“A Catskill Eagle” at SongFest

I am way overdue in posting about this, but realizing that June will be over in a few hours motivates me to try to catch up and write about my visit to SongFest this past May.

SongFest is a remarkable training program for young singers, with an exceptionally fine faculty and gifted students. It is based at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. In addition to master classes and coachings, SongFest presents a number of concerts open to the public. I was there for one of those concerts because the program’s director, Rosemary Hyler Ritter, invited me to write a new song in honor of John Harbison’s 80th birthday. John has regularly been on the SongFest faculty, coaching his own work and conducting each year a concert of Bach cantatas. My new song was premiered at a performance honoring both John and William Bolcom, another 80th birthday celebrant and SongFest faculty member (they are part of that class of ’38, the birth year of an unusual number of  important American composers). A Catskill Eagle sets a passage from Moby Dick; I wrote about the song here. Kyle Ferrill was the baritone for my premiere, and I played piano. Kyle gave a beautiful performance, with gorgeous sound and expert musicianship. The concert also included an exquisite performance of my Shadow Memory by soprano Victoria Browers and pianist Javier Arrebola. This is a setting of a text by Susan Orlean that was commissioned by SongFest a few years ago. Throughout the concert there were superb performances of wonderful pieces; Bolcom’s haunting Jane Kenyon settings, Let Evening Come, and Harbison’s searing Simple Daylight were standouts for me, but I enjoyed everything I heard. Here’s the program:

And here are a few pictures from my visit. There was a pretty great view of Disney Hall from the window of my Colburn dorm room:

some very smart posters in the Colburn practice rooms:

Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris at a coaching:

Victoria and Javier at the Shadow Memory run-thru in Zipper Hall:

John Musto, Amy Burton, Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris at a post-concert meal at which we stayed up past midnight so as to celebrate Bill’s actual birthday that day:

The Greek Orthodox cathedral where the Harbison-led Bach concert took place, with the BVM looking like a ’20’s movie star:

and with Jesus watching you from the dome:

I also visited the Catholic cathedral. I was a bit disappointed by the interior; the light fixtures make the space visually too busy. But I was greatly moved by the tapestries of saints old and new; my pictures of these didn’t come out well, go here to get some sense of these.

I’m very grateful to have had a chance to be part of SongFest this year. Congratulations to Rosemary for her ongoing commitment to this important program, and for making new music an integral part of it.

“A Catskill Eagle”

I’ve finished a short song for baritone and piano, setting a Melville text. I’m calling the piece A Catskill Eagle, and the words are taken from chapter 96 of Moby-Dick:

And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

I must say that while I find much of the chapter is obscure, this is a fine passage, speaking of idealism and the need to soar above sorrow. I can’t claim to have remembered this bit from sophomore American Literature class in high school; rather I came upon it in a handsomely illustrated children’s book that I shared with my children.

My setting is for baritone and piano. The piece is set for a premiere at SongFest on May 25, a program honoring SongFest composers-in-residence William Bolcom and John Harbison. This will take place at 7 pm in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. I will accompany baritone Kyle Ferrill; it’s a nice coincidence that Kyle tried out a song of mine several years ago when he was a student at SongFest, and now he is returning as faculty. I’m afraid I’ve given myself a lot of rapid scale passages in the piece, reflecting the soaring eagle – I better post this and get back to practicing!

“Shadow Memory” video

SongFest has posted a video of their June 24 concert that included my song on a Susan Orlean text, Shadow Memory. Go to the SongFest Facebook page, and scroll down to the video posted on June 26. My song begins at about 1:05:30. It’s a fabulous performance, with Bahareh Poureslami, soprano, and Shane McFadden, piano. I used the last paragraph of this Susan Orlean piece for the song’s text. A picture of the program for the concert, listing the all-American repertoire, can be found in the SongFest Facebook photo stream.

