Chamber Music of Richard Wernick on Bridge

UnknownRichard Wernick: Sextet; Concerto for Cello and Ten Players; Piano Trio No. 1. Bridge Records 9480. Here are three masterfully crafted and powerfully expressive works from an exceptionally underappreciated American composer. (I say “exceptionally” because, as the late Steve Stucky once said to me, “we’re all underappreciated!”) Richly contrapuntal, the music is in a dissonant post-tonal idiom, finding coherence in its focussed use of striking motifs and economical harmonic vocabulary. The pitch language is nicely balanced between consistency and variety. When I was in the grad program at Penn, Wernick used to exhort my fellow students and I to “make your own tonality!” He does so in his own music and succeeds brilliantly.

The sextet is scored for strings and piano – a piano quintet plus bass. The addition of the bass gives a quasi-orchestral weight to the vigorous passages here. But Wernick can also deploy his forces in a beguilingly delicate, Webernesque texture, as in the work’s opening Arioso. The Chamber Concerto is the earliest piece on the album. I am taken aback to realize I was at the premiere of this piece some 37 years ago, with the 21st (then 20th!) Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall, with Barbara Haffner as the soloist, as she is on this recording. I find this earlier piece to be more expressionist in style, more rhapsodic in shape than the later music on the disc (the Trio is from 1994; the Sextet from 2003.) There is a somewhat neo-classical character to the later music, though Wernick’s idiom is very different from that of, for example, the music of Stravinsky that is normally associated with that term. I remember especially admiring at the premiere – and I continue to admire now – the second movement of the concerto, one of Wernick’s grandest conceptions, a sixteen-minute passacaglia that very gradually builds and builds in density and power. The terse and animated outer movements of the Piano Trio contrast nicely with the contemplative middle movement, centered around a still point of repeated piano harmonics. It’s an all-star group playing the Trio, with Gregory Fulkerson, violin; Barbara Haffner, cello; and Lambert Orkis, piano; the players for the concerto and the Sextet are from the Chicago area, including members of the Lyric Opera’s orchestra, and are no less fine. Robert Trevino conducts the concerto.

Here’s the opening of the Sextet:

Friday Afternoon Miscellany

  • through November 30, listen to the Minnesota Opera’s production of Paul Moravec‘s latest opera, The Shining, here.
  • Hear the U. S. premiere of Richard Wernick‘s … and a time for peace, with Katherine Kracht, mezzo-soprano, and the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein on November 18 at Carnegie Hall.
  • The NY Times is planning to cut its writing on the arts, according to a deadline.com piece linked to by ArtsJournal. This is terrible news for classical music in general and new music in particular. The latter will be especially hard hit by the paper’s apparent preference to avoid covering one-night alone performances. The point of music criticism is not so much to provide information about date night options, but to contribute to a conversation around the art and the artists. Perhaps sites like this can help, but even such sites tend to cover the big institutions, which are not always where the greatest – or at least not the only – musical interest may be found.

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.

More Piano Concertos to Remember

BBC Music Magazine recently posted a list of “Forgotten Piano Concertos”, and most of them are news to me. But I want to supplement the list with some concertos by American composers that very much deserve greater attention.

Richard Wernick’s Piano Concerto was written for Lambert Orkis and recorded for Bridge with the composer conducting Symphony II, an ensemble originated by musicians from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s orchestra. There are exceedingly few American composers who are not underappreciated, but Wernick’s tautly constructed and passionately heartfelt music truly should be more widely recognized. Lambert Orkis is best known as a superb chamber musician, but acquits himself brilliantly as a concerto soloist, and Symphony II is highly impressive. The piece is not on YouTube, but the following offers a sample of a recent Wernick chamber work.

Richard Goode is one of our most distinguished pianists in the standard repertoire, but earlier in his career he played and recorded several pieces by the late George Perle, including his Concertino for Piano, Winds and Timpani, and the Serenade Nr. 3 for piano and orchestra. Along with Perle’s solo Ballade, these pieces were recorded by Goode for Nonesuch, with Gerard Schwarz conducting his Music Today Ensemble. That album is available through Arkiv Music, but the Serenade performance was re-issued on a two-disc Bridge compendium of Perle’s music, along with a recording of the Concerto No. 2 with Michael Boriskin and the Utah Symphony under Joseph Silverstein that was originally released on Harmonia Mundi. Perle was a leading music theorist, explicating a variety of 20th century musics, with special emphasis on the Second Viennese School, but he should be no less renowned for his compositions. His piano writing is always attractive, with plenty of lyricism, but, most characteristically, fleet toccata-like textures. (Previously I wrote about Perle’ piano music here.) I nominate the Serenade No. 3 for revival. Here is the first movement:

Melinda Wagner’s Extremity of Sky is a piano concerto that was written for Emmanuel Ax. This is a grandly-scaled four-movement work by a master of the orchestral medium. The piano writing is no less eloquent, idiomatic but fresh, and harmonically rich, with perhaps some Messiaen influence. The slow movement, contemplative and dramatic by turns, is deeply touching. The piece is not yet commercially recorded, but as an example of her music, here is the opening movement of her Trombone Concerto:

Pianist Robert Miller died much too young, cutting short a career devoted to new music of many varieties, from Babbitt to Crumb, and including a 1978 Piano Concerto by the then 40-year old John Harbison. The piece was recorded for CRI with Miller, and the American Composers Orchestra, with Gunther Schuller conducting. Re-issued on CD by CRI as part of a disc of several early Harbison pieces, the album is now available through New World Records. Harbison’s concerto is one of the pieces that marked his turn toward a more direct and open idiom, sometimes characterized as neo-romantic, though jazz, Bach, and Stravinsky are perhaps more fundamental to his musical interests. The Concerto is not on YouTube, but as a sample of his orchestral writing, here is a later work, the Symphony No. 2.

