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. American Record Guide says about Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift: “there’s marvelous variety in tempo and mood…” and on the songs included on the album: “I find myself enchanted by his lucid text setting…”

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.

Carthage is Coming

That’s the cover art for the upcoming Navona CD of my choral music, to be released May 22. I am so happy and grateful to be able to share this exquisitely performed and engineered album which documents the three pieces I have written for The Crossing and three of the pieces I have done for Emmanuel Music. I don’t think of myself as a choral guy, but out of a catalog of roughly a hundred pieces, I count 16 involving chorus, so that’s not an insignificant number, even though most of the pieces are relatively short. I’ll write some posts about each of the pieces on the record in the weeks leading up to the CD release date.

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:

Virgil Thomson Award Announced

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced that I am the recipient of the Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music for 2020. The press release is here.

Needless to say, I count myself very lucky indeed, and am greatly touched that the distinguished jury (listed in the release) would consider my work worthy of this recognition.

I submitted two choral works to be considered by the jury: Carthage (a setting of a text by Marilynne Robinson – she’s an Academy member, maybe I’ll get to shake her hand at the Academy Ceremonial) and my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, my setting of the Latin Mass interwoven with poems reflecting on the Mass texts by Denise Levertov. The latter will be performed by Emmanuel Music at Emmanuel Church in Boston on March 29 at their 10 am Sunday liturgy, and can be heard on a forthcoming CD of my choral music by The Crossing.

The award is for vocal music, so I will survey that part of my catalog in a subsequent post.

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.