Summer Solstice Miscellany

– my Shadow Memory, a voice and piano song on a text by Susan Orlean, will be performed at 7:30 pm this coming Saturday, June 24, 2017 at SongFest. The concert takes place in Zipper Hall at The Colburn School. Soprano Bahareh Poureslami and pianist Nathan Cheung will perform. You can read more about the piece here and here.

IMG_2336– I went to see the National Orchestral Institute’s concert at the University of Maryland last Saturday. This is a training orchestra, in existence for 30 years now, and the playing is at a very high level. It has to be at that level to take on a program like last Saturday’s: Sun-Treader of Carl Ruggles, Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, and the John Harbison 4th Symphony. David Alan Miller, director of the Albany symphony, conducted. This was a program of pieces that I never expected to hear in person. (I’m afraid there is an awfully long list of very good pieces that fall into that category.) Sun-Treader – not exactly a light-hearted concert opener – sounded rather like a Second Viennese School work in its expressionist grandeur, probably not what Ruggles had in mind, except for the grandeur part. The Stucky Concerto is full of the orchestral brilliance one associates with that composer, but there is emotional heat as well, notably in the big variations set that forms the second movement. John Harbison’s 4th Symphony is in five movements, ranging widely over a varied expressive terrain. It thinks, it’s playful, and in the remarkable Threnody that constitutes the fourth movement, it looks into an abyss. Throughout the piece there is an overarching intelligence, expressed in the unexpected but logical formal shapes.

It was terrifically impressive to hear the young players tackle this challenging program. You will be able to hear for yourself, as the program was recorded for eventual release on Naxos. All praise to David Alan Miller, who continues to be an extraordinary champion of American music – at one point on Saturday, John Harbison referred to him as the Koussevitzky of our time.

Here is John, along with Will Robin, at a pre-concert chat:


– It wasn’t on my summer reading list (that was only a partial list anyway), but I picked up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day at the recommendation of my friend Guthrie Ramsey, and am enjoying it greatly. This is partly for the familiarity of its Philadelphia setting, but more importantly for being touching and funny and thought-provoking. The NY Times review puts it well: “cerebral comedy with pathos.”

In the Shadow of a Premiere

I heard from soprano Lisa Williamson that her premiere of my new song Shadow Memory (with pianist Rami Sarieddine) at SongFest went well this past Wednesday, and that it was well-received. I also heard from Susan Orlean, whose beautiful words I set in this new song. She was able to attend the performance, and was impressed by both the song (“gorgeous”) and by Lisa (“divine”). Here’s hoping Lisa gets more chances to do my music, and that the young artists and faculty who heard the new piece at SongFest also take an interest! SongFest continues through June, if you are in LA, do check out the remarkable array of events they have planned.

Rehearsing Shadow Memory

lisa-homeSongFest has gifted me with a couple of splendid young musicians to give the first performance of my new Susan Orlean song, Shadow Memory. I rehearsed with soprano Lisa Williamson (at left – photo by Brian Hatton) and pianist Rami Sarieddine on Wednesday up at Bard College, and it was immediately clear that they had the piece well in hand. We were able to work on relatively subtle details, little nuances of tempo and dynamics. It’s a simple song, but I think it will be affecting, especially with its beautiful text. Go here to read the essay where I found the text – I used just the last paragraph.

You always learn a few things about a piece and about your notation when you finally hear it tried out. For example, Rami took my notation (see below) to mean that he shouldn’t change the pedal in the first bar. The combination of my request for generous pedaling and the high C sustained in the upper register across the chord change suggested a single pedal for the whole measure. I asked him to change the pedal when the left hand chord changed, otherwise it was too blurry. I think I need to re-write this so that the high C terminates when the harmony changes, that will help make it clear that the pedal should change.

Go here for a page at the SongFest website on the June 3 concert that includes the Shadow Memory premiere. While you are there, look around at some of the other events – there is an astonishing array of talent on the faculty, and with a faculty like that the program attracts very gifted young performers.

