Showing Up

Do the Math affirms the old principal that a goodly portion of life is about showing up. Here are a few things at which you may show up:

– I’ll be introducing a talk by George Lewis at my day job tomorrow, Sept. 12, 5:15 in the Music Building on the Penn campus. It feels a little like I am introducing a panel discussion – we will be hearing from a trombonist of historic important with a huge discography; a pioneer of electronic music, particularly in live and improvised contexts; and a musicologist who wrote an important history of the AACM.

Here is George Lewis speaking prior to a program of his music at Columbia’s Miller Theatre in 2012:

– the first of two all-Harbison Songfusion programs is this Friday in NYC. My friend Mary Mackenzie will be doing Simple Daylight, John’s emotionally devastating and impeccably crafted song cycle on Michael Fried texts, written for and recorded by Dawn Upshaw. The program includes instrumental works as well as vocal; the players include Ben Fingland, who gave that fine performance of my clarinet concerto last season.

– Judith Gordon, who premiered my piano consortium commission last spring, will take the piece out for another spin later this month. She will include Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Sage Chamber Music Society concert, Sunday, September 29 at 4. The program is free, and will take place at Sweeney Concert Hall on the Smith College campus. More soon on performances of my music this coming season – for now click on the “performances” tab above.

Back to School Miscellany

Labor Day has yet to happen, but I was back at my day job today. I have some more substantive posts planned, but you will have to make do with a few  links for the moment:

– One of my current composition projects is to write an oboe quartet for Peggy Pearson on a commission from Winsor Music. The premiere is planned for the fall of 2014. Winsor has a handsome new website, with information about their concerts as well as some intriguing and uncommon projects, like their relationship with Project STEP and their Songs for the Spirit hymnal-in-progress.

– Go here to read Stephen Sondheim’s acceptance speech at this year’s MacDowell Medal Day; there are also links to remarks by Michael Chabon and Frank Rich.

– Season announcements are being flung over the digital transom. Go here for Orchestra 2001 (highlights include a Gunther Schuller premiere and Richard Wernick’s Kaddish-Requiem); here for Network for New Music (including a 2-concert Harbison festival with premieres by the guest of honor and five more composers – I’m working on something for that); and here for Songfusion (opening with more Harbison, including a program at Small’s jazz club featuring Mary Mackenzie – who will be doing a program at Penn on October 23.)

SongFusion and “States of Mind”

It was a program plotted with exceptional care. The singers and pianists of SongFusion put together a group of 20 songs (all but one in English) by 13 composers (all American, depending on how you count Kurt Weill), and gathered into three thematic groups: Love and Hate; Joy and Sorrow; Wonder and Desire, all under the rubric “States of Mind”. As if it wasn’t hard enough to make these groupings, while keeping an eye on creating a varied succession of expressive and vocal types,  SongFusion threw another element into the mix, with Kevork Mourad, a visual artist, sketching on the spot while the singers performed. He wasn’t sketching the singers, but making drawings inspired by the mood of the songs. The drawings were projected – mostly on a screen at the back of the stage, but also, imaginatively, on the clothing of the performers. My friend Mary Mackenzie took the next logical step, with abstract efflorescences appearing directly on her body in a projected image on the screen – you can see the body art in this picture:

(No, he didn’t draw on her while she sang! This was prepared beforehand.)

The program drew on the work of several composers best known for their songs as well as those whose catalog ranges more widely (see the full listing here). There were strong pieces and performances throughout the evening. Speaking of the pieces I know best: I do love Barber’s “Solitary Hotel” for the irregular but perfectly timed way he embeds Joyce’s fragments into the underlying tango, as well as for the mysterious mood and cryptic ending. Among Harbison’s songs, his Mirabai set is best known, but last night we heard excerpts from the less widely performed cycle Simple Daylight. These pieces are rather tough for the performers, with densely worked piano parts and vocal lines that are demanding both technically and emotionally (the set was originally composed for Dawn Upshaw and, I believe, James Levine, though I don’t know if he ever played it – it’s Gil Kalish accompanying on the fine Nonesuch recording.) Mary pulled off the perfect little black hole of hate that is “Somewhere A Seed” powerfully, in part by holding back and smiling cheerfully during the first part of the piece, reserving the acid scorn of the song’s narrator for later in the game when it could sting all the more intensely. I am very grateful for Mary’s performance of “Every Day is a God”, from my cycle Holy the Firm, another piece written for Upshaw. Mary and her pianist Kathleen Tagg conveyed the sensuous and spiritual ecstasies of Annie Dillard’s gorgeous text with a contagious joy.

The concert took place at the DiMenna Center in Manhattan – this is the home of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s – although theoretically a rehearsal space, I thought the room worked well for a performance.

SongFusion members are Victoria Browers and Mary Mackenzie, sopranos; Michael Kelly, baritone; Liza Stepanova and Kathleen Tagg, piano. Guest artists last night included Henrik Heide, flute; Edward Klorman, viola (they joined the group for Tom Cipullo’s touching “The Husbands”) and Tyler Learned, lighting designer. I very much look forward to their next performance.

Wednesday Morning Miscellany

– fellow Columbia alum David Froom talks with New Music Box here. David quotes Roger Sessions as saying music should be “inevitable without being predictable” – that puts the task before us clearly and succinctly, doesn’t it?

