Recent Listening – American Composers

Some of these are new, some are not, but all are worthy of your attention. Excellent performances as well.

Paul Moravec: Sanctuary Road. Oratorio Society of New York, Kent Tritle. Naxos.
Another substantial choral work by Paul on an American theme, after his The Blizzard Voices – in this case, the theme is the Underground Railroad,  There is a generosity to the writing that suits the grand forces and the big topics.

Paul Schoenfeld, Steven Stucky, John Harbison: Three American Violin Sonatas. Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Jon Kimura Parker, piano. Naxos
Eclectic, effective writing from Schoenfeld; one of the works in traditional genres to which Stucky turned late in life; always thoughtful, always fresh Harbison.

George Perle: Serenades. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose conductor. Wenting Kang, viola; Donald Berman, piano. BMOP/sound
Ranging from 1962 (Serenade No. 1 for viola and chamber orchestra) through 1968 (Serenade No. 2 for eleven players) and on to 1983 (Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber orchestra). Though they range over 21 years, Perle’s coherent harmonic language and witty rhythmic gestures obtain throughout. I think the best item here is No. 3 – I believe I was at the premiere in NYC!

Gerald Levinson: Now Your Colors Sing. various performers. Innova.
A splendid 2-cd survey of work by a composer truly deserving of a much higher profile. A student of Messiaen and Crumb, a visitor to Bali, Levinson’s music is more than the sum of those influences. Extraordinarily refined harmony, highly colorful orchestration, clear and expressive formal shapes, all at the service of a profound expressive impulse.

John Harbison: String Trio; Four Songs of Solitude; Songs America Loves to Sing. Camerata Pacifica. Harmonia Mundi.
At the moment, the compositional pendulum has swung back to the exploration of extended instrumental techniques of the kind that were of interest in my earliest student days. Given that context, it’s a pleasure to hear pieces where the pitches really matter. There’s a big serious string trio, a group of four lyrical violin pieces, and a set of pieces based on American folk and traditional tunes, written in the hope that the tunes would work the way the chorales work in Bach’s music, as part of a shared repertoire among listeners. I’m afraid the tunes are not as widely known as they may once have been, but, as with Bach, you can still enjoy the compositional ingenuity, the brilliant instrumental writing, and the sheer rollicking joy of this music.

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.”

Wednesday Morning Miscellany

Here are some random events and a few other items.

Ensemble 20/21, the Curtis Institute’s new music ensemble, does an all-Stucky program this coming Friday, March 1. Concert at 8 pm, interview with the composer at 7:30.

New York Virtuoso Singers has another concert packed with premieres, including works by: Richard Wernick, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Aaron Jay Kernis, David Lang, Mark Adamo, Richard Danielpour, Augusta Read Thomas, Thea Musgrave, Joseph Schwantner, William Bolcom, Roger Davidson, David Felder and Joan Tower. Merkin Concert Hall in NYC, Sunday, March 3 at 3 pm.

– Matthew Greenbaum’s Amphibian series returns with a program by the Temple University Percussion ensemble, with Cyndie Berthézène, soprano. Works by
Augusta Reade Thomas, James Tenney, and Andrew Taylor along with a showing of Maya Deren’s classic experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and a new piece by Matthew himself for video animation and electronic sound. The HIART Gallery 227 W29 St. in NYC,  March 7 at 8pm.

– Soprano Stacey Mastrian will offer a program of 20th century Italian music at the University of Pennsylvania on March 13 at 8 pm. The big piece will be Luigi Nono’s La fabbrica illuminata for soprano and four-channel electronic sound; the program will also include the Berio Sequenza for voice and works by Dallapiccola and others.

– My current Lenten reading is The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, a fairly early book by Henri Nouwen. This is reminiscent of Thomas Merton‘s journals, a mix of narrative about life in the monastery combined with deeper, heartfelt reflections on what Nouwen confronted during his months living there. You gotta love a book where one of the chapter titles is “Nixon and St. Bernard” (Nouwen is writing at the time of Watergate).

