New York Festival of Song at the DiMenna Center

Thank you to pianist Michael Barrett and baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco for their eloquent performance of my From Psalm 116 as part of the New York Festival of Song “NYFOS Next” program at the DiMenna Center last week. There’s a thoughtful review of the program from Brin Solomon here on the National Sawdust Log. A review of an NYC performance is a rare thing, (not that it is common anywhere these days) and I am grateful to have a reflection in print about a concert in which I was involved.

From Psalm 116 is published by Theodore Presser and you can find it at their website here. The piece works well for mezzos as well as baritones – I had the privilege of performing it with Janice Felty a number of years ago.

I made a version of the song for baritone and chamber ensemble as part of the cycle Dark the Star, which includes settings of Rilke and Susan Stewart in addition to the psalm text. The song’s text is a psalm verse, sung in Latin, that may be translated as “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his beloved.” Here’s a recording of the ensemble version of From Psalm 116, with William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort, conducted by Christopher Kendall. It comes from an album with four of my vocal cycles on the Bridge label.

P.S. – there was also a review by Sherri Rase  in Q on Stage.

“Dark the Star” at Florida State

About a year ago, a performance of my song cycle for baritone and chamber ensemble, Dark the Star, was scheduled for performance at the Florida State University New Music Festival. Evan Jones, the soloist came down with a terrific case of laryngitis, and the performance had to be cancelled. I’m delighted that the performance has at last been re-scheduled, and Evan will be singing the piece, with most of the same players from last year, on a faculty recital at FSU this Friday, March 2. I heard a rehearsal of the instrumentalists last year, and the performance is going to be fantastic. Here’s the lineup:

Evan T. Jones, baritone
Deborah Bish, clarinet
Gregory Sauer, cello
Heidi Williams, piano
Jacob Kight, percussion
Keith Dodson, conductor

The concert takes place at FSU’s Opperman Music Hall at 7:30.

There are a couple of ways you can get to know the piece. Check out an earlier post, including a program note here. You can listen to the superb Bridge recording by baritone William Sharp, the 21st Century Consort, and conductor Christopher Kendall:

and you can look at the score, published by Theodore Presser Co. here.

Order the CD that includes Dark the Star, plus three other vocal works of mine, at the Bridge website.



Direct from the Composer

Scores for most of my compositions are available from the Theodore Presser Company, with a few additional early pieces available from Associated, via Music Sales Classical. Those early pieces were originally in the Margun catalog, Gunther Schuller’s publishing firm. They include the work for clarinet, piano and electronic sound, Icons, that the 21st Century Consort will perform this coming March 12. I’ll say more about that piece and that performance in an upcoming post. Recent additions to the Presser catalog include Badinerie Squared, a brief flute duet; Exchanges, a virtuosic piece for flute and clarinet (inexplicably not yet listed on the Presser website); and an Oboe Quartet. My set of piano preludes called Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift will soon be available from Presser.

However, there are a number of my pieces that are not yet published, and you should be in touch with me directly (jamesprimosch at gmail dot com) if you are interested in purchasing them. These include all but one of the a cappella motets I have written for Emmanuel Church and some voice and piano songs that have proved popular, including an arrangement of How Can I Keep From Singing? I intend to post more sample pages from this material – these will appear on this site’s score excerpts page. Look through the worklist pages to find the pieces available directly from me.

To-Do List

The questionnaireIt isn’t entirely about picking up a pencil and staring at a blank sheet of manuscript paper, this composing thing. As a way of letting you know about some things that are happening soon, here is a list of stuff I have to do in the next 6 weeks or so:

– I have a considerable backlog of scores that are not in as nice shape, graphically speaking, as I would like, and I haven’t yet supplied the master copies of them (well, these days, PDF files) to Theodore Presser Co., my publisher. However, I am slowly addressing the issue with the help of master editor/engraver Ken Godel. Ken has recently sent me files of both the piano/vocal and chamber ensemble versions of my song cycle Holy the Firm, and I am proofing them one more time. I hope to finish this in the next few days.

Bridge Records has sent me the first draft of the booklet for the CD of my vocal music they will be releasing soon. I need to proof this, not only for the content (texts of the songs, bio notes, etc.) but to offer suggestions on the graphic appearance and layout. This needs to be done by this coming Monday.

– The Folger Consort will be performing my Songs and Dances from “The Tempest” in January, and I need to get the score and parts to them by the middle of this month. The varied instrumentation of the piece (it is scored for a wide array of early instruments) will be handled by a different, larger array of performers than was the case at the premiere some 15  years ago, and parts have to be devised to reflect this division of labor.

– In January I will be playing the slow movement, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, from my Piano Quintet, with the Daedalus Quartet on a program at Penn. Again, that score needs to be cleaned up graphically – my Finale chops have improved a bit since 1996, as has the program itself, of course. The Daedalus wants to see the parts by