I could continue this list for a while, with pieces by Peter Lieberson and Christopher Rouse among many others. Suggestions in the comments for additional pieces are, of course, welcome.

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.

Concerts Here and There

Only time for a quick note before I get back to the oboe quartet. You should go to:

– an all-Richard Wernick program tomorrow night, Feb. 25, at U Penn, 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall, featuring the Daedalus Quartet and pianist Gregory DeTurck

– Network for New Music at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia this Friday, Feb. 27; more info here. A video preview:

– a concert in honor of the extraordinary violinist Rolf Schulte will be held at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC next Wednesday, March 4. Program include a Hayes Biggs premiere. More info here.

Celebrating Crumb and Wernick

Sadly, thanks to the failure of a car service that was supposed to pick him up, Dick Wernick was not at the concert we had at Penn featuring his music and that of George Crumb. However, George did get there, and here are a few pictures to prove it.

First, George and his wife Liz after the concert (in the background, Penn emeritus Tom Connolly with his wife):

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Min-Young Kim, first violin of the Daedalus Quartet, which had just played George’s Black Angels, chatting with George:

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Here’s a close-up of George:

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And a picture of many, many Penn composers:

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standing from left: Andrew Davis, Kai Young Chan, Michael McMillan, Gerald Levinson, myself, Luke Carlson, Jay Reise, Ke-Chia Chen, Marc LeMay, with George and Liz Crumb seated.

Richard Wernick: Piano Trio Nr. 1

Here’s Richard Wernick’s program note for the Piano Trio of his that will be heard at Penn on November 5:

My Trio for violin, cello and piano was jointly commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation and the Mohawk Trail Concerts, and is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky. It was written for violinist Joel Smirnoff, cellist Joel Krosnick and pianist Gilbert Kalish.

As composers grow older I think they get either more traditional or more radical depending upon the extent to which they were traditional or radical before they began to gage. I have always found myself stuck in the middle. My conservative friends think I’m an avantgardnik; my more adventurous friends view my style as rather conservative. But in these days of stylistic plurality the terms really mean nothing at all.

The Trio is cast in three movements, roughly fast-slow-fast which is traditional enough to begin with. And it does “take off” from traditional forms. But the harmonic language is very personal, and one that has evolved over many years. It is “bass line generated,” and involves the same sorts of tensions and resolutions found in music of the common practice periods. But the harmonies, although “functional,” are not those of the more familiar sort, however they are “harmonies” nonetheless, and are intended to treat musical time in precisely the same way as those of the major-minor system.

The first movement, mazurka, is not really a mazurka at all, but I called it that in retrospect because of the emphasis on the syncopated ¾ rhythm. It has that feel about it. It is generally bright and fast, with a good deal of contrapuntal interplay among the three instruments. The main sections are delineated not by change of key (there isn’t any), but more by the relationships created by the organic “modulation” of one speed into another. The first of these changes introduces a cascading descending figure that figures prominently in all three movements, and is intended to help bind the movements together.

The second movement is entitled passamezza. The Italian “passamezza” (half pace) is roughly equivalent to the French “pavane,” a slow and rather languourous dance step. In the trio this is realized by a slow moving ostinato of piano harmonics, with one or two cello ostinato interpolations. This movement was originally intended as an “interlude” between the outer movements, but it gradually took on a life of its own to the extent that it is almost one half of the entire piece.

The final movement is called a Tarantella, but with all its meter changes it does not have a single 6/8 bar. The persistent dotted rhythm that runs almost throughout came from the ending of my Violin Concerto. As a compositional problem I was interested to see if I could begin a piece with the same bit of musical material I had used to end one. The musical “stuff” is thrown around from player to player; there is a brief return of the music from the second movement; and there is an optional cadenza (a real one; I did not write it) for the violinist.

I express my thanks to the two Joels and Gil, as well as to Arnie Black, Artistic Director of the Mohawk Trail Concerts for giving this piece its life.

—Richard Wernick

Upcoming concerts

Some concerts of interest in various places, including 2 anniversary events:

Dolce Suono‘s 10th anniversary concert, Sunday, October 12, 3:00 pm, Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute, Philadelphia.

– Lee Hyla Memorial Concert, Thursday, October 16, 7:30 pm, Lutkin Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. The late composer of uncommonly intelligent and gutsy works, is honored with a concert of his chamber music. Read about him here.