Here is a list of 500 movies you can see online, legally (so far as I know), and for free.

Symphonic Stucky

My colleague Steven Stucky is the latest composer to claim that the symphony, as a genre, ain’t dead yet. His new Symphony, performed by the LA Philharmonic, can be heard this weekend, streamed live on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 5 Eastern / 2 Pacific over both and NPR. The NPR site will also have a live chat room available. The performance will be archived online at NPR music and through Oct 7, and will then be available for streaming from Oct 8-14 on APM’s Symphonycast on over 130 radio stations and at Symphonycast. The piece will also be done by the New York Philharmonic on Nov. 29 and 30, and Dec. 1.

The contemporary symphony seems to be an American phenomenon – besides Stucky, one can think of Harbison, Rouse, Wernick, Zwillich, Wuorinen, Hartke, and several others. It’s harder to name living European composers who write symphonies – only Henze, Knussen and Davies come to mind. Who am I forgetting?

NY Philharmonic at Kimmel

I don’t get out to concerts as much as I would like, or as much as I should, but at the moment I am in the midst of a string of musical events. Here’s a first report.

Last Friday, the New York Philharmonic, with its music director Alan Gilbert, did what musicians call a run-out, bringing the program of Stucky, Berlioz, and Mussorgsky/Ravel they were playing for their weekly subscription series at Lincoln Center to the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Steven Stucky’s name is deservedly prominent at the moment, and he is best known for a big catalog of masterful orchestral music. (I mean a big catalog, Stucky is another one of those characters who makes me feel slow and lazy.)  His Son Et Lumière is from 1988. The music is rooted in a Franco/Russian musical world (hence the apt programming) and is influenced (as I’m sure Steve is tired of hearing said) by Lutoslawski’s language: the preference for harmonies with a very clear intervallic identity, particularly big euphonious stacks of thirds; the vibrant, bustling textures, emphasizing transparent orchestral colors, even when those textures are at their busiest; and forms often shaped by juxtaposition of contrasting sections, like cinematic cuts. The quest for harmonic clarity in this idiom can sometimes affect the melodic profile – there are spots in Lutoslawski where the melodies (say, the first part of Mi-Parti) are little more than arpeggiations of the underlying harmony, with relatively little embellishment. There is a hint of that in Steve’s music of this period, but I think he was aware of the issue, and he successfully avoids the static, somewhat flat quality that can result.

Compositions can be understood as critiques of other compositions, and Son et Lumiére responds to minimalism’s emphasis on regular pulsation by employing motor rhythms, but with a richer, less static harmonic language. Despite the reliance on ostinato throughout a good bit of the piece, Steve’s keen sense of timing moves us along at just the right moment. The repeated patterns serve the music, rather than themselves being the musical focus.

A darker expressive character inhabits the closing two and a half minutes of the piece. After a tremendous low pedal tone, the ostinatos that have driven the piece so far are set aside, and brief interjections are layered over an impassioned string cantilena, the interjections finally crystallizing into short sharp high trumpet chords. The cantilena cuts off, the glittering, slicing trumpet chords continue for a moment, and then a three-note motto from the unpitched percussion – which had served as a playful call to attention earlier in the piece – now brutally cuts off further discussion.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Philadelphia Orchestra has played Steve’s music since the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra back in the 1980’s (not to be confused with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra from 2003). Here’s hoping that oversight gets rectified soon. (Update: only on re-reading this post did I recall that Olly Knussen conducted the Philadelphia in Steve’s arrangement of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary several years ago.) There is an excellent recording of Son et Lumiére by the Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller conducting.

After the brilliance of the Stucky, the Philharmonic showed itself capable of subtle nuances in its accompaniment of Joyce DiDonato in Berlioz’s Nuit d’Eté. It is hard to overpraise Ms. DiDonato – her varied, perfectly controlled, but always gorgeous sound is put at the service of  intensely characterful expression. The Berlioz is more about languid gestures than the coloratura of which she is capable, and I was most struck by the inward moments of the piece, the especially quiet spots where DiDonato drew the listeners into the music; a mere superficial projection of the music outward for us to admire is not her way.

