“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:

“Dark”-ness Approaching Tanglewood

The July 24th Tanglewood performance of Dark the Star, my song cycle for baritone and chamber ensemble, is just a week away. It’s part of an attractive program, with music by Luigi Dallapiccola, John Harbison, Helen Grime, Shulamit Ran, and Gerald Levinson. The Harbison, Grime and Ran pieces are premieres. I’ll be there starting earlier in the week, so as to attend rehearsals of my piece and to catch several of the other concerts in the Contemporary Festival, as well as some of the regular programs. Highlights for me in the latter category include Paul Lewis playing the last three Beethoven sonatas and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Mahler 5.

Dark the Star sets texts in English by Susan Stewart, in German by Rilke, and in Latin from Psalm 116, with the title for the cycle borrowed from one of Susan’s poems. Here’s my program note on the piece:

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.

 

 

Almost a Festival

If one performance is a concert, do two performances in quick succession in the same town constitute a festival? I don’t know about that, but there is a happy coincidence next week when my Philadelphia Chamber Music Society commission A Flutist’s Sketchbook will have its premiere on Tuesday, Oct. 22, and the next night Holy the Firm will be performed by soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Eric Sedgwick. Here are the details:

October 22, 2013 at 8:00 pm:
A Flutist’s Sketchbook (premiere)
Jeffrey Khaner, flute
Charles Abramovic, piano
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Settlement Music School
Queen Street Branch
Philadelphia, PA

October 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm
Holy the Firm
Mary Mackenzie, soprano
Eric Sedgwick, piano
Penn Contemporary Music
Rose Recital Hall (in Fisher-Bennett Hall)
34th and Walnut Streets
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

Jeffrey Khaner is the principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra; Charles Abramovic is a renowned chamber music partner, working with artists such as Midori and Sarah Chang as well as being a stalwart advocate for new music. I am greatly honored to have them perform my music. The commission was for a work accessible to players of modest attainments while remaining satisfying for professionals. I was uncertain as to exactly where to target the piece, and therefore this is a set of “13 easy and not so easy pieces” as the work’s subtitle describes it. Given the simplicity of some of the music, it strikes me that having Jeff and Charlie play the Sketchbook is like using nuclear weapons to kill a mosquito. Still, it will be a thrill to hear their formidable gifts put at the service of this modest music.

In contrast, Holy the Firm is rather immodest music. Written as it was for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish, this time I tried to make a big statement commensurate with the capabilities of those artists. Dawn specifically wanted a cycle, not an individual song, so H the F is a set of five movements, shaped by an expressive arc that binds the songs together quite literally – the songs follow each other with little or no pause (although individual songs can be extracted and performed separately, as has happened on many occasions). There are motivic recurrences that also tie the pieces together, with material from the first three songs (settings of Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard and the 7th century monk John Climacus) recurring in the finale, a kind of mad scene setting a found poem also by Annie Dillard. The expressive fulcrum of the piece is based on Susan Stewart’s Cinder, the first of 10 poems of Susan’s I have set, (with more settings to come). Here is Susan’s haunting text:

We need fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars;
we needed death to mark
an end, an end that time
in time, could mend.
Born in love, the consequence –
born of love, the need.
Tell me, ravaged singer,
how the cinder bears the seed.

“Cinder” in New York and Boston

539wIt was about this time of year in 1999 that I completed a set of songs for Dawn Upshaw called Holy the Firm. The best song from the cycle, one that she and others have often performed, is “Cinder”, and it sets a poem by my friend Susan Stewart. I just got a message from Dawn that she has programmed that song on concerts to be given this week by herself and some of her students from Bard College. Here are the dates and locations:

Feb. 19 at Bard, in the new Bito Performance Space at 8pm
Feb. 21 at the Morgan Library in NYC at 7:30pm
Feb. 24 at the Longy School of Music in Boston at 7pm

Student Kameryn Lueng will sing “Cinder” – I don’t have her pianist’s name yet. The program will include a number of new songs written specifically for the students, three songs from John Harbison’s Simple Daylight, a song by Laura Schwendinger, as well as a new song by George Tsontakis performed by Dawn herself with pianist Kayo Iwama. (picture: Dawn Upshaw)

Update: Kameryn’s excellent accompanist is Christina Giuca.

