Gatsby Videos

Go here for a substantial set of videos featuring Emmanuel Music’s Ryan Turner, along with John Harbison and Richard Dyer discussing John’s The Great Gatsby, to be performed by Emmanuel in Boston’s Jordan Hall this coming Sunday, May 12. Of particular interest in the videos are segments where John and Ryan perform excerpts from the piece, illustrating how the same motives and harmonies can be heard in both the synthetic period pop songs and in the main body of the work.

The Albany Symphony’s performance of a suite from The Great Gatsby as part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival is tomorrow night, May 7 – tickets here.

Rejoicing Resounding

I’m on the Acela after a fine brunch with Emmanuel Church friends Ryan Turner and Pat Krol – this after the service at which my Gaudete in Domino was premiered. As I expected, the choir did a great job.  By calling for a slightly earlier rehearsal time before the service  than usual, Ryan (the group’s conductor) got the ensemble some extra time to touch on various details of my piece. Ryan knows what he wants – a slightly different emphasis in the text, a warmer sound here, a lighter sound there – and knows how to ask for it; the choir, in turn, knows how to respond to his requests, and does so with skill and with abundant good will. The congregation at Emmanuel is uniquely trained to listen intently, having listened to weekly Bach cantatas and other great stuff for years. So they are uncommonly receptive to my music, often responding with unusually insightful comments. One gentleman this morning remarked on my setting of the words “Dominus prope est”  – the Lord is at hand. He noted that the customary reading of this line associates it with the imminent arrival of the Lord at the end of time (the scripture texts for Advent have an apocalyptic side). My setting – pianissimo, warmly harmonized, low in register – represented another reading: a sense of calm assurance about the Lord’s presence here and now.

Emmanuel Church is indeed a place where the Lord’s presence can be felt – a place where the hidden wholeness of which Thomas Merton wrote breaks into our lives. I’ll say it again: for this I am deeply grateful.

Emmanuel Music’s website here, Facebook page here.

update: My shots from Sunday’s rehearsal mostly didn’t come out well – just this one seems worth sharing:

IMG_2370 copy

update #2: Emmanuel parishioner Elizabeth Richardson was kind enough to pass along a picture taken at the post-Eucharist gathering for hospitality. Here I am (on the left) with parishioner Michael Scanlon (I dig the bowtie, Michael. There were some nice ones among the choir members as well.)

James Primosch & Micheal Scanlon

Rejoicing is Complete

I finished the motet I mentioned in my last post, Gaudete in Domino (Rejoice in the Lord). The first performance will come up very soon: it will be done at the 10 am Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church in Boston on December 16. Ryan Turner will conduct. The choir of Emmanuel Music is quite fantastic – the church is renowned for performing a Bach cantata in the context of the Eucharist each Sunday. BWV 136, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, will be done on the 16th.

Gaudete is the seventh in a series of motets I have written for Emmanuel since 1994, and you can read more about my experiences with Emmanuel here and here, among other posts. The group can do pretty much anything I throw at them, and do it beautifully.

Here’s how the piece starts:





All Saint’s Day Miscellany

– Network for New Music’s season opener is this coming Sunday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 pm at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Program includes music by Ingrid Arauco, Joseph Hallman, Louis Karchin, Thomas Kraines, Andrew Rudin, Arne Running, and Robert Schultz.

– John Harbison talks about his 2nd Symphony here.

– the Library of Congress lets you see Elliott Carter’s sketches for his Piano Sonata, among other pieces,  here.

– visit The Crooked Line to read how extraordinary a place Boston’s Emmanuel Church is, and why it is not a bad idea to have an artistic director who is also a gifted tenor. I have plans for a new Emmanuel motet, too early to let on about details.

– I have just about finished setting this poem for voice and piano, again, more details later.

