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.

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!


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.

I am preparing a pre-concert lecture for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this Friday, November 9, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. The concert is at 8 pm, my talk at 6:45. The concert features the Juilliard String Quartet in the first performance of Richard Wernick’s String Quartet Nr. 9, a PCMS commission. Dick has let me study the score in preparation for my talk, and it looks to be very Wernickian in its tightness of construction, coupled with passionate expression. Dick has headed the second of the quartet’s two movements with a phrase from Dante – “per una selva oscura…”, and I think this slow movement will be quite haunting, a kind of night music, with striking short motives and an emerging poignant lyricism. The Mozart “Dissonant” and the Debussy Quartet round out the program.

There has been a lack of posting here due to a deadline for my Philadelphia Chamber Music Society commission. But this week I sent the last movement of my new violin and piano to my brilliant editor/computer notation wizard, and I am now catching up on various neglected tasks. I’ll write about the PCMS piece in another post, for now I’ll just say it is called Five Poems – it was originally going to be a Violin Sonata, but the movements feel more like character pieces than something “symphonic” in conception.

The soprano soloist for the New Juilliard Ensemble performance of my From a Book of Hours has been named: Alexandra Razskazoff. There is a brief bio of her here (scroll down) from a press release on a Juilliard performance of Le nozze di Figaro this past spring.

So many events worth your attention this weekend in Philly:

Guthrie Ramsey’s Musiqology at Annenberg
Network for New Music has a panel and a concert for the Persichetti centennial
Bowerbird explores Julius Eastman
The Crossing is at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian with encore performances of several pieces
Kile Smith has a premiere on the first Mendelssohn Club concert under new artistic director Paul Rardin

And if you are in New York City this weekend, Mimi Stillman and Bart Feller will be doing my Badinerie Squared at a New York Flute Club program this coming Sunday.

Recent reading:

Bluets – Maggie Nelson
A Dance of Polar Opposites – George Rochberg

Music is undervalued in more ways than just through insufficient royalty payments for streaming audio – read this essay by Craig Havighurst.

I’ve recently updated the performances page. Some new items:

–  New York Festival of Song plans to include something of mine on its February 10 program.

– the “invention” that I am writing for Dolce Suono Ensemble to premiere in January has become a playful fantasy on the well-known Badinerie from the Bach 2nd Suite – the working title for this flute duet is now Badinerie Squared.

images– The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has commissioned a new work for violin and piano. This will be a big piece, sonata-like in dimensions, if not actually called a sonata. The performers will be Tai Murray and Anton Nel. These are formidable artists, and I count myself lucky to be writing for them. The premiere has been set for February 3, 2016, at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The image at left is the cover from Ms. Murray’s disc surveying American works.


It was a fantastic concert tonight, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: an all-Ives program with Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. On the first half Dawn showed off the immense variety of the Ives songbook, including a number of pieces familiar from Gil’s performances and recordings of them with the late Jan DeGaetani. “Tom Sails Away” was especially touching; “Serenity” created its silver aura of stillness; “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” was visionary.  Dawn very much still has it – the beauty of sound is there, if a bit darker than it once was. She retains that transparency where there seems to be no distance between the song and the listener.

For the second half, Gil played the Concord Sonata. I can’t claim to having made a comprehensive survey, but of the five or so I have heard, Gil’s recording for Nonesuch remains my favorite, in part simply for the sheer gorgeousness of his piano sound. That sound was present tonight, as was Gil’s ability to clarify the various strata of Ives’ textures and to shape even the most rambunctious moments. A small example: the build-up to the fusillade of fast clusters in the Hawthorne movement was carefully shaded, rather than getting too loud too soon. I remember as a student at Tanglewood observing a rehearsal that Gil was coaching, hearing him exhort the pianist in the ensemble to “Phrase!” What we heard tonight was eloquent phrasing, meaningful contours springing organically from the Ives’s transcendental (and Transcendentalist) piano writing.