Icy Miscellany

3-lazy-polar-bears-thumbYes, it’s pretty chilly here in Philly. Blogging has been sparse lately as I have been finishing the third in a set of six songs I am writing on texts of Susan Stewart. The cycle is called “A Sibyl”, and this latest song is one where the Cumean Sibyl is telling Aeneas about his trip to the underworld. My next task will be to complete a revision of the score and parts for my Chamber Concerto, a piece for clarinet and six players that will be done by Network for New Music here in Philadelphia on April 5. Here are a few links to keep you amused while I get back to work.

– my fellow Columbia alum Paul Moravec has a new album of orchestral music performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project that was selected as WQXR’s album of the week. I had been looking forward to the upcoming New York premiere of Paul’s opera The Letter, but this has been delayed until next season. UPDATE: a nice piece on Paul at Deceptive Cadence.

– you can hear performances from Yellow Barn at their website. Current offerings include Eight Songs for a Mad King of Peter Maxwell Davies. An excerpt from the Davies performed by ICE here.

– Lots of electronic music at Penn this spring. Benjamin Fingland, Steve Gosling, and Jessica Meyer present a program including my Icons for clarinet, piano and tape (tape? well, OK, a CD, actually. “Fixed media” is the fashionable term.) on February 13 at 8:00, Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall. Two days later, Network for New Music will screen videos of interviews with electronic music pioneers, more info here. Soprano Stacey Mastrian offers a program at Penn including a Nono work with electronics on March 13, and the Network performance mentioned above is part of their season of electronic music.

– The most inconvenient USB here.

Lyric Fest performs “Cinder”

I just found out that Lyric Fest, an organization here in Philly devoted to, as their website puts it, “connecting people through song”, will include my “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm on their upcoming October 14th concert. The program is at 3:00 pm and will be held at the Academy of Vocal Arts here in Philadelphia. Under the title “Old City ~ New Song”, Laura Ward, Randi Marrazzo, and Suzanne DuPlantis, the artistic directors of Lyric Fest, have put together an array of songs by Philadelphia composers, including premieres by Allen Krantz and Thomas Lloyd.

“Cinder” is probably my most popular song. Dawn Upshaw, who premiered Holy the Firm, extracted the song from that set and toured with it. The piece has been sung at memorial services, at Songfest, and was featured at a presentation by the Joseph Campbell Foundation at an event called the Parliament of the World’s Religions several years ago. When I told Susan Stewart (the author of the text for “Cinder”) about the Parliament, she remarked “I thought that’s what happens when we die.”

The Music of Poets Reading

I very much enjoyed the reading the other night at the 92nd Street Y in New York, given by my friend and collaborator Susan Stewart and by Mark Strand. Both are marvelous and wise poets, and they shared good, new, strong stuff.

I could tell you more about their work, but for this (mostly) music blog, let me comment that after the reading, I started mentally comparing the event with a new music concert. Neither type of gathering attracts a huge crowd, and there often seem to be a fair number of insiders in the audience. Compared with a concert, a reading is more informal in certain ways – poets (at least last night) don’t take bows. Could musicians learn something from the way the readings last night were made of numerous short pieces rather than a few lengthy ones? or from the way the evening was leavened with a good bit of humor?

The way a poet reads is a curious balance of artless and artful. Poets are not actors, they don’t use their voices’s full range of intonation and inflection. Yet poetry is generally not read in an everyday voice – there is that curious chant-like way poets have of intoning their texts. There were a few moments at last night’s reading when I lost my way in the meaning of the words (my fault, not theirs) and gave myself over to the sound of the poet’s voice, to the contour of the not quite pitched intonation, to the lengths of the phrases and sentences, to the rhythm, to accent, grouping, duration, to the tone and timbre at once intimate and public – to the music of poets reading.