Network for New Music celebrates its 30th anniversary, Sunday, October 26, 4:00 pm, Settlement Music School, Queen Street branch in Philadelphia. The special event here is the first performance of an “exquisite corpse” – a new work created by 30 composers (myself included), each of whom contributed 6 measures, with only a tempo marking and the last measure of the preceding composer’s segment as guidance.

– Richard Wernick and George Crumb will be honored in their 80th and 85th birthday years respectively in a Penn Contemporary Music concert in Rose Recital Hall on the Penn campus, Wednesday, November 5 at 8:00 pm. I’ll be playing Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979. A piano trio by Wernick, and Crumb’s Black Angels will also be heard.

 

Penn’s Voice

Mary Mackenzie’s recital at Penn last week featured several pieces by Penn faculty, both current and retired. She opened with the Three Early Songs of George Crumb, and I mean early – these were written when George was still a teen, intended for his wife Liz to sing. (Come to think of it, I don’t know if they were married at the time, or still just high school sweethearts.) Although George denies it, there are hints of his mature idiom here, and not just in the nocturnal cast of the texts and settings. There is a moment in the second song where the piano pedal is held down while a repeated figure is played softer and softer. That use of resonance, a resounding, echoing effect, is an essential thumbprint of Crumb’s music, part of the acoustic of his native West Virginia landscape, with sounds reverberating amid the hills and valleys.  Mary offered more Crumb in the second half of the concert, his little Poe setting, The Sleeper, which was written for a Jan DeGaetani Carnegie Hall recital (I was there!)*

There was more music by Penn emeriti as well, both pieces from the late 60s. George Rochberg’s Eleven Songs sets short texts by his son Paul. It was Paul’s early death that led George to reconsider his aesthetic outlook and reject serial technique, while embracing a broad range of musical possibilities, including 19th century tonal practice. While he never engaged serialism again, George still did write atonal music, such as this set of songs. This was fiercely expressionist music, full of vivid gestures and often anguished in tone. To me the piece sounded somewhat dated; some of the gestures may have carried a certain amount of shock value fifty years ago, but piano clusters and sprechstimme vocal effects don’t in themselves mean a great deal. They can’t make up for a piece’s lack of substance. The set dragged, and although they are short songs – and were well-performed – they felt long.  In contrast, Richard Wernick’s Moonsongs from the Japanese, did seem to me to hold up. The piece is written for soprano and two pre-recorded sopranos (though it could, I suppose, be performed by three sopranos.) These settings of short haiku-like poems were concise in a way that the Rochberg songs were not, and although they too were of their time in the use of non-synchronized passages and non-pitched phonemes, these devices felt integrated and did not call attention to themselves in the way that the special effects in the Rochberg did. The use of pre-recorded female voice, the exploration of phonemes and the wide-ranging melodic gestures brought Babbitt’s Philomel to mind, though the pitches made sense in Wernick’s piece in a way that, for me, Babbitt’s pitches do not. Moonsongs was written for Neva Pilgrim, and when I heard a dub of the tapes Neva had made for the piece decades ago, I knew the sound quality would not be acceptable, so Mary and I made a fresh version of the tape. Her astonishing virtuosity meant this was not a lengthy job; only a few takes were needed for a given section. I would like to go back to the materials and polish my editing of the piece a bit, but we managed to get something together that was quite effective.

The one non-Penn composer on the program was John Harbison. Mary’s performance of his Simple Daylight, six songs on texts of Michael Fried, was harrowing. It was an interesting contrast with the Rochberg – there is anguish in both pieces, but there is much greater musical substance in John’s piece. The emotional power of the piece springs directly from it’s detailed craft. It’s one of John’s darkest pieces, and one of my favorites.

Mary closed the program with a complete performance of my cycle Holy the Firm. Singing from memory, she vividly conveyed the ecstatic and contemplative aspects of the piece, with full command of the mad scene that is the final song. H the F will be on the upcoming Bridge CD, in its chamber ensemble version, as performed by Susan Narucki. I’ve been very lucky with performers of this piece, and Mary Mackenzie’s performance continues that lucky streak.

Eric Sedgwick was Mary’s unflappable pianist. As someone remarked to me, “he’s one of those Zen guys”, meaning Eric is the kind of pianist who works wonders while appearing to barely move. The piano part for Holy the Firm is very notey, and Simple Daylight is intricately worked, but no problems were posed for Eric. He is the kind of player whose trills – fast and wonderfully smooth – are played purely with the fingers; no helpful forearm rotation required. He partnered Mary impeccably.

I am writing this after my return from Cornell where Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift was performed – more about that in my next post.

Here’s a picture from Mary’s concert. (l to r: George Crumb, Mary Mackenzie, Richard Wernick, and Eric Sedgwick)

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* Not only was I there, but this was the occasion for one of those only-in-NYC moments: I got in the elevator to go find Jan and the composers whose songs she had premiered that night. In the elevator with me were Teresa Sterne (the force behind Nonesuch records in those days, including Jan’s unsurpassed recording of Ancient Voices) and Issac Stern. Ms. Sterne asked Mr. Stern the following question: “Is it true that you once received a review that said, ‘He left no tone un-Sterned’?” The answer was yes.