Vocal Music Highlights

With the announcement that I have received the Virgil Thomson Award for vocal music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I thought it would be a good idea to post about my music for voice, and point out some highlights.

Work titles given as links will take you to either an online perusal score or to the Theodore Presser Company’s webpage for that piece.

You can find all my vocal music listed here (use the links near the top of the page to get to the vocal section) and there are videos and audio clips here. Click to download PDF listings of my music for solo voice and for chorus.

I think two of my very best pieces in any medium are the two song cycles I wrote for the Chicago Symphony: From a Book of Hours (Rilke texts), and Songs for Adam (Susan Stewart). The Rilke set is for soprano and was premiered by Lisa Saffer, with Antonio Pappano conducting.  The recording on the video/audio page is with Susan Narucki, soprano and Sarah Hicks conducting the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute. Given the near impossibility of any but a very few composers receiving repeat performances of their orchestral music, I made a version of the piece for soprano and chamber ensemble. A recording of that version is on Sacred Songs, a disc of my vocal music on Bridge. Susan Narucki is again featured, with the 21st Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall. Here’s a track from the Rilke cycle:

Songs for Adam is for baritone and orchestra, and was premiered by Brian Mulligan, with Sir Andrew Davis leading the CSO. Susan Stewart, whose poetry I’ve set several times, wrote a set of texts specifically for this project. I’ve started sketching a version for piano quintet, since the original has yet to be performed a second time.

The Sacred Songs cd also includes 3 other pieces for voice and chamber ensemble. I want to mention the baritone cycle on that record. Dark the Star sets texts by Rilke, Susan Stewart, and a psalm verse in a set of nine short movements that play continuously. Here’s a sample, with William Sharp, baritone:

A recent cycle with chamber ensemble was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, and premiered by soprano Mary Mackenzie with Collage New Music in Boston. Called A Sibyl, the texts that Susan Stewart wrote specifically for the project speak of the mysterious prophet-like figure written about in The Aeneid. The ensemble is pierrot ensemble plus percussion.

If I am counting correctly, I have written 29 songs for voice and piano, some grouped into cycles, some independent pieces, and some existing in orchestrated versions with chamber ensemble. I think my most widely performed piece is “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm. This was my first Susan Stewart setting. Mary Mackenzie sings it on Vocalisms, an Albany release, with Heidi Williams, piano:

Vocalisms also includes the complete Holy the Firm, the Three Folk Hymns, and some independent songs. Holy the Firm was written for Dawn Upshaw, and she toured with the cycle and subsequently with “Cinder” as part of a set of pieces by American composers roughly of her generation. I orchestrated Holy the Firm for soprano and chamber ensemble, and Susan Narucki sings it on the Sacred Songs album:

There are two piano and voice sets based on pre-existing melodies. The Three Sacred Songs use chant melodies plus an early Renaissance carol, with Latin texts; the Three Folk Hymns are in English, and use the popular tunes “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, “Be Thou My Vision”, and “What Wondrous Love is This”. Here’s the first of the Folk Hymns, again with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams:

None of these cycles need be performed complete. Excerpts from Holy the Firm beyond “Cinder” can work well; I’ve played piano for performances of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” paired with “Cinder”.

Turning to choral music, I’ve written a number of motets for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday services of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The first one I composed, Meditation for Candlemas, is a Denise Levertov text. This is the only a cappella piece of mine that is available from the Theodore Presser Company – contact me directly for any of the others. While several of these short a cappella works are virtuosic in their demands, others would be accessible for high school, college, or community choirs. For example, Alleluia on a Ground was written for the Mendelssohn Club here in Philadelphia, and the recently premiered Wind, Carry Me was written for a choir of high school students. Note that among these motets are some two-voice pieces: one for treble voices – One With the Day, One With the Night, on a Wendell Berry text – and one for male voices – Journey, on a Meister Eckhart text.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory for chorus and orchestra was also written for the Mendelssohn Club, and is featured on a Innova disc. Here is the second movement, setting Denise Levertov’s “Of Rivers”:

I have two other pieces for chorus and instruments. Matins sets texts by Hopkins and Mary Oliver, and was written for the Cantata Singers. The piece calls for a small complement of strings and features a concertante oboe part, written for Peggy Pearson. Set for a premiere next month is a piece based on a Bach chorale, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”. Commissioned by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Bladwin-Wallace University, the piece is scored for chamber chorus and string quartet.

