Recent Concerts in Philly and NYC

I’ve been lucky to be at a number of splendid concerts lately:

  • The March 27 Philadelphia Chamber Music society recital by Carolin Widmann, violin, and Gloria Chien was memorable for elegant Beethoven and Stravinsky, but especially for a hair-raising Prokofiev First Sonata and a spectacular little piece for unaccompanied violin by Widman’s brother, Jorg. It was a kind of fantasy (a “Paraphrase”, as the title put it) on the Wedding March from Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn. From the opening triplet – played by tapping on the body of the violin – to the witty harmonic detours and hairpin turns, this was brilliantly composed and played. The piece is not just a virtuoso turn, but also a piece about virtuosity.
  • Jason Wirth and Lily Arbisser did a wonderful job with songs from my cycle Holy the Firm at a program in Manhattan last week. Lily sang with uncommon passion, and the result was a powerfully touching performance. Jason partnered her beautifully, with alert and sensitive pianism.
  • This past Sunday Mimi Stillman’s Dolce Suono Ensemble presented a big program featuring important and neglected American repertoire, ranging from the Piston Flute Sonata (flutists, please program the Piston instead of playing the Poulenc or Prokofiev sonatas yet again!) to Richard Wernick’s piano suite called Pieces of Eight. Violinist Miranda Cuckson dazzled in an unaccompanied work by Ralph Shapey. Indeed, the performances were uniformly excellent. Every one of these composers richly deserves a more prominent place on our concert programs.

Here are Dick Wernick (on the right) and Jim Freeman at the panel discussion:

  • There was more Wernick at last night’s concert by the Daedalus Quartet with James Austin Smith, oboe and Michael Rusinek, clarinet, as well as works by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, Penn alum Philip Maneval, and myself. James and members of the Daedalus played my Oboe Quartet with a keen grasp of the work’s varied moods, clearly enjoying the jazzy moments in the last movement.

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.

Penn Gazette on Philip Maneval

UnknownThere’s a nice post on the Penn Gazette website about my grad school classmate Philip Maneval. Philip is a marvelous composer who has done tremendous service to the field through his work with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and Marlboro Music. Many, many years ago I gave a couple of performances of his big first piano sonata. I hope I get to perform his music again at some point, not least for the selfish pleasure of spending time in the practice room with some solidly crafted music.

Richard Wernick and his Students

IMG_0070Here is the mentor and his mentorees: L to R, Philip Maneval, Yinam Leef, Richard Wernick, Melinda Wagner, and myself, taken after the April 18 concert of music by students of Dick Wernick held at the Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia.

Dick told the story of the graffito above the urinal in the men’s room in the Penn Music Department annex, the building where the faculty composers’ offices used to be. The inscription read: “Rochberg is the Father, Crumb is the Holy Ghost, and Wernick is the Son of a Bitch.” Yes, Dick was a challenging teacher, as some of us wrote in the program book for the concert. (Find the program notes here, here, here and here.) But there is more to the man than that, as I know from the kindnesses he showed me decades ago when I was ill with the same disease that took the life of his son. It would have been quite understandable if Dick went running in the other direction when he got word of my diagnosis. Instead, he was on the phone to me with advice, with names of doctors, with generous support. I count myself fortunate to know Dick Wernick.

And you will be fortunate if you check out his music! Try the recordings on Bridge of his concerti, or of his chamber music, or the one with big sonatas written for Lambert Orkis by Dick and myself. These are all splendid performances of Dick’s powerful, beautifully made pieces.

Speaking of performances, the players of the Daedalus Quartet, the Trio Cavatina, Elizabeth Hainen and Burchard Tang were superb in some very challenging music last week. These were high-calorie pieces, densely argued, with wide-ranging expressive demands. The performances were notable for their passion and sharply etched character. I was delighted with the performance of my quartet, and was astonished at how the Daedalus took on not just my piece, but three substantial works, all played with uncommon care.

Philip Maneval on his “Piano Quartet in C-Sharp”

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.

Thank you, Richard Wernick

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)

program:
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.