was a set of Four Sketches for the Imani Winds. These are brief movements with titles referring to different things music can do:

I. Calling
II. Dancing
III. Remembering
IV. Grooving

I could have called it “Four Ings”, but I figured it better not to lean on the playful title Cowell used for a set of six piano pieces called Six Ings. (Don’t you wish you had written a piece called “Scooting”?)

The Four Sketches will be premiered on a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this coming February 15.

Bach, Mahler, Murail, Eastman

Alex Ross recently posted a list of concerts and operas he attended during a recent European trip. I haven’t been to Europe lately, but I did get to a memorable and varied series of concerts in Philadelphia recently. Here are some brief comments.

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I was delighted to see the Church of the Holy Trinity filled for a program of Bach cantatas – it seats about 1100! Very fine performances, with the singers and obbligato players ably commanding Bach’s long lines. The second aria in BWV 170 is a contender for the strangest Bach aria ever, with the organ playing the obbligato while the violins in unison play the bass!

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My favorite pieces here were the Murail works and the Messiaen. The latter was written on the death of his mother, while the former on the death of his teacher Messiaen; good to hear those in succession. The big hall at the Barnes is not ideal for every concert situation, but it worked for the spectralist pieces with their emphasis on resonance, sculpted in sensuous layers in Marilyn’s virtuosic performance. Here’s how the piano was set up, followed by a shot from the Q and A with Marilyn and Robert Whalen, co-artistic director, along with Katharine Skovira, of the concerts at the Barnes.

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  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered the Mahler 3rd in its last subscription set of the season. I was there for the May 19 performance.

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This was a magnificent performance of a staggering piece. Certainly hearing the orchestra in full cry was thrilling, but I was constantly struck by the intensely eloquent solo playing – trombone in the first movement, offstage “posthorn” (I assume played on trumpet?) in the third, to name just two of many. Karen Cargill’s voice was richly sonorous, and the choirs were splendid. Am I the only person who hears an echo of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” in the cello tune of the finale?

  • The last event in my recent bout of concert going was the final concert of the Julius Eastman retrospective presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda.

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The ensemble pieces were intriguing, but the highlight for me was the a cappella solo performance of Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc by Davóne Tines. He was positioned at the lectern pictured above. His powerful bass-baritone cast an incantatory spell as he repeated the work’s few short musical phrases, a setting of this text:

Saint Michael said
Saint Margaret said
Saint Catherine said
They said
He said
She said
Joan
Speak Boldly
When they question you

The piece served as an invocation, and I sensed an unusual concentration in the audience; it was exceptionally quiet during the pauses between phrases, giving us a chance to attend to the reverberation The Rotunda offers.

Hear Davóne singing music of Caroline Shaw here, and Jerome Kern here.

Jeremy Denk’s 600 years of music

Jeremy Denk’s recital in Philadelphia tonight, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, was an astonishing tour-de-force: 24 pieces drawn from 600 years of music.

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img_1736The very early music was of course the greatest novelty for a piano recital. Not knowing the original pieces in every case, I can’t say how much “arranging” Denk did, but I can say that the playing was colorful, with contrapuntal textures clearly delineated, and flexibly dancing rhythms.

The big extroverted pieces stood out, inevitably – the Bach, the Debussy, the Liszt/Wagner. But there were memorable smaller pieces as well – Stravinsky’s cubist evocation of ragtime, the profoundly inward Brahms, and the scintillating Scarlatti sonata among them. I’m glad to have heard the Stockhausen live for the first time; I wonder if I will ever hear it again?

Denk ordered the pieces wisely, creating not just a satisfying recital program, but a narrative arc, a through-line. For those of us who live in music, he told the story of our lives. I am grateful to have heard that story told with elegance, flair, and imagination.

Cold Snap Miscellany

A few items of interest on a chilly day in Philadelphia:

– Two choirs that have performed my music offer Christmas concerts this weekend: The Crossing, and  Cantori New York.

– Did you know you can hear performances from Yellow Barn online? Lots of new music, including works by Michel van der Aa, Charles Wuorinen, Oliver Knussen, Hans Abrahamsen and many more, as well as traditional repertoire.

– The extraordinary violinist Rolf Schulte has made archival recordings of his performances of concertos by Roger Sessions and Donald Martino available on CD Baby here. The Sessions is performed by the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, with Janos Kulka, and the Martino is with the New Hampshire Symphony and James Bolle. The music is also available on the iTunes store.

– The Association for the Promotion of New Music presents an all-Babbitt program in his centennial year on December 19 at the Di Menna Center in New York, including performances by the New York New Music Ensemble.

– There will be a concert of music by Robert Capanna on Friday, January 6, at the Settlement Music School’s Queen Street Branch here in Philadelphia. Presented in collaboration with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the performers include the Network for New Ensemble conducted by Jan Krzywicki, soprano Sharon Harms, pianist Charles Abramovic, and the Prism Saxophone Quartet.

