Election Eve Miscellany

  • First things first: I hope you are either planning to go vote tomorrow, or are perhaps reading this while waiting in line to do so.
  • Thank you to The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally for the beautiful first performance they gave of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage. In a ten minute piece, I asked a lot of the group in terms not only of vocal virtuosity, but in variety of expression. They certainly delivered, as they always seem to do. I am very grateful. Unfortunately, no review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • I am struggling hard to make progress on my new piece for the Imani Winds, set for a February premiere in Philly, but to be rehearsed for the first time in December, so there is much to do on the piece this month. At the same time I have been polishing the performance materials for Matins, the work for oboe, strings and chorus that Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers will perform in January. Conductor David Hoose has helped me improve the notation – there are a lot more cautionary accidentals in the score than there used to be, for example – and some re-spellings that I am not sure I always agree with. But I have accepted 98% of David’s suggestions and corrections, and am happy to do what I can to make sure the performers can give their best.
  • Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward will perform two of my songs on upcoming Lyric Fest concerts: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm sets a Susan Stewart poem and is my most performed piece; and Bedtime, a Denise Levertov song from nearly 30 years ago, which was later memorably sung by Dawn Upshaw at her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Check the Performances page for more info on all the concerts I am mentioning.
  • Recent and not so recent listening has included:
    • some old George Shearing sides from the 1940s from a Proper box set. I’m afraid this was disappointing, with saccharine ballads and frantic bop solos, though he sometimes hits a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
    • A 1982 DG disc of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic in his Divertimento (forgettable), Halil with Rampal (colleagues I respect speak well of this piece, but it didn’t hold me), the Dance Episodes from “On the Town” (delightful) and Rostropovich playing the Three Meditations from “Mass” (it’s not really a cello and orchestra piece. However, like Anne Midgette who wrote about Mass in the Washington Post, I had the piece from which this cello work is extracted memorized before I knew any better, so I find it hard to judge the music now. (I wonder if she was raised Catholic as was I?))
    • A Recital of Intimate Works, which is an album of varied keyboard pieces performed by pianist Andrew Rangell on a 1996 Dorian disc. I am not sure that these pieces all qualify as intimate – not all the movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles, for example – but it is very freshly programmed. A piano album that includes Froberger, Sweelinck, Messiaen, and Enescu, plus Mozart (the sublime Rondo in A minor) and transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven certainly gets my attention. Beautifully played and recorded.
  • I’ve been greatly enjoying The Library Book by Susan Orlean – it’s great reporting, it’s great writing, it’s great fun, and, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s greatly touching. But this is the writer whose work gave me the text for a moving song, Shadow Memory:

The video is with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, who are the fabulous performers on Vocalisms, the new disc from Albany that includes Shadow Memory plus nine more of my songs.

Vocalisms

Vocalisms, the new two-CD set featuring my music as well as works by Harbison, Rorem, and Daniel Crozier, has been released by Albany Records. Soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Heidi Louise Williams perform my Shadow Memory (text by Susan Orlean), Waltzing the Spheres (Susan Scott Thompson), Three Folk Hymns (based on How Can I Keep From Singing?, Be Thou My Vision, and What Wondrous Love is This?), and the first recording of the piano version of Holy the Firm, (various authors) the 1999 cycle I wrote for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. There’s a complete track listing at the Albany website.

The album makes a fine survey of contemporary American piano-and-voice song, with a mix of pieces by two senior composers (Rorem and Harbison) along with music by two mid-career types (Dan and myself.) The title comes from the opening piece, Harbison’s Vocalism, a Whitman setting that was commissioned by SongFest, the same organization that commissioned Shadow Memory.

I met Mary when she did my Three Sacred Songs about ten years ago, and she has been a wonderful advocate for my music ever since. Heidi came to my attention through her collaboration with Mary, and, as with Mary, I’ve been thrilled to hear her performances. It’s a wonderful combination of two smart artists who each have a gorgeous sound and superb musicianship. Their partnership is impeccable and they command every mood, whether serene or playful, mysterious or exuberant, often with no small emotional wallop, whether it’s the melancholy of Shadow Memory or the devastating deathbed scene that closes Holy the Firm. I’m profoundly grateful for their work.

I am delighted with the quality of the recording as well, as realized by producer Peter Henderson and engineer Paul Hennerich.

This is Mary’s fourth release on Albany, which says something for their well-justified belief in her merit. I can’t provide a direct link, but go to the Albany website and do an artist search to see her complete list of Albany albums, including the 21st Century Consort’s Cathedral Music, featuring my Sacred Songs and Meditations. And do the same for Heidi, whose Albany releases include a wonderful disc of contemporary American piano music called Drive American. You’ll want to browse the Albany catalog in general – the firm is admirable for its commitment to new music.

While there is a brief soundclip from the new album at the Albany page, you can see videos of Mary and Heidi doing two of the songs from the album here. That page also includes material from the Cathedral Music cd.

The score of Holy the Firm is available from the Theodore Presser Co., while the other songs are available from me directly – just send me a message.

Here are the three of us – Mary on the left – after a 2015 coaching session.

“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:

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– 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.”

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.

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:

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

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

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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.

NYFOS in February

Happy to see the NY Times mention my participation in the February 10 concert by New York Festival of Song. The program will feature excerpts from Paul Moravec’s opera-in-progress on Stephen King’s novel “The Shining”, along with music by Chris Theofanidis and Paola Prestini. Not sure what they are planning to include of mine; I’m hoping it will include the little song I did on a Susan Orlean text, which would be a premiere. But I’ll be grateful for whatever they program – NYFOS concerts are consistently fine.