Boston Adventure, Concluded

Two Arms of the Harbor, my new motet, was premiered at the 10 am Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston this past Sunday. In the past, Emmanuel has slotted my motets after the opening prayer but before the first reading. This time they did the piece after the first reading, in lieu of a responsorial psalm, I suppose. I am not sure this was the best strategy. The readings were very well done, but I think the music had too much expressive weight to successfully work between them. Music between the readings should not overwhelm the scriptures, which are the primary focus of that part of the service, and my piece is too emotionally hot and packed with incident to not be a little overpowering in that spot. At the time I thought about how I would not want to be doing the second reading right after the motet. The vibe in the room was attentive and I think the piece hit home, partly because of how it felt at the time, partly because of the warm comments after the service. Thank you to whoever removed their vocalizing child from the church while my piece was being done!

I was sorry to not hear the church’s rector, Rev. Pamela Werntz preach, but the visiting homilist, Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew (a retired bishop, if I understand correctly) did well. And it was a pleasure to celebrate a baptism as well – congratulations to the Miles Family! I thought Sumner Thompson, bass, did a superb job with the cantata after communion, BWV 158. John Harbison has a good note speculating about this somewhat unusual piece. The aria with chorale – layering a florid (flaying a lurid? sorry.) solo singer with an even more florid violin obligato (Heidi Braun-Hill), a walking continuo bass and a chorale tune sung by the women of the chorus – was the quietly spectacular high point. The text of the final chorale, right out of Luther, is almost surrealistic:

Here is the true Easter-lamb,
offered up by God,
which was, high on the cross’ stalk,
roasted in hot love,
the blood marks our door
faith holds it against death,
the strangler can no longer harm us,

There was a lovely brunch after the service and coffee hour, glad to have a chance to chat with various Emmanuel friends, including fellow blogger Joy Howard, who is Rev. Pam’s spouse.

Sunday evening I attended a fund raiser for Collage New Music. The event featured some chat between the group’s music director, David Hoose, and guest Augusta Read Thomas with some short pieces of Gusty played in first-rate performances. I’m sorry I didn’t catch the name of the violinist and cellist, but the pianist was the splendid Christopher Oldfather – Chris and I go back some 20 years or more, to the first performance of my Three Sacred Songs with soprano Christine Schadeberg. His performance of excerpts from Gusty’s Tracings was stunning. Here are some pictures from the event, including a shot of Gusty and I with Gunther Schuller:


and one with Chris Oldfather:

The coda to the Boston trip was a visit to NYC for the American Music Center annual meeting. The AMC/MTC/ACF merger/re-arrangement was discussed, official decision not yet made until votes are tallied. John Harbison received an award:

Among the friends at the meeting were fellow Columbia alums Eric Chasalow (l.) and Paul Moravec:

Now it’s back to grading papers and chairmanly duties at Penn. But good to see friends, good to hear some music.

Boston Adventure, part two

After Saturday morning’s rehearsal with Emmanuel Music, I had a great lunch at 29 Newbury with Ryan Turner (Emmanuel Music Director) and Pat Krol (Emmanuel executive director). (Check out the tomato soup and the pulled pork sandwich.) After a long walk in the Public Garden (amazing tulips) I made my way over to Brandeis where the 2011 BEAMS Electronic Music Marathon was in progress. Twelve hours of electronic and mixed media works! I caught nearly half the event, arriving – regrettably – too late for music by some familiar names, among them: David Felder, James Dashow, William Coble, Kaija Saariaho, Hans Tutschku, and Dennis Miller – and some not so familiar names: Ferdinando De Sena, Jeremy Podgursky, Michel van der Aa, Malin Bång, and a good many others. The unfamiliar names were mostly European, and one of the good things about the mix of pieces was the inclusion of music from Europe that is not often heard in this country. There was a chronological mix as well including older pieces such as …sofferte onde serene… of Nono, from 1976 (has not worn well) and Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco from 1980 by Jonathan Harvey (still sounds fabulous, especially nice to hear it in a hall with a multi-channel setup). There were a lot of pieces that involved live processing, but much of this mostly just involved putting a live player through a laptop that served as a sophisticated stomp box providing variations on delay. There seemed to be a limited array of compositional options: either the processed version accumulates the notes as though the piano pedal was depressed (the homophony strategy); or something that was just played gets repeated, looped or not (sort of canon at the unison). Pieces for what we used to call “instrument and tape” – now the expression is “instrument and fixed media” – were also heard. Performances were at a very high level throughout the evening. A few standouts:

