Latest Recordings (pinned post)

Carthage is a survey of my choral music by two-time Grammy-winners The Crossing, including three pieces written on commission from them, and three more composed for Emmanuel Music. There are settings here of texts by Meister Eckhart, Marilynne Robinson, E. E. Cummings, Thomas Merton, and Wendell Berry. The major work on the disc is the Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, which interweaves a setting of the Latin Mass with poems by Denise Levertov reflecting on the Mass texts. Donald Nally conducts on a Navona disc. Find it online here. Read a review from AllMusic here.

Descent/Return features five of my songs with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough as well as the piano preludes that make up the set Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. The title track is extracted from my cycle for soprano and ensemble, A Sibyl, setting poems written specifically for the project by Susan Stewart.  John Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight and his Piano Sonata No. 2 complete the album. (None of the songs on Vocalisms are duplicated on Descent/Return.) Go to the Albany Records website to order.

Vocalisms is a grand two-disc anthology of songs by four composers: Ned Rorem, John Harbison, Daniel Crozier, and myself. Mary Mackenzie sings 10 of my songs, including the Three Folk Hymns and the complete Holy the Firm, originally written for Dawn Upshaw. The pianist is Heidi Williams. Again, find it at Albany Records.

Sacred Songs offers four song cycles for voice and chamber ensemble, with Susan Narucki singing From a Book of Hours, Four Sacred Songs, and an orchestrated version of Holy the Firm while William Sharp sings Dark the Star. Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort on a Bridge Records release.

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:

Narucki and Berman at Tufts

43-231708452f2b1da7481ac1d67e2aecf6I just got word that the fabulous duo of soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Donald Berman is giving a program at Tufts this coming Sunday that will include my setting of a Kathleen Norris text, Who Do You Say That I Am?, and two songs from my set of Three Folk Hymns – the ones based on Be Thou My Vision and What Wondrous Love is This? The concert is at 3 pm at the Distler Performance Hall in the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University in Medford, MA – more info here. The program is an attractive one. Susan and Donald are calling it: “Stop Endings: Intimate Songs on Nature, Loss, and Spirituality”. Besides my own material there will be music of Schumann, Zemlinsky, and Kurtág. (Susan coached with the famously demanding Kurtág.)

There’s lots of great stuff from Susan on YouTube, including Carter, Crumb, Davidovsky, Vivier, etc. For a start, here’s her Bridge recording of the third song in my Rilke cycle From a Book of Hours for chamber ensemble and soprano (the piece also exists in the original orchestral version). Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. There’s a perusal score of the chamber version below and the orchestral version is here.  You can hear Donald play piano music of Scott Wheeler here; lots of Ives from Donald on YouTube as well.

(photo credit: Richard Bowditch)

 

Ways of Listening

You may have noticed the link at the end of the recent NY Times review of the Tanglewood performance of my Dark the Star – it takes you to a YouTube posting of a track from the Bridge recording of the piece. The recording is by William Sharp, baritone, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor. You really should pick up a copy of the disc (there are links to do that at the Bridge website), but if you disdain physical media (and paying artists for their work!) and want to hear the piece from the beginning, go here. Dark the Star consists of nine movements played without pause, which means the separate videos for each track of the piece interrupt the flow in disconcerting ways, sometimes in mid-phrase – another reason to spring for the physical disc. The pieces from the Sacred Songs cd featuring soprano Susan Narucki are also on YouTube – here’s the first track from the cycle Holy the Firm.

Another way of listening to my work is to visit the audio excerpts link above. I’ve just posted two items:

– under solo voice, you can find the recent premiere of Shadow Memory, with soprano Lisa Williamson and pianist Rami Sarieddine, recorded at SongFest this past June. The piece is on a text by Susan Orlean.

– under instrumental, you’ll find the Oboe Quartet I wrote for Peggy Pearson and the Apple Hill Quartet, this taken from their performance at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA this past spring.

And, yes, I was thinking of this title when I titled this post, though not of the book’s content.

Opera News on “Sacred Songs”

A review by Joshua Rosenblum of my Sacred Songs album has appeared on the Opera News website. It’s only available for subscribers, so I’ll just offer a few quotes here:

“Primosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama…”

“Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation…”

“Baritone William Sharp uses his resonant, authoritative voice to provide a gripping, inexorable build…” [in the song cycle Dark the Star]

Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross.  Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.”

“These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple… Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment.”