The performance of Pictures at an Exhibition that closed the program returned to the dazzling mode of Stucky’s curtain raiser. I’m afraid I have to somewhat agree with Peter Dobrin’s sense that there were moments of imperfect balance, but these were offset by tremendous virtuosity, both of soloists and the ensemble as a whole. One moment of imbalance, at least where I was sitting, was the sampled church bell in the last movement of the Mussorgsky – it sounded great, so much better than the usual compromises –  (it is a big problem to get a truly low bell sound on an orchestral stage) but it was a bit too much of a good thing.

Comment on the Network/Felyx_M concerts from this past weekend, plus the upcoming Eric Owens recital and next week’s Philadelphia Orchestra concerts with James Gaffigan yet to come.

Rainy Friday Miscellany

– I’ll be hearing lots of music in the next few days – the Network/Mendelssohn Club/Philadelphia Chamber Music Society performances of my Ariel Songs this weekend;  the NY Phil at the Kimmel Center here in Philadelphia tonight (a run-out of this week’s subscription program of Stucky, Berlioz and Mussorgsky-Ravel, with Joyce DiDonato, Alan Gilbert conducting) as well as Eric Owens‘s recital, again at Kimmel, next Tuesday.

– My hometown is also home to an amazing book store.

– A lovely post for the beginning of Lent.

– Many of these are quite funny.


Dolce Suono, Mahler, and Schoenberg

A great concert tonight in Philly by Dolce Suono with the amazing Eric Owens as soloist in new works by David Ludwig, Stratis Minakakis (both Penn alums), Fang Man, Steve Stucky, and Steve Mackey. (The Steves were absent due to performances in Carnegie Hall (Stucky) and with the LA Phil (Mackey). Ah, to have such problems…) Owens also did the Mahler Songs of a Wayfarer in the Schoenberg arrangement, and the underappreciated pianist Charles Abramovic offered an elegant performance of the Schoenberg Op. 19 piano pieces (with some idiot’s cell phone ringing during the last delicate movement). This is the first concert in a project commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death and the 60th anniversary of Schoenberg’s death, and the commissioned works all had threads of connection with those composers.

New site-ings and Dolce Suono

A new website for violinist extraordinaire Miranda Cuckson – check out the media page for lots of video and audio; and a newly revamped website, now with a blog, for composer extraordinaire Steve Mackey. A Mackey premiere here in Philly at the Dolce Suono concert this coming Wednesday, along with new pieces by Steven Stucky, Fang Man, Stratis Minakakis, and David Ludwig. Eric Owens will be the soloist.

Steven Stucky Missing

What does it say about our musical culture that James Oestreich can write the following in a spring preview piece in the Times about a festival of visiting orchestras at Carnegie Hall:

Though top-rank orchestras are eligible, few American behemoths have yet shown interest. But the Montreal Symphony is here with Kent Nagano leading a program tracing the evolution of the symphony, from Gabrieli brass works and Bach sinfonias to Beethoven’s Fifth. Jaap van Zweden leads the Dallas Symphony in a work it commissioned for the Lyndon B. Johnson centenary in 2008, “August 4, 1964.”

The other orchestras for the inaugural season are the Albany Symphony (with an evening of reimagined spirituals), the Toledo Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of New York. All tickets are $25.

and fail to mention the name of the composer of “August 4, 1964”? This is not some five-minute curtain raiser, but a well-received evening-length oratorio by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky. (I give you a quote of that length so that you can see the context.) It was even Oestreich who reviewed the piece for the Times.

I am reminded of the newspaper picture of the entire company bowing after a performance of Richard Danielpour’s opera “Margaret Garner” a few years ago. The caption identified everyone in the picture except Richard.