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.

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, Meditation for Candlemas, on 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:

Four Performances This Weekend

Sometimes there is a dry spell when there are no performances of my music for an unpleasantly long time, and then there are moments when a cluster of performances congregate within a short period. This coming weekend is one of the latter. Two pieces: one from a few years ago, receiving three performances; and one being performed for the first time. Here are some details.

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, an organization based in L. A., has included my Oboe Quartet on three concerts set for this weekend in Santa Monica, Pasadena, and Santa Barbara. Find all the details here. I wrote the Quartet at the request of oboist Peggy Pearson who gave the first performances with members of the Apple Hill Quartet back in 2015. I met Peggy through my work with Emmanuel Music, the group with which she has played Bach cantatas for decades as part of the liturgy at Boston’s Emmanuel Church. Winsor Music programmed the piece that season, and there is an interview with me in connection with that performance here. Read more about the piece in this blog post. Theodore Presser Company has posted a perusal score of the piece here, and you can listen to the piece here – scroll down past the videos or use the link at the top of the page to go to the sound clips.

The other piece being done this weekend is a premiere, a short work for SATB chorus called Wind, Carry Me. Here’s my program note on the piece:

When invited to compose a new work for the PMEA District 11 Chorus, I immediately turned to my friend Susan Stewart, a distinguished poet whose words I have set in several pieces. I asked Susan to write a new poem for the project. She responded with a text that speaks of challenges and yearning, but also of capability. While my setting uses conventional chords, these are often juxtaposed in an unconventional manner. Throughout the piece, sections of the choir call to one another, finally coming together in unison at the climax, and ending with determination and strength. 

The work will be sung by about 160 high school students selected from a number of schools in the region in a concert at Springfield High School, Montgomery County, not far outside Philadelphia, conducted by Cristian Grases. This is by far the biggest group of people to perform my music! The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia has done my music a number of times, and is a big choir with roughly 80 to 100 singers, but the size of this high school group is something extraordinary.

Here are a few lines from Susan’s beautiful text, ending with what I hear as the climax of the poem:

I said to the moon
turn to me, turn to me

I said to the star
send for me, send for me 

I said to the night
harbor me

Then I said to my love
I’ll come to you, wait for me

The commission for this piece came about through the advocacy of Andrew Puntel, who teaches at Springfield High School. I came to know Andrew through my work as a church musician at St. Genevieve’s in Flourtown, PA, where he directed the music ministry until recently. I’m grateful to Andrew for proposing the piece and finding the funding for the commission.

This is not the first piece I have written specifically for young musicians. My Variations on a Hymn Tune was written for Council Rock South High School (outside Philadelphia) a number of years ago. Completely by coincidence, that piece will be done twice this season, both by the University of Pennsylvania Orchestra and by an all-state ensemble in Delaware – there is more information at the performances page.

Take Another Chorus

Although I have a catalog of more than a dozen choral pieces, I don’t think of myself as a choral composer, at least not the way some folks are who work almost exclusively in the choral medium. Yet I seem to be in the midst of a time very much focussed on choral music. My most recently completed piece is from this past April:  Journey, a Meister Eckhart setting for men’s chorus written for inclusion on a CD of my choral music being recorded by The Crossing. The album will include a short piece for women’s voices, setting a Wendell Berry text, so I thought a piece for just the men would balance the Berry setting and offer a welcome variation in texture in the context of the whole CD which is mostly for mixed chorus.

In late June, I attended the annual meeting of Chorus America, which took place here in Philly. I’ve never been to a conference of this kind, not Chorus America, not Chamber Music America, nor the League of American Orchestras. My hope was to connect with conductors and try to get them to consider my music for possible performance. I did meet some folks, all quite gracious, but it remains to be seen whether anything will come of it. I’m glad I went to the conference, though I don’t think I would have gone to it in another city, what with the cost of travel and lodging. But because the meeting was here in Philly, I would have been annoyed with myself if I did not give it a try. The conference featured amazing performances by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia (Tan Dun’s Water Passion – some striking ideas but essentially tedious and thin) and The Crossing (Kile Smith‘s big Robert Lax piece, rich-textured and imaginative, at times a bit on the minimalistic side – and just issued on CD.)