The Crossing in Mourning

I spent all day today working on my commission for The Crossing, took a break to look at Arts Journal, and saw the news of the death of Crossing member Jeff Dinsmore. My thoughts and prayers are with all concerned, including my friend Susan Narucki who is to be soloist in the same Andriessen performance with the L.A. Phil that The Crossing is preparing for. A message sent out by The Crossing tonight is here. Members of the ensemble talk about the group in this video.

My piece for The Crossing includes settings of poetry by Denise Levertov, including this passage:

O deep, remote unknown,
O deep unknown,
Have mercy upon us.

Sacred Songs: program notes, part II

Here are the program notes for the other two pieces on my new CD on Bridge. (The first installment is here). The pictures below are of the Grammy winning soloists on the disc, Bill Sharp and Susan Narucki.

Dark the Star

Unknown-3Composing this cycle of songs began with my discovery of three poems in Susan Stewart’s collection Columbarium that I knew I must set to music. The deep, dreamlike wisdom of these poems haunted me, just as I had experienced with Susan’s poem “Cinder” that had served as the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm. Eventually, texts by Rilke and an earlier setting I had done of a psalm verse were drawn into the gravitational orbit of Susan’s poems. I ordered the texts in a nearly symmetrical pattern, with two poems set a second time in versions that shadow their first readings. This is partly for the sake of the formal design, but, more importantly, to re-examine the poems in the penumbra of what comes before. Rounding the cycle in this way reflects not only the circles and repetitions in Susan Stewart’s texts, but also the way in which, as Rilke writes, the things we have let go yet encircle us.

William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort premiered this cycle in 2008.

Holy the Firm

Unknown-2The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for this song cycle draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted from a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte.  The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.

The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song. In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”

Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish gave the first performance of the original piano and voice version of Holy the Firm in 1999. I subsequently made this chamber version for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort; those artists gave the premiere in 2002.

Sacred Songs: program notes

My new CD, Sacred Songs, is coming out on Bridge Records this Tuesday. Here are program notes for two of the pieces on the disc – notes on the other two pieces in tomorrow’s post. John Harbison’s  booklet essay for the disc is here. That’s the soloist for these pieces, Susan Narucki, pictured below.

From a Book of Hours 

UnknownThis cycle of songs sets four poems from an early collection by Rilke entitled Das Stundenbuch, or in English, Book of Hours. Although the title refers to a medieval book of prayers for the various times of day and seasons of the liturgical year, Rilke’s texts occupy a position some distance from conventional piety.  There is a melancholy to the spirituality expressed here, which speaks of an experience of God that is fragmentary, imperfect, and unattainable. The solitude evoked in the second song (as layers of busy activity are gradually peeled away) offers some solace, but the third song is very dark and fierce, filled with a desperate, even manic desire for God. The last song returns to the mood of the first, but now in a global rather than individual context. This song, like the set as a whole, speaks of our world’s brokenness, yet strives to stammer fragments of God’s name.

Originally composed in an orchestral version on a commission from the Chicago Symphony, this chamber ensemble version was prepared for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort, with Christopher Kendall conductor, who gave the first performance in 2007.

Four Sacred Songs

When soprano Christine Schadeberg asked me to compose a new work for her 1989 Town Hall recital, she asked for something lighter in tone than my usual style, suggesting that I consider writing some folk song arrangements.  I agreed to the idea of arrangements, but rather than folk songs, I chose three old sacred melodies; the idea of sharing with a concert audience a few of the musical riches that I had encountered in my work as a liturgical musician was particularly attractive. In 1990 I orchestrated these piano and voice songs, adding the second movement which exists only in the chamber ensemble version. The first performance was given by Christine Schadeberg with the ensemble Voices of Change.

The first song, “Jesu Dulcis Memoria”, is a strophic chant hymn with a text by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian monk and preacher.

I have set “Corde Natus Ex Parentis” using a somewhat free version of the medieval technique known as a mensuration canon: except for a few freely imitative phrases, all the parts have the same melody, but played at different speeds.  For example, the low cello and harp notes mark out the tune at a pace six times slower than the voice.

The chant “Christus Factus Est” appears in the Liber Usualis  as part of the Holy Week liturgy; the melody is unusually wide-ranging and highly melismatic.  The text is part of St. Paul’s famous “Philippians Hymn”, and speaks of the mystery of Christ’s suffering and exaltation.

The origins of the tune for “O Filli et Filliae” are obscure, and may be secular in nature.  The words somewhat discontinuously narrate the Easter story, closing with a call to give praise and thanks to God.