the forgotten dialect of autumn by Heather Stebbins – memorably lyric violin lines played by Krista Buckland Reisner, with live electronics.

Winter Fragments by spectralist master Tristan Murail – the Boston-based group Sound Icon playing with live processing, plus video imagery by Herve Bailly-Basin – mostly aqueous images, sometimes crystalline, mostly responding to the music in a direct way, and therefore suggesting a high end  iTunes visualizer. (Just as the laptop ends up being a fancy stompbox. Fancy technology does not always mean a fancy result.)

Rope and Chasm by Matthew Greenbaum –  Re’ut Ben Ze’ev, mezzo soprano, narrating, singing, and interacting with a video. The piece is based on Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; one memorable moment was when the mezzo reached up her hand to a wounded figure in the video, casting her hand’s shadow onto the screen – a simple gesture, but quite touching.

Strange Autumn by Steven Kazuo Takasugi – a theater piece with narration, electronic sound and a percussionist making amplified noises with various pieces of paper. Something oddly moving about making a piece with such impoverished means.

Scuffle & Snap by Eric Chasalow – an heir to the Davidovsky tradition, Brandeis faculty member Chasalow, who curated the marathon, offered another one of his finely crafted studies in, as he put it in a program note, “building heightened dramatic structures around traditional instruments”. He continues, “I like to use a wide variety of sound sources, recontextualized, but very resonant with memories.” Chasalow’s work is important because he is not just an electronic music composer, he is an electronic music composer; the way he carefully shapes musical gestures and their interaction was a welcome contrast with much of the music heard that day.

The last piece I heard was Davidovsky’s Synchronism No. 12, played with her customary verve and lively array of colors by clarinetist Jean Kopperud. This is the most recent in the series of pieces for instruments and electronic sound by the original maestro of the medium. Here is Jean just before playing the piece:

By now it was getting close to midnight, and time for me to go get some sleep before the next morning’s church service with my motet at Emmanuel. More soon.

My Excellent Boston Adventure

The primary reason for visiting Boston this past weekend was to attend the first performance of my new motet Two Arms of the Harbor by Emmanuel Music. This took place at the regular 10:00 am Eucharist at Emmanuel Church with Ryan Turner conducting. The choir did a fantastic job, learning the piece in one intense rehearsal the day before, plus a touch-up on Sunday. It was like my experience with the Chicago Symphony: very good sight-reading, though a bit of disarray, and then an incredible amount of improvement between the first reading and the second. Like a first-rate orchestra, the Emmanuel choristers are very fast learners. I didn’t make things easy for them. The rhythmic language is sometimes a bit challenging (not every choir can do a decent eighth note quintuplet the way they can), and there is a dense stretto passage where the harmony gets more chromatic. For that passage, I wanted, and got, the leggiero quality I hear in this choir’s singing of similarly contrapuntal passages in the Bach cantatas. My piece has a lot of short sections packed into 4 or 5 minutes, and making it all hang together involves some crucial nuances of tempo, dynamic and color. Here all glory goes to Ryan Turner who led a wonderfully characterful performance. When I asked for a big upbeat bar to have a ritardando “like Bernstein conducting Mahler”, or suggested that a passage should sound like the singers are sleepwalking, Ryan knew just what to do and how to make it happen. I am intensely grateful for this beautiful performance, as well as for the customary Emmanuel hospitality. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: this is a community that knows how to listen, and brings an attentive and sympathetic ear to the music I have written for them. I have worked as a church musician since high school, and have had wonderful experiences, but nothing like Emmanuel. To experience a connection with a worshipping community that is nourished by music in this way is deeply nourishing for me in turn. Thank you, dear Emmanuel. More specifically, thank you to Pat Krol, executive director of Emmanuel Music, for her energetic attention to detail; to Rev. Pamela Werntz, the rector of Emmanuel, who truly knows how to facilitate the assembly’s prayer; and to John Harbison, principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music, who kindly took the time in a busy day to attend Saturday’s rehearsal and offer good advice and moral support.