This past week there were five days of recording sessions for the CD mentioned above. The Crossing is extraordinarily virtuosic, both as individual singers ( Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus calls for a schola of four soloists, and there are many smaller solos in most of my choral pieces – click the link for video of the premiere), and as a group, with stunning unanimity of articulation, timing and intonation. Donald Nally, the conductor and artistic director of the group, has truly exceptional ears, and was constantly challenging the group to greater refinements of detail. Paul Vasquez, the recording engineer, was a pleasure to work with, and I am grateful to Kevin Vondrak and everyone else who made the recording process go smoothly.

We recorded in a handsome renovated barn on the campus of St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley, an Episcopal church in Malvern, PA.

 

The fabulous soloists for my Levertov Mass (L to R: Dimitri German, Steven Bradshaw, Rebecca Oehlers, Elisa Sutherland)

The choral focus continues for me with my current projects. I am working on a short piece for the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District 11 Chorus, an honor choir of high school students selected from various schools in southeast Pennsylvania. This will be premiered next January 18. I am working with a text written specifically for the occasion by my friend Susan Stewart, who texts I have set in four previous pieces. I am also sketching a piece in response to a commission awarded by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin-Wallace University to honor the Institute on its 50th anniversary. This is set for a first performance in April of 2020. My plan is to use a chorale tune employed by Bach, “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”,  as the basis for a chorale fantasia. I am researching the secular roots of the tune, and the many pieces based upon it by various composers. In fact, I used the tune myself in my work for sextet and tape, Sacra Conversazione, and I suspect the post-tonal harmonization it received in that piece will find its way into this new work.

Advent Miscellany

Darn it, it’s not Christmas until it’s Christmas. Don’t tell me it’s the “Christmas Season”. It’s Advent, and it’s a shame to lose this beautiful time for quiet contemplation.

There, having gotten my bit of Bah, Humbug out of my system, I can take a break from working on new pieces for the Imani Winds and for Lyric Fest to offer a brief list of miscellaneous items:

  • Thank you to Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward for the intensely touching performances of my “Cinder” and “Bedtime” last month as part of a Lyric Fest program. “Cinder”, to a Susan Stewart text, is the most often excerpted piece from Holy the Firm, while “Bedtime” is an independent item, a Denise Levertov setting. Suzanne is an uncannily charismatic performer who connects strongly with listeners, and Laura has no limitations at the piano.
  • Thanks as well to Kristina Bachrach and Daniel Schlosberg for their powerful performance of my “Every Day is a God” (also from Holy the Firm) earlier this month. This was part of the celebration marking the anthology of art songs for soprano and piano being issued by New Music Shelf. Thanks as well to the curator for the collection, Laura Strickling for including me in the volume. The entire Holy the Firm cycle is available from the Theodore Presser Company.
  • I’ve received word that my work for soprano and six instruments, A Sibyl, also on texts by Susan Stewart, will be performed at the Florida State University New Music Festival which runs January 31 through February 2. Marcia Porter will be the soloist, and Alexander Jiménez will conduct.
  • Recent listening has included:
    • The complete Mozart piano sonatas with Mitsuko Uchida on Phillips. What can I say, I adore her sound, her phrasing, the airborne joy of her playing. More of these sonatas are worth programming than the 4 or 5 that are commonly done.
    • Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins. One of the supreme classics, of course. I do wish Tommy Flanagan was more forward in the mix. “Blue 7” famously elicited a Gunther Schuller analysis, included in this volume.
    • Tiptoe Tapdance – Hank Jones. Oh, for some small fraction of the harmonic wisdom on display in this solo album, the imagination, the fluency. I hear hints of Teddy Wilson at times. Jones’s version of “It’s Me Oh Lord” included here was reprised on his beautiful album with Charlie Haden, Steal Away.
    • Faure – the Nocturnes – Paul Crossley. CRD Records. Superb playing, but I just don’t get these pieces. The harmony is sometimes conventional, but often manages to be strange yet boring. The rhythmic stasis doesn’t help, inducing a state of claustrophobia. Friends tell me this is great stuff; I will give it another try at some point.
  • A blessed Christmas to all – see you in the New Year.