There will be two CDs featuring my vocal music coming out in the next few months. First, The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, has recorded an entire album of my choral music, including the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for the group. This piece interweaves the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems reflecting on the Mass texts, again by one of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov. My Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, also written for The Crossing, is included and gives its name to the album. Settings of e. e. cummings, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry round out the disc. Second, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough perform five of my songs on an Albany Records disc to be called Descent/Return. That’s also the name of the pair of songs from the soprano and ensemble cycle A Sibyl that I arranged for soprano and piano which are included on the album. Three individual songs – The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams), The Pitcher (Robert Francis), and Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris) complete the disc, which also includes solo piano pieces by myself and John Harbison as well as returning Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight to the active catalog.

I’ll end this survey with video from the premiere of the St. Thomas Mass:

Theodore Presser scores online

I’m happy to report that my publisher, Theodore Presser, has started putting perusal scores online. The files can’t be downloaded or saved, but you can peruse to your heart’s content. I have two pieces posted so far: Songs for Adam, my song cycle for baritone and orchestra, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony; and Four Sacred Songs, a set of arrangements of chant melodies with Latin texts for mezzo-soprano (or soprano), flute, clarinet, percussion (1 player), harp, violin and cello. Presser did a decent job of posting at least a few items from most of the composers in their big catalog – there are over 450 items here.

Nobilimente

Sorry to not have been posting for a bit, will try to catch up in the next few days with some posts about CDs to which I have been listening.

For now, let me briefly note that despite the potentially morale-sapping news coming out of the Philadelphia Orchestra these days, they sounded superb at last night’s concert. I attended so I could hear Sir Andrew Davis, who conducted the premiere of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Symphony last fall. The program was Mozart and Elgar – Clemanza di Tito overture, 4th violin concerto with Stefan Jackiw, and Elgar 1. Avery Fisher Grant winner Jackiw was very impressive: a slightly cold edge to the sound of his first entrance was quickly replaced by warmth and brilliance. He offered an encore, a remarkably languorous Bach largo.

Elgar is not my favorite composer, but last night’s symphony sounded more like chamber music than movie music. Davis and the Philadelphia traded richness and sheer beauty of sound for the more usual bombast associated with this piece, and formally it hung together better than it usually does.  The subtlety of Elgar’s orchestration was emphasized. Listening from the front of the 3rd tier in Verizon Hall was better than what I have experienced in seats lower down, where the orchestra can sound like it is playing from a greater distance than is actually the case. The program made me more appreciative than ever of how fortunate I was to work with Maestro Davis on Adam.

Hear the Chicago Symphony play “Songs for Adam”

My Songs for Adam, a song cycle on poetry of Susan Stewart, was premiered last fall by baritone Brian Mulligan and the Chicago Symphony with Sir Andrew Davis conducting. Now the cycle is being included on the Chicago Symphony radio broadcast schedule.  Beginning February 12 for 7 days, the concert that included Adam will be broadcast on various radio stations throughout the country. Individual stations set their own times for offering the CSO broadcasts. You can find a list of stations and broadcast times here. Beginning February 15, and continuing for six weeks, the concert will be available for online streaming at the CSO website. You can find an excerpt from the score of Adam at my website. I hope you will have a chance to hear what was a superb performance of the piece.

Encores: no and yes

So my letter about repeat performances did make it into this week’s Arts & Leisure section. (Note the extended discussion of this topic below.)

But just at a moment when I am publicly kvetching about new music not having a life after the premiere, comes the news that my Songs for Adam will continue its life for a bit in the form of a radio broadcast. The piece will be heard on the Chicago Symphony’s radio series for one week beginning Friday, February 12. (You need to check here to find out if and when your local station will broadcast the concert.) In addition, the piece will be available for streaming on the web for six weeks beginning Monday, February 15. After the six weeks, supporting material about the performance (program notes and such) will be archived on the CSO website.