Charles Abramovic and Jeffrey Khaner offered a exceptionally fine recital last week at the Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia. I have been blessed with many wonderful performances over the years, including work by top-rank flutists, but Jeffrey Khaner’s performance of my new A Flutist’s Sketchbook last week featured some uncommon playing. He gets a luscious sound from his instrument, with variety of color and intensely beautiful tone in every register and at every dynamic level. Charlie has played my music several times in the past, including the Network for New Music recording of Dream Journal, so I was already familiar with his unostentatious virtuosity. The Sketchbook is a grab-bag of styles, beginning with a simple diatonic chorale, and ending with a set of variations on “Be Thou My Vision”, with stops along the way for pieces that are modal, twelve-tone, and places in between. I had thought of the 13 pieces as being in a somewhat arbitrary order, though moving roughly from straightforward to more complex, and had even thought that performers could devise new orderings of the pieces, but friends told me the order I gave the work made a satisfying arc. It’s not a piece for those who insist on a consistency of style in a multi-movement work, but I have often preferred breadth of expression over uniformity of vocabulary.

Thank you to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for its ongoing commitment to new music in general and Philadelphia composers in particular with commissions such as the one that made A Flutist’s Sketchbook possible.

My premiere opened the concert. Charlie continued the program with the Carter Piano Sonata. This is a piece I want to like more than I do. It’s relatively early Carter, with key signatures and passages that are diatonic, but somehow the pitches don’t “tell”, just as the pitches don’t quite make sense in a some of Carter’s later music. The work is a big conception, with grand gestures that contrast with scurrying figuration that brought to mind the similarly scurrying but decidedly non-diatonic figures in Carter’s Night Fantasies from more than 30 years later. Charlie got the striking passages with harmonics to speak more clearly than in other performances I have heard, and he commanded the declamatory, florid, and reflective aspects of the piece with his customary assurance.

Dick Wernick’s Pieces of Eight was the other premiere of the evening, a set of eight short movements for solo piano. The set includes occasional pieces with dedications to friends and colleagues. The Wernickian wit was much in evidence, as in a piano version of the little piece he wrote for Network for New Music’s Diabelli Variation project a few years ago. Though they may be relatively light pieces, Dick’s always masterful craftsmanship remained in play.

The program ended with Copland’s flute and piano Duo. I hold Copland in very high esteem, but the Duo, his last major work, is not one of his best pieces, and even as fine a performance as this couldn’t make up for the lack of inspiration.

Here are Charlie and Jeff taking a bow after the Copland:


Philip-ManevalPhilip Maneval’s contribution to next Thursday’s concert of music by students of Richard Wernick is a piano quartet. Like Yinam Leef, Philip was my fellow student at Penn in the graduate composition program more than thirty years ago. In the years since, rather than hold an academic position, Philip has worked for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and the Marlboro Music Festival. This constant contact with the chamber music repertoire over a lengthy period has naturally led to a body of compositions in which chamber music predominates. In fact, the new Quartet is part of a set of chamber pieces, alongside sonatas for piano and each of the string instruments in the quartet. While there is a sense in his music of Philip’s love for that chamber music repertoire, he does not slavishly imitate neoclassical models. He has found a non-doctrinaire, quite personal harmonic language, consistent yet varied, and capable of wide emotional range. The “in C-sharp” portion of his new piece’s title reminds me of how George Perle once spoke of how he considered called his Toccata for piano a Toccata in D, but felt that would be too provocative at the time – 1969. Today such a gesture feels rather less controversial. Still, it will be intriguing to see how Philip’s piece projects his personal approach to “post-tonal tonality.”

Here are Philip’s reflections on Dick Wernick, as well as a program note for the new quartet:

On studying with Richard Wernick:

Often it is the teacher who is the hardest to please who ends up giving us the most.  When I began studying with Dick Wernick in the graduate program at Penn, like many young composers, I had a swagger, a high degree of confidence in my abilities.  It took just a few lessons with Dick to realize how far I was from achieving the goals I had set out for myself.

Dick dissected my works in those early sessions.  In his autopsies, he spoke about those characteristics of composition that seem to exist in successful music in all eras and regardless of style:  clarity and consistency in the use of materials; rhythmic vitality; a strong profile; clear architecture; strong voice leading; meaningful expression; and that elusive yet critical trait, ‘integrity.’  In each piece, he insisted that all of the aspects of craft work together in support of its dramatic and expressive intentions.  Nothing less would satisfy him, and earning his respect became an enduring goal.