“A Sibyl” in the Garden

(photo courtesy of Alycia Kravitz and Museum of Modern Art)

I’m very grateful for the superb performance of A Sibyl last Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden with Anneliese Klenetsky, soprano; members of the New Juilliard Ensemble; and Joel Sachs, conductor. Anneliese’s singing displayed beauty of sound, great musicianship, and vivid expression. All the musicians truly “got” the piece – you could tell by their characterful singing and playing that they understood what I was trying to say. No less important, they had formidable gifts with which to convey the musical message.

Of course, I am very grateful to my friend Susan Stewart for giving me such powerful texts to set.

Also on the program was Leonora Pictures by Philip Cashian. This was my first encounter with the music of the British composer, and I was very impressed: a cogent harmonic language, imaginative textures, and a strong sense of drama. I’d like to hear more of his work.

Here are some pictures from last Sunday, taken by the gifted Alycia Kravitz, and included here with her kind permission and that of the Museum of Modern Art. The exception is this shot of the evening’s program:

The clips on the music stands are to help the music not fly away in the breeze; Alycia managed to catch a momentary appearance by one of the other singers of the evening.

The BVM was taking care of video:

A good-sized crowd attends these SummerGarden concerts:

 

The indefatigable Joel Sachs who has performed an incredible amount of new music over the years:

Sae Hashimoto:

Reiko Tsuchida:

Shen Liu, clarinet, and Emily Duncan, flute:

Julia Glenn:

Yu Yu Liu:

Anneliese Klenetsky:

 

That’s Susan Stewart taking a bow with me:

Thanks are also due to Melania Monios of the MoMA for her kind hospitality as she made sure all ran smoothly. As Susan remarked in an e-mail, it was a magical evening.

“Holy the Firm” at soirée

This coming Sunday, pianist Jason Wirth will be holding a soirée at his home studio. It’s a program of contemporary song and will include soprano Lily Arbisser  (pictured) doing four of the five songs from my Holy the Firm. This takes place Sunday, Nov. 26 at 6 pm. The address is 101 W. 143rd St. Apt. 20, in Manhattan. A nice coincidence: Lily was a student of Susan Stewart at Princeton, and Susan is the author of “Cinder”, one of the poems I set in Holy the Firm.

Go here for the live stream of the event.

(photo credit: Arielle Doneson)

More on “A Sibyl”

  • David Hoose speaks about the Collage New Music season, including this Sunday’s concert, featuring the premiere of A Sibyl, in this Boston Musical Intelligencer interview.
  • There are a number of YouTube videos featuring soprano Mary Mackenzie, who will be the soloist for A Sibyl. These include several of my own music. Here’s Mary singing two songs with pianist Heidi Louise Williams; the first is on a text by Susan Scott Thompson, the second sets words by Susan Orlean.

Mary and Heidi have recorded these songs and several others for a CD to be released later this season on Albany Records.

  • here are some excerpts from Sacred Songs and Meditations, a big set of vocal and instrumental pieces based on plainchant and other ancient melodies. The ensemble is the 21st Century Consort led by Christopher Kendall, with members of the Folger Consort and choirs of the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C.

  • Read about Susan Stewart, author of the texts for A Sibyl, here and here. Susan published a volume of new and selected poems this year, entitled Cinder. The title poem is the first of her texts that I set, some 18 years ago. Listen to Susan Narucki sing it, again with the 21st Century Consort and Christopher Kendall.

“A Sibyl”, Wagner, and Chopin

I wasn’t teaching at my day job this summer for the first time in a while, so I had a little more time than usual – but the unbridgeable gap between what one hopes to accomplish and what actually happens remained wide. Still, a few things got done.