If my letter to the Times makes me sound unappreciative for the efforts that orchestras do make to provide continuing support for new pieces, let me correct that impression by saying I am more than grateful to the CSO for including the piece on their broadcast series.

Répons response

Michael Kimmelman’s piece on Boulez in the NY Times today is mostly about Boulez the persona, then about Boulez the conductor, while Boulez the composer is a distant third. But what got my attention in the article was related to the composer angle. According to Kimmelman, Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times”.

On what planet is a piece that has been played “a few dozen times” accurately characterized as rarely performed?

In the real world, most composers – including those who are doing work at least as interesting as Répons, maybe more so – consider themselves very lucky if a piece receives a second or third performance. A tiny handful of American composers might have some pieces that are performed “a few dozen times”, but those pieces would never be thought of as “rarely performed”.

The premise behind Kimmelman’s remark about Répons is that the piece should be more widely played – after all, it is by Pierre Boulez; after all, it is “the first major work he wrote using the electronic-music institute in Paris, Ircam.”  This premise overestimates Boulez’s importance as a composer. If I had to pick a favorite member of the post-war European avant-garde, it would be Berio or Ligeti, not Boulez. If I had to pick an atonal piano sonata from the post-war era, it would be George Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, not the Boulez 2nd. Try to imagine Boulez’s standing in the field if he wasn’t a leading conductor. Wouldn’t he be on about par with Dutilleux?

Répons is certainly impressive to see (I saw the piece done in NYC in the 1980s). There are six soloists, ensemble, surround sound, enough electronic gear to launch the space shuttle – but the musical payoff is not commensurate with the apparatus at hand.  (Mario Davidovsky used to joke about pieces that metaphorically use the space shuttle to drive down the Jersey Turnpike.) The moment when the electronics kick in is admittedly dazzling, but after that first entrance, the thrill soon wears off.  I remember two things from the piece in the versions I have heard: a quirky mixed meter allegro section, and mostly a whole lotta’ trills – not enough to carry a piece of that length. (The DG recording runs about 40 minutes, I understand later revisions have yielded a longer piece. Maybe there is more going on in those longer versions.) The recent Boulez piece I rather prefer is Sur Incises, which is scored for a mere nine players, without electronics, yet is more varied in its gestural repertoire. I get a more satisfying sense of narrative (fractured though it may be) from Sur Incises than from Répons.

However, my main concern is not Boulez, but the problem of the 2nd performance. In the orchestral world, there is a certain amount of prestige when an ensemble does a premiere, but the glamour quotient for subsequent performances falls off fast. (The exception is when there is a fad for a particular composer’s work, and then being on the bandwagon has its own kind of chic.) Too many first-rate pieces languish. To pick three such pieces at random: Melinda Wagner’s Trombone Concerto; Stephen Hartke’s Symphony #3, Augusta Read Thomas’s Orbital Beacons – these are all pieces well deserving of a “couple dozen” performances, but I don’t think those performances will be forthcoming; I hope I am mistaken.

Of course, there are exceptions, and of course, I and my colleagues are profoundly grateful for the opportunities that orchestras do give us. In my own recent experience, I am extraordinarily grateful to the Chicago Symphony for arranging a tryout of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Civic Orchestra last spring. Composers for orchestra don’t get the out-of-town tryout that a composer for the musical theatre does. The second or third performance of an orchestral work affords a chance to test the myriad corrections and adjustments that a first performance suggests.

While orchestras are right to look to new music as a way of invigorating concert life, the seedlings of interest planted by such efforts will have shallow roots unless compositions are given an ongoing life and composers a more than sporadic presence in our concert halls.

Out on the Frontier

Frontiers, an online magazine about research, scholarship, and other forms of creative work being done in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, has posted a very nice article by Peter Nichols about the premiere of Songs for Adam. Thanks to Susan Stewart and Augusta Read Thomas for their kind contributions to the piece.