Here are a couple of snapshots from my visit to Bard.  The Bitó Music Conservatory Building where we rehearsed:


There is a suite of John Cage drawings in the lobby:


as well as a Joel Shapiro, elegant and playful in its balance of forms:


Funding for Songfest

Go here to help raise funds for a scholarship that will enable a young singer to attend Songfest, the advanced training program held at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Songfest is doing the premiere of my Susan Orlean setting, Shadow Memory, at a June 3 program. (I anticipate being able to share with you the names of the performers soon.) Songfest has quite an extraordinary faculty; the starry names include pianists Margo Garrett, Graham Johnson, and Martin Katz, with singers including Susanne Mentzer, Lucy Shelton, Sanford Sylvan, and Dawn Upshaw, among many others.

Songfest Premiere

SongFest, the art song festival and training program held each summer at The Colburn School in Los Angeles, has scheduled the premiere of my Susan Orlean setting, Shadow Memoryfor June 3. The performers will be chosen from among the New Music Fellows participating in the program. I was at SongFest as a composer a number of years ago, and the quality of the performances was very high, so I anticipate an excellent debut for my new song. I’ll be posting more information about the premiere as it becomes available.

The faculty at SongFest this year is quite remarkable, an all-star array of practitioners and teachers. Check out the list of master classes here.

Stacey Mastrian and “Post-Puccini”

stacymastrianA reminder to come to Penn’s Rose Recital Hall this Wednesday, March 13, at 8:00 pm,  for a program of 20th Century Italian vocal music featuring soprano Stacey Mastrian. Rose Recital Hall is found in Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. Admission is free.

I know Stacey from Songfest, and I am certain this will be a strong concert. I’ll be especially interested to hear the Berio voice Sequenza, and a big Nono piece with quad electronic sound called La Fabbrica Illuminata. Pianist Scott Crowne and sound engineer Stephen F. Lilly will assist.

Répons redux

My Répons post below is a longer version of a letter I wrote to the editor of the NY Times Arts and Leisure section. I got word from the Times today that they “hope to print…it in an upcoming issue.” I’ll be interested to see if there is any reaction if the letter appears.

For now, let me add that there used to be a project some 20+  years ago called “AT&T American Encore”, which supported repeat performances of American compositions. The Philadelphia Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic were involved, and the pieces performed as part of this project included works by Harbison, Crumb, Stucky, Argento, Harrison, and Kirchner. It also supported performances of older pieces that seem to me to hardly need special advocacy – the Copland 3rd and Ives’s Unanswered Question. We could surely use an encore for “Encore”, though I would hope that the focus would be more exclusively on recent music.

We are engulfed by a multiplicity of interpretations of older music, but that is not often the case with new music. Think of pieces that have usually been associated with the composer’s own performances. Our perception of Music for Eighteen Musicians changed with the release of the Grand Valley State University recording. Meredith Monk’s work has changed with the appearance of The M6 ensemble. Robert Carl’s fine book on In C documents how the widely varied recordings of the piece speak to its richness. (Read an interview with Robert about the book, conducted by Frank Oteri of the American Music Center’s New Music Box here.) We are used to comparing myriad versions of a Schubert song cycle, but it was an uncommon experience to attend a performance of John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs at Songfest a few years ago with each song performed by a different singer: six different lights cast upon the same musical object, each revealing new facets, new shadows.

To speak of the multiple performance issue from a different angle: I’ve had the privilege of performing Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics with pianist Lambert Orkis on numerous occasions. That piece feels extremely different to me as a performer compared with all those pieces that I’ve played once and had to set aside.  It’s not just a matter of comfort, of having the piece more securely in hand. It’s about a deeper level of understanding the piece. We take it for granted with a Beethoven sonata, but in new music we too often have to do without the depth that repetition alone can provide. Multiple performers, repeat performances – we need them for a healthy new music culture.

Here’s a picture of Lambert and I playing the Crumb at the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival. Jan Orkis assists as page turner and third pianist in the six-hand passages.