The most important task accomplished was completing A Sibyl, my Fromm commission for Collage New Music. This is a cycle on texts by Susan Stewart that she wrote specifically for the project, and is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Mary Mackenzie will be the soloist. I estimate the piece will run about 25 minutes. There are six songs, setting poems that build on what can be found in Virgil and Ovid about the mysterious figure of the Cumaean Sibyl in somewhat the way Susan built her texts for my Songs for Adam (a work for baritone and orchestra) upon the Biblical stories. Collage has set the premiere of A Sibyl for the afternoon of October 15, the same day Emmanuel Music will do a motet of mine in the morning at Emmanuel Church, and Winsor Music will do my recent quintet for oboe and piano quartet in the evening. Three performances in Greater Boston in a single day is an amazing trifecta of good luck – more details to follow.

I spent many summer hours at the piano, working on the B-flat minor Scherzo of Chopin and playing through the piano score of Die Walküre. On the basis of playing that score, I can confirm a few things you already knew about the Wagner: yes, it really is very long;  yes, if you had a dollar for every diminished seventh chord in the piece you could retire today, and yes, the harmony in the Todesverkündigung is impossibly gorgeous. What I had not realized is how many passages throughout the opera are essentially recitative of a relatively straightforward kind – the “endless melody” you read about in your undergrad music history textbook is not quite so endless as Wagner fools us into thinking.

I still get bothered by the amount of literal repetition in the Chopin Scherzi; I suppose I wish the pieces were actually four more ballades. At least there is less literal repetition in the B-flat minor than in the B-minor, the other one I have practiced. Much of my time was spent on baffling questions of fingering – when it is better to stretch, when to cross…  Fingering remains a mystery to me – I often don’t realize when I am doing something unnecessarily awkward, or don’t see what could be a viable alternative. The cliché about the easiest fingering not necessarily being the best fingering is not terribly helpful when “easiest” and “best” seem to be moving targets that shift from day to day. Pianistic issues aside, engaging with pieces by playing them is essential nourishment for me – as a composer, but also as a person, and I was glad to have a little more time for that nourishment over this past summer.

Notes Aligned in Boston

It’s a little ways off, and I don’t have all the details, but I want to let you know about a happy coincidence has taken shape on my schedule of performances. On the afternoon of October 15, Collage New Music with soprano Mary Mackenzie, will premiere my current project, a song cycle called A Sibyl on Susan Stewart poems, at the the Longy School of Bard College in Cambridge, MA. David Hoose will conduct. And that evening, Winsor Music will present the second performance of my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano, this at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA.

Mary Mackenzie, who has done a fabulous job with my music on several occassions, including this CD, will be the soloist for A Sibyl.

I’ve put in a request with Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music to do one of my motets at Emmanuel Church that morning – maybe there will be three performances of my music in Boston that day!

UPDATE: Ryan has confirmed that he will include my music at Emmanuel’s 10 am service that day – it’s a Primosch festival in Boston!

“Dark the Star” in Philadelphia and New York

6a00d83453ebeb69e201a511c84960970c-320wiPoetry of Rilke and Susan Stewart, plus a verse from Psalm 116 – these are the texts I set in Dark the Star, a 2008 work for baritone, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion. The New York New Music Ensemble with soloist Thomas Meglioranza (at left) will perform the piece twice in early November. Here are the details: the first performance is in Philadelphia on Sunday, November 6 at 2 pm. The free concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, located on the southeast corner of 34th and Walnut on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Make sure your clock is set correctly, as Eastern Standard Time returns that weekend!) NYNME will repeat the program in New York the next day, November 7. The New York performance is at 8:30 pm, at the Tenri Cultural Center, 43a West 13th Street. Music by Melinda Wagner, Mario Davidovsky, and Augusta Read Thomas will round out the program.

I’ve been fortunate to work with the extraordinary musicians of NYNME for over 20 years. The rapport among these players is near telepathic, and their performances are electrifying.

Here is my program note on Dark the Star:

Composing 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 texts 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 of yet encircle us. The work was composed for William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort, who gave the premiere, with Christopher Kendall conducting.

Sample the Bridge recording of the piece on YouTube, with the forces for whom the piece was written: