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.

Mary Mackenzie at Penn

PCM poster 10.23.13Here’s the poster for next week’s concert by Mary Mackenzie and Eric Sedgwick at Penn. New works is a bit of a misnomer; in fact, all of the pieces are from the 20th century, not the 21st. But they are certainly contemporary in that all but one of the composers is still living, and George Rochberg only died a few years ago. Here is the complete program:

GEORGE CRUMB                Three Early Songs (1946)

(b. 1929)
I. Night
II. Let It Be Forgotten
III. Wind Elegy

GEORGE ROCHBERG         Eleven Songs (1969)

(1918-2005)
I. Sunrise, a morning sound
II. We are like the mayflies
III. I am baffled by this wall
IV. Spectral butterfly
V. All my life
VI. Le Sacre du Printemps
VII. Black tulips
VIII. Nightbird berates
IX. So late!
X. Angel’s wings (Ballad)
XI. How to explain (Ballad)

JOHN HARBISON                Simple Daylight (1988)

(b. 1938)
I. Japan
II. Simple Daylight
III. Somewhere a Seed
IV. Your Name
V. The Wild Irises
VI. Odor

– intermission –

RICHARD WERNICK          Moonsongs from the Japanese (1969)

(b. 1934)
I. Mikazuki wa…
II. Tsuki ni e wo…
III. Tsuki-wo matsumi…
IV. Tsuki ichi-rin…

GEORGE CRUMB                The Sleeper (1984)

JAMES PRIMOSCH             Holy the Firm (1999)

(b. 1956)
I. ‘…that passeth all understanding’
II. Every Day is a God
III. The Ladder of Divine Ascent
IV. Cinder
V. Deathbeds

 

While the compositions are not brand new, there is one completely new element involved. Dick Wernick’s Moonsongs from the Japanese is written for either three sopranos or a solo soprano with two pre-recorded sopranos. Since the sound quality of the tape from 45 years ago, prepared with Neva Pilgrim, the singer for whom the work was written, had deteriorated, Mary and I decided to re-make the recorded component. I am used to working with electronically generated sound, not a live recording of a human, so I have had to stretch my technique a bit in editing the material. Mary’s remarkable virtuosity made the recording sessions fairly straightforward. With Dick in attendance to guide us, we were able to do the job in relatively few takes. It will be a great pleasure to hear the piece for the first time in a new realization on this concert.

Here are some notes on the program:

When James Primosch invited me to present a solo recital at University of Pennsylvania, I immediately knew I wanted to create a program of all modern vocal music featuring some of the former and current composition faculty. It was very rewarding to explore each composer’s catalogue of work – there was so much to choose from and more than I could possibly program!

I connect equally with both music and words, and oftentimes, I feel a connection simply by looking at the score without knowing exactly what it sounds like.What I enjoy most about many of the pieces on this program is that they make powerful statements with very few words. As you listen tonight, I think you will discover that the music in each piece “illustrates” the poetry in a unique way. I prefer the word illustrate to painting – word painting is heard more often – because it brings to mind an artist making very small and detailed strokes, and the art grows out of the words.

I want to thank University of Pennsylvania for having me, and James Primosch and Richard Wernick for assisting with recording the soprano parts for Moonsongs From the Japanese.

-Mary Mackenzie

 

The Three Early Songs are jewels written in 1947 when the composer was 17 years old, and represent his first vocal writing. There were seven songs composed during this period, just after George graduated from high school, and he feels that these were “probably the best of them.” George didn’t really know the vocal idiom at this time, so they are not operatic but folk, in essence. As early works, they pay homage to Rachmaninoff, and although they are not representative of Crumb’ more mature style, they are “of some interest.”

– Barbara Ann Martin

 

When he died in November 1964 at the age of twenty, my son Paul left about 150 poems, most of them written in the years between the time he was fourteen and nineteen. Even while he was still writing I often thought of setting his work, but it was not until the late summer of 1968 when I wrote the Tableaux, based on fragments and images from his story “The Silver Talons of Piero Kostrov”,” that I was able to find a way to approach his uniquely individual language. From the very beginning Paul’s poems and stories had a surface sparseness which belied the richness and density of his images and emotional range. For me there is only one other poet in the English language whose early work has the same general characteristic: William Blake. But it was more likely Japanese and Chinese poetry and Eastern thought in which Paul was deeply immersed rather than Blake which influenced his attitude toward language, its texture and its capacity to imply more that it actually said. The surreal, fantasist worlds of Rimbaud and Redon also worked their special magic in his inner life.

These are “songs” then in the most traditional sense; and I have attempted to reveal through each setting the particular world of each poem, however brief some on them may be. The piano “accompanies” the voice at times; but it also behaves in other ways – commenting as the need arises or creating an environment in which the singer can project the verbal phrase and its imagery on her own. As always when dealing directly with someone else’s work, one hopes that he has not interfered with or obscured the essence of it, but rather projected it in new and clear light where its integrity remains intact.

– George Rochberg

 

It has been a source of satisfaction to me that the first performers and listeners for Simple Daylight have been especially struck by the poems, and by the strong musical responses elicited by the poems. I have been grateful for Michael Fried’s work in many ways, most obviously in my previous settings of his texts, in Three Harp Songs (1972) and in The Flower- Fed Buffaloes (1976). My ordering of his poems makes a sequence closer in tone to a Bach Cantata text than to a nineteenth-century song cycle, and evokes a kind of subcutaneous narrative very favorable for musical purposes, but no doubt unintended by the poet.

– John Harbison

 

Moonsongs from the Japanese was commissioned by Neva Pilgrim, for whom I had written my Haiku of Basho, and composed in late 1968-1969.  Hearing the piece now is much like looking back on a younger cousin. The piece is dedicated to Neva Pilgrim and the Apollo Moon Project, and I recall my wife and I rousting our kids out of bed to watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon. The original pre-recorded tracks were done on 15 ips reel-to-reel tape, pre-Dolby, and over the span of 45 years became totally degraded. I am grateful to Mary Mackenzie for having made the new ones in a digital format that might end up having a longer life.

The piece is made up of four very brief Japanese poems (not quite haiku), set to four equally short musical settings. The periods of the four poets range from the 15th to the 20th centuries. The musical style is far different from the one I use today, although I can detect the roots of what I now do. Unlike many other composers I never made a quantum leap from one style to another, and it pleases me to look back on the gradual change.

I have attached to the score a wise line from a wise playwright, Brendan Behan—“Don’t muck about with the moon”.

– Richard Wernick

 

For the text of this little song [The Sleeper] I have excerpted only a very few lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem. Admittedly the sense is thereby considerably altered (Poe’s poem is somewhat lugubrious in its total effect), but I do feel that there is such a thing as “composer’s license.” Besides, I was specifically asked for a short song!

The sparse, tenuous textures and extremely soft dynamic of The Sleeper will project a kind of “minimalissimo” character. I have used a range of timbral devices in the piano part to suggest that transcendental feeling which Poe’s eerie images of nature invoke  — rustling glissandos on the strings of the instrument, delicate muted effects, and bell-like harmonics (which ring in the midnight hour in the first bars of the song).

The vocal part, which is quite simple in style and based entirely on a few tiny melodic cells, requires great sensitivity to nuances of pitch and timbre. I have endeavored to compress an intense and even expansive expressivity into a very small frame, which is, I suppose, what writing a little song is all about.

– George Crumb

 

 

The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for Holy the Firm draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted form a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte. The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.

The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song.  In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”

– James Primosch

 

More about this concert next week.