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.

The Crossing and Aniara

My friends at The Crossing embark on a remarkable adventure starting tonight here in Philadelphia. Aniara: Fragments of Time and Space is a big new work of what you might call choral theatre. Rob Maggio (a U Penn alum) is the composer, and you can read more about the collaborators here. The good news – given that the performances are sold out – is that there will be livestreams of the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon performances – go here for those.

I feel I can say “my friends at The Crossing” because I have been privileged to have the group perform my music on several occasions. We will be recording an album of my choral music later this summer. Here is the premiere of the big Mass I wrote for the group, combining the traditional Latin texts with poetry of Denise Levertov reflecting on those texts.

Eckhart’s “Journey”

Sometimes Twitter is good for something. It was there that I came across an excerpt from Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows. The book consists of what you might call poetic realizations of excerpts from the writings of the great 14th century mystic. It wasn’t long after I got my hands on the book that I found a text I knew I wanted to set. Sweeney and Burrows title the poem Your Soul’s Delight:

There is a journey
you must take.
It is a journey without destination.
There is no map.
Your soul will lead you.
And you can take nothing with you.

This past Holy Thursday I finished setting the text for men’s chorus: just a two-part texture, very simple, quiet, intimate. Here’s how it starts:

There is no public performance of the piece planned yet, but The Crossing will include the work on its upcoming all-Primosch CD. This short piece for just the men of the choir will balance nicely with a two-part setting of a Wendell Berry text for just the women’s voices that will also be on the album. The remaining music will draw on the full group, and will include the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for The Crossing a few years ago. Here’s a video from the premiere of that piece:

David Patrick Stearns on “Carthage”

David Patrick Stearns, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer (his writing still appears there, I assume on a free lance basis) wrote about the recent premiere of my Carthage by The Crossing on his blog, Condemned to Music. Read the whole post here, but here is the relevant portion:

Not having anything close to a comprehensive view of composer James Primosch, I find it hard to characterize how his voice has evolved. But I can say the composer I heard around 2000, when I first started sampling Philadelphia’s local compositional talent, is extremely different from what I heard on Saturday in the piece Carthage, set to an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.

Previously, I had thought of Primosch as a post-George Rochberg composer, tonal but with some sharp edges and a taste for complexity; maybe writing for the voices of The Crossing has led him into something more essential. This piece (also a world premiere) uses something resembling plainchant as a starting point, taking from that world a sense of a religiously concentrated melodic line. There’s plenty of harmonic sophistication, and some blue notes – some of the bluest notes this side of Coltrane – that tell you this music is very much a product of our time.

The Crossing has big plans for Primosch in future months and seasons. We’ll talk more about him when I have a critical mass of his music to contemplate.

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.

“Carthage” with The Crossing

Coming soon, this Saturday, October 27, will be the premiere of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, with The Crossing, Donald Nally conductor. The concert will be at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church here in Philadelphia, at 8 pm, with a pre-concert chat at 7. I heard a recording from a rehearsal of the piece, and it is going to be another fabulous Crossing performance. I am very grateful. More on the concert here.

My text comes from Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. Here is my program note and the text:

I first came upon the text for Carthage, from the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, when it was quoted in Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss. Wiman rightly speaks of the text as being “of consummate clarity and beauty”, going on to say how it “so perfectly articulate[s] not only the sense of absence… but also bestow[s] on it an energy and agency, a prayerful but indefinable promise: ‘the world will be made whole’”. It was this combination of absence and promise, lack and fullness, that attracted me and led me to music of sober reflection and wild joy.


Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water — peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweet as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

Excerpt from HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 1981 by Marilynne Robinson. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

 

Cold Snap Miscellany

A few items of interest on a chilly day in Philadelphia:

– Two choirs that have performed my music offer Christmas concerts this weekend: The Crossing, and  Cantori New York.

– Did you know you can hear performances from Yellow Barn online? Lots of new music, including works by Michel van der Aa, Charles Wuorinen, Oliver Knussen, Hans Abrahamsen and many more, as well as traditional repertoire.

– The extraordinary violinist Rolf Schulte has made archival recordings of his performances of concertos by Roger Sessions and Donald Martino available on CD Baby here. The Sessions is performed by the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, with Janos Kulka, and the Martino is with the New Hampshire Symphony and James Bolle. The music is also available on the iTunes store.

– The Association for the Promotion of New Music presents an all-Babbitt program in his centennial year on December 19 at the Di Menna Center in New York, including performances by the New York New Music Ensemble.

– There will be a concert of music by Robert Capanna on Friday, January 6, at the Settlement Music School’s Queen Street Branch here in Philadelphia. Presented in collaboration with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the performers include the Network for New Ensemble conducted by Jan Krzywicki, soprano Sharon Harms, pianist Charles Abramovic, and the Prism Saxophone Quartet.

Cantori New York, Musicatreize, and St. Thomas Mass

A few years ago I wrote a big piece for The Crossing that set the Latin Ordinary of the Mass, interwoven with settings of poems by Denise Levertov that reflect on the Mass texts. The piece takes its title from the sequence of Levertov poems: Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. The Crossing later gave a second performance of the work, but no other group has taken up the piece until now. Cantori New York, in collaboration with the French ensemble Musicatreize, will perform the Mass at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, 552 West End Avenue in New York City this coming Saturday, November 5 at 8 pm, and Sunday, November 6, at 7 pm. In the work, the Levertov poems are assigned to a main choir while the Mass texts are given to a schola, in this case four soloists drawn from Musicatreize. The latter group will also perform the work themselves on November 2 at the Salle Musicatreize in Marseille.

Here is my program note on the piece:

This work is part of a long tradition of Mass settings that juxtapose additional poems with the standard Latin texts; Requiems of Benjamin Britten and Christopher Rouse are recent examples, though the practice of poetic insertions originated many centuries ago. I have assigned the Latin texts (excerpts in the case of the Credo) to a group of four solo singers while the main choir sings excerpts from a cycle of poems by Denise Levertov inspired by the Mass texts. The Latin settings are in the manner of various forms of liturgical music, and include quotations of a Bach chorale and Gregorian Chant.

The title of my piece is that of the Levertov cycle. St. Thomas Didymus is the apostle Thomas, with the designation “Didymus” meaning “the twin”. Thomas is informally known as “doubting Thomas” because of his insistence on seeing and touching Jesus before he would believe in the Resurrection. Upon subsequently seeing Christ, he acknowledged him as “My Lord and my God”. A Mass honoring St. Thomas is a Mass that honors the juxtaposition of doubt and belief that is the basis of life in pursuit of the divine. The simple pair of twin statements in Levertov’s reflection on the Credo is the pivot of the work:

I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief.

St. Thomas Mass in NYC

Cantori New York has announced its 2016-2017 season, and their first program on November 5 and 6 will feature the New York premiere of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, a work I wrote on a commission from The Crossing. The piece interweaves a setting of the Latin Mass, sung by a schola or small group of singers, with settings of Denise Levertov poems reflecting on the Mass texts, sung by a larger main choir. For these performances, the French vocal ensemble Musicatreize will serve as the schola and Cantori New York as the main choir. Cantori’s artistic director Mark Shapiro will conduct. The performances will take place at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, which is on West End Avenue at 87th Street. I don’t have the times yet for the performances – I believe they are both in the evening, will share that info with you when I can.

You can see a video of The Crossing premiering the Mass here.