Leaf Raking Miscellany

It’s a good day to rake leaves, but I want to take a break to say:

  • I’m sorry to be missing the Christopher Rouse Organ Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra this week. There is one more performance tonight (November 19) at 8. Read program notes for the concert here.
  • It’s a pleasure to see my colleague Eric Moe‘s picture in the NY Times Arts and Leisure section today in connection with a counter)induction program at National Sawdust featuring him as both composer and pianist – this at a moment when it seems especially difficult for some composers of our generation to get the attention of the media.
  • On Monday, Nov. 21, I’ll be doing a pre-concert lecture for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s concert featuring pianists Lydia Artymiw, Charles Abramovic, Cynthia Raim and Natalie Zhu, plus Philadelphia Orchestra percussionists Don Liuzzi and Chris Deviney. My talk will be at 6:45 before the 8:00 pm concert at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. The program includes the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the Mozart two-piano Sonata, and two works by Smetana for two pianos, eight hands – a one-movement Sonata and a Rondo. No, I haven’t heard the Smetana works before either! And yet I found this video of both pieces with Martha Argerich and colleagues performing:
  • I’ve been pondering Mario Davidovsky‘s work after hearing his masterful Flashbacks in two brilliant performances by the New York New Music Ensemble recently. I hope to post here about his work soon; for now, here is the NYNME recording, from a Bridge CD:

Maneval and Wernick at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

There was a terrific concert last night presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: music by Philip Maneval and Richard Wernick as played by the Daedalus Quartet and pianist Charles Abramovic. This was, as Miles Cohen, the Society’s artistic director put it in his pre-concert remarks, the “exclamation point” to last season’s celebration of the Society’s 30th anniversary, with the impetus being the presentation of music by Philip, the executive director of the Society. Philip suggested adding music by Richard Wernick to the program; Dick was  one of Philip’s teachers when studying at Penn, and the Society has long championed Dick’s music with commissions and performances.

Philip’s pieces – a piano sonata and a string quartet – were both substantial multi-movement works. I was particularly taken with the piano piece, not least because of the superb playing of Charles Abramovic: exquisitely balanced chords, a multitude of colors, the long line of the piece elegantly projected. It’s interesting to compare Philip’s compositional voice with that of his teacher. Both are working with a mostly dissonant post-tonal vocabulary, made coherent by the careful deployment of referential harmonies and motifs. But their gestural languages contrast. Philip’s voice is more rhapsodic, more directly related to older musics, while Dick tends to be more terse, with sharply etched shapes contrasting with lyrical music that often springs from an uncanny stillness. The music of both men is superbly crafted, and richly satisfying.

The Daedalus was its usual shining self in Philip’s new string quartet, and quartet members Min-Young Kim and Thomas Kraines joined Abramovic for a sizzling performance of Dick’s Piano Trio Nr. 2. (I linked to a video of the trio in this post.) The characterful epigrams of Pieces of Eight, a set of brief piano pieces by Dick, rounded out the program. It was nice to see a full house in the Curtis Institute’s Field Hall to celebrate the Society and two eloquent composers.

“Five Poems” Premiere

Thank you to Tai Murray and Ieva Jokubaviciute for a fantastic performance of my new Five Poems for violin and piano last night. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the piece is a 20-minute set of character pieces, some of which are related to poems by Susan Stewart and Robert Frost. Tai and Ieva captured the spirit of each movement and projected the music with passion and authority. Here is my program note on the piece:

Program Listing

1) Dreamscape
2) The Work Lies in Returning (after Susan Stewart)
3) Nightsong
4) Nothing Gold Can Stay (after Robert Frost)
5) Vision

Program Note

Upon receiving a commission from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for a violin and piano piece in honor of its 30th anniversary, my plan was to write a sonata, a term suggesting a relatively abstract discourse. But as the piece developed, the movements struck me as character pieces rather than music employing a more “symphonic” approach. When specific poems started to attach themselves in my mind with two of the movements, the overall title Five Poems became clear. The title of the second movement is a line from Susan Stewart’s “Descent”, which deals with Aeneas’s visit to the underworld. The music is alternately fiercely driving and quite still, though tense. Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” summons fleet scale passages framing lyrical counterpoint. The remaining movements do not refer to specific poems, but have titles reflecting their expressive tone. “Dreamscape” is musing with an improvisatory violin line over shifting pairs of piano chords. “Nightsong” is a bluesy lullaby that turns highly dramatic. “Vision” begins with a closely argued struggle but breaks through to something spacious and clear.

I greatly enjoyed the other premiere on the program, Transparência, composed by Jeff Scott, hornist with the Imani Winds. The piece is a sonata inspired by scenes from Brazil, and alternates dance rhythms and moody lyricism.

Tai and Ieva were elegant in Beethoven’s Op. 12, Nr. 2, and also offered the enigmatic Janáček sonata, plus two sweet and brilliant Viennese pastries in the form of short works by Korngold.

Here’s a shot with Jeff, Tai and I – sorry I didn’t get a picture with Ieva!

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New “Five Poems” Date

There has been a change to the date of the premiere for my Five Poems for violin and piano. Instead of February 3, the performance, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, will be May 9, 2016, at 8 pm. The venue remains the American Philosophical Society here in Philadelphia. The violinist will be Tai Murray, with pianist Gilles Vonsattel.

It’s an intriguing program, featuring another new work, this one by Jeffrey Scott, called Transparencia. Jeff is best known as a member of the outstanding Imani Winds. Both Jeff’s piece and mine were commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society in honor of the Society’s 30th anniversary. There will also be a Beethoven sonata and some infrequently played works by Korngold and Janacek.