– David Patrick Stearns writes about how CDs get funded, and has this to say:

Thus, the quality of recent discs is consistently high. The Mendelssohn Club has never sounded better than on its new Metamorphosis disc with works by Philadelphia composers [Andrea] Clearfield, Jennifer Higdon, and James Primosch.

More about the disc here.

– SongFusion’s “States of Mind” concert is coming up next Tuesday, May 8, in NYC and will include my song “Every Day is a God” from the cycle Holy the Firm.

– recent reading: the prose in Sabine Feisst’s Schoenberg’s New World is less than scintillating, but she still creates an interesting mosaic picture of Schoenberg’s life and work during his years in the United States. Feisst’s premise is that during his time in the US, Schoenberg was neither neglected, nor a sell out. Her research was incredibly thorough (there are 81 pages of end notes for a text of 248 pages), and she can be maddeningly methodical as she moves through lists of, say, performers of Schoenberg’s music. But there are insights here you won’t find elsewhere, as well as some great anecdotes. Schoenberg student Dika Newlin on Schoenberg’s outfit for a class in 1939:

It consisted of a peach-colored shirt, a green tie with white polka-dots, a knit belt of the most vivid purple with a large and ostentatious gold buckle, and an unbelievably loud gray suit with lots of black and brown stripes.

A companion website for the book is here (you’ll need the password found in the book).

A SongFusion State of Mind

I’ve written before about SongFusion, a hot new group in NYC devoted to art song, whose members include my friend Mary Mackenzie. Mary is including an excerpt from Holy the Firm, the cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw, on their next program, “States of Mind”. There’s a fine mix of composers involved – I’m honored to be included – check out the repertoire here. The concert is Tuesday, May 8, 8:00 pm at the DiMenna Center in Manhattan.

Mary has been doing – and will be doing – a lot of great stuff, including performances of Pierrot with members of Carnegie Hall’s Academy program. Go to her website and click on itinerary.


Songfusion members (L to R): Victoria Browers, Liza Stepanova, Michael Kelly, Kathleen Tagg, Mary Mackenzie

SongFusion debut

It was a pleasure to hear soprano Mary MacKenzie and pianist Kathleen Tagg perform two of my Three Sacred Songs Monday night at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Manhattan’s upper east side. This was part of a program previewing the concerts planned for next season by the members of SongFusion – three singers and two pianists devoted to fresh presentations of the art of song. The other core members of the group are Victoria Browers, soprano; Michael Kelly, baritone; and Liza Stepanova, piano. They were joined Monday by guests Kevork Mourad, a visual artist; John Romeri, flute; and Michael Truesdell, percussion. The program was quite wonderfully varied, with thoughtful and imaginative programming. There was a Liszt group (it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth this year) that included three settings of “Was Liebe Sei”, written at different times in the composer’s life. A German group (Schumann, Strauss, Schubert) included projected drawings by Kevork Mourad. To me, this was too much of a good thing; a song listener is already dividing attention between singer and printed poem; the drawings, moody and evocative though they were, proved more than I could deal with. After intermission there were some pieces without piano: five short Virgil Thomson songs on phrases from the Song of Solomon, with light touches of percussion accompanying Mary; and a set of Irish folk song settings by John Corigliano, with Victoria in duo with flute. There were two couples for “The Old Gray Couple” of John Musto: Mary and Michael portrayed the title couple, and the pianists provided four-hand accompaniment. (I’ve never tried writing vocal duets with piano, it seems like something worth exploring…) Mary closed with my songs, which are arrangements of old sacred melodies, with Latin texts. She and Kathleen beautifully captured the repose of “Jesu Dulcis Memoria” and the exuberance of “O Fillii et Filliae”. In fact, there were very fine performances all evening – I look forward to hearing the group next season.

There was a lovely set of coincidences at play here. I know Mary from hearing her do my Three Sacreds at John Harbison’s Token Creek Festival – she subsequently did them as well as excerpts from my Holy the Firm in Philadelphia. Among other work as a New York free-lancer, Mary is a member of the professional choir at St. Jean’s, a church that is staffed by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, the order that staffed the church in which I grew up back in Cleveland. John Kamas, a priest who was on staff in Cleveland – where he gave me my very first commission – and who has served as pastor at St. Jean’s, hired me to substitute a few times as organist when I was living in NYC in the 80’s. And who should I see when I walked into the church Monday night, having had a fine supper with John – but Judith Kellock, the superb soprano I know from Songfest, where I accompanied her in excerpts from my Holy the Firm when we were both on faculty there. It was at Songfest that Judy met members of SongFusion.

(picture: interior of St. Jean Baptiste Church)

Mary Mackenzie sings Sacred Songs

I just learned today that soprano Mary Mackenzie will be doing two of my Three Sacred Songs to open a concert by a new group called SongFusion. The musicians include Victoria Browers and Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Michael Kelly, baritone; Liza Stepanova and Kathleen Tagg, piano; with guests: John Romeri, flute; Michael Truesdell, percussion; and Kevork Mourad, visual artist. The concert will take place Monday, February 28th, 8:00pm at the Church of St Jean Baptiste, Lexington Ave at 76th Street in New York. Mary is a fantastic young singer who I first heard when she did the Three Sacreds at the Token Creek Festival a few summers ago. She has been very active doing new music in NYC, including a recent performance with the Da Capo Chamber Players.

With the news about Mary’s performance, I decided to add a page devoted to upcoming performances of my music, and accessible from the tab just below the header above. Here’s a post about my Four Sacred Songs, which incorporate chamber ensemble versions of the Three Sacred Songs.