Today, decades later, these lessons remain as guideposts in my work.  While I have had the considerable pleasure of knowing Dick as a close friend, a colleague in this city’s musical life, and a composer and lecturer for PCMS, I continue to value greatly his reactions to my music.  His shelves abound with my scores, and I eagerly await his thoughts on each new piece.  His wise counsel and insights never fail to inspire me.

I can only hope that by aspiring to his standards, I have given back to this amazing man and teacher at least a small part of all that he has given to me.

On Piano Quartet in C-Sharp:

This is the final piece in a set of four works that I composed in 2011, the others being duo sonatas with piano for violin, viola and cello.  While this piece employs a variety of classical and contemporary techniques, my intention was for a well-blended and distinctive new language and rhetoric.

As I composed the work, my harmonies began revolving around C-sharp.  I recalled Dick Wernick’s assertion that dissonant harmony and a strong sense of tonality are not mutually exclusive, and I began to cultivate this gravitational pull.  Despite the highly chromatic harmony, C-sharp stubbornly remains as a point of reference, arrival, remembrance and return.

Melody, and the Brahmsian approach of continual motivic variation also play key roles in the organization of this piece.  I have sought to create clearly shaped melodic lines that re-emerge in various ways, such as with different pitches or rhythmic embellishments, to provide places of reference that help to unify the form.

I have always believed that each new piece is but a point on an artistic continuum, both emerging from the past and showing a way forward.

wernick-richard_2009credit-adamleefNext Thursday, April 18, is the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society‘s concert in honor of Richard Wernick, featuring music by four of his former pupils:

Daedalus Quartet
Trio Cavatina
Burchard Tang, viola
Elizabeth Hainen, harp
Thursday, April 18, 2013, 7:30 pm
Settlement Music School (Queen Street)

Melinda Wagner (Pulitzer Prize, 1999): Pan Journal
James Primosch (current Penn faculty): Quartet No. 3
Yinam Leef (President, Rubin Academy, Jerusalem): Quartet No. 2
Philip Maneval (Executive Director, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society): Quartet in C-sharp, Op. 50

My third quartet was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and premiered by the Ying Quartet in 1999. Here is a program listing and note on the piece:

String Quartet No. 3 (1999)
I. Theme and Variations
Theme: Largo
Var. 1: Andante Moderato
Var. 2: Allegretto Grazioso
Var. 3: Vivace
Var. 4: Prestissimo
II. Fantasia: Allegro Ansioso
Var. 5: Adagio
III. Finale: Vivace, Poco Scherzando
Coda: Largo

program note

After writing a series of pieces that either set texts or relied on pre-existing melodies (old sacred tunes) as compositional resources, I set out to create a more autonomous, abstract world in my Quartet No. 3. My efforts yielded a somewhat unusual formal scheme: a theme and variations set is first interrupted by an anxious (“ansioso”) and expressionistic Fantasia; then resumes for a single variation, infiltrated by the gestures of the Fantasia. A viola cadenza follows, introducing a rondo-like finale. This attempt to cap the piece in a playful spirit is surprised by another reprise of the slow variation theme, this time in a simple unison statement.  The entire sequence plays without pauses and runs about 20 minutes.

Philip Maneval at PCMS requested that each of the composers write a note on their experience working with Dick as a student at Penn. Here is my note:

Some teachers of composition make it easier for the student to compose; some make it harder. Richard Wernick made it harder, and I am grateful that he did. Dick encouraged me to think deeply about fundamental musical issues, to work at making pitches truly matter, to hold myself to the toughest standards, to avoid simplistic solutions. Striving in his own composing for similar goals, he earned the right to be a kind of biblical prophet, issuing a radically uncompromising call to the highest artistic ideals. Thank you, Dick, for continuing to strive, for clinging to your vision of what a composer can be, for enriching us all with music of substance and expressive power.

That’s Dick in the photo above, taken by Yinam Leef’s son, Adam. It could be Dick the magician, conjuring up a new work – or sending it off into the world, in flight.