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.

Wernick’s Ninth

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.

Mid-October Miscellany

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.

Performance Update

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.

 

Ives, Upshaw, Kalish

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.