Before the Emmanuel events on Saturday and Sunday I attended Dawn Upshaw’s recital at Jordan Hall on Friday night. Soho the Dog has written more eloquently than I could about the concert, with its carefully chosen twenty-four songs by almost as many composers. I would need to hear the program again to pick up all the connections between and among the pieces: shared keys, musical motifs, textual imagery. Even with all these connections, there was no simplistic route from song to song; the connections were real, but often allusive rather than explicit. Dawn sounded great. No, she’s not thirty anymore, and the voice has changed a bit. But the extraordinary ability to communicate in a direct manner has not. Stephen Prutsman was her superb partner. He looks very grounded when he plays, sitting well back in a chair rather than on a bench. His physical activity at the keyboard is sleek, sometimes quite minimal.  But, perhaps as a compensation for his lack of superfluous motion when actually playing the notes, he likes to conduct himself with an unoccupied hand, as well as having a repertoire of peculiar releases – some miming vibrato, for example.

OK, enough for one post – back soon for more on the BEAMS marathon and more. Here are some shots of Emmanuel Music in rehearsal:

New motet premieres at Emmanuel Church

I just got word that Ryan Turner, director of Emmanuel Music, will lead the first performance of my new motet Two Arms of the Harbor as part of the 10 AM Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church, Boston this coming May 1. This is a brief SATB setting of a text by Thomas Merton, a journal entry that describes a dream:

“I dreamt I was lost in a great city and was walking “toward the center” without quite knowing where I was going. Suddenly I came to a dead end, but on a height, looking at a great bay, an arm of the harbor. I saw a whole section of the city spread out before me on hills covered with light snow, and realized that, though I had far to go, I knew where I was: because in this city there are two arms of the harbor and they help you to find your way, as you are always encountering them.”

(Thank you to the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust for permission to set this text.) This comes from the 1966 volume Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, one of a series of books offering selections from the journals that Merton kept during his time as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. (More recently the journals were issued in a complete version; this text comes from the fourth volume of seven, Dancing in the Water of Life.) I find the text deeply consoling, and I have dedicated the piece to the memory of the late Craig Smith, who founded Emmanuel Music some 40 years ago, leading its performances of the Bach cantata cycle for decades.

Emmanuel Music is an extraordinary group, and in this, the sixth piece I have written for them since 1994, I know they will meet all the challenges I have recklessly set for them, and do so with grace and beauty of sound. I do like hearing my music done at Emmanuel, not just because the choir is superb. It is a place where I can bring all my “concert music” skills to bear, unlike the communities where I have generally worked as a church musician myself, where amateur choirs and an almost exclusive emphasis on congregational singing mean my composing is usually in the quasi-pop idiom that predominates in Catholic church music today. Not only is the choir great at Emmanuel, but the worshipping assembly has “ears to hear” as scripture puts it: trained to listen intently by years of hearing the Bach cantatas and similarly nourishing offerings, I know they will hear my piece with attention and sympathy. There are other nice aspects to church performance – only a few people will know I am even there, at least until the coffee hour afterwards; there is no applause, no awkward bowing, no reviewers. Applause, bows and sometimes even reviews are nice, but it is healthy to forego them once in a while. Read more about Emmanuel here, here, and here. A Merton blog I like here. Photo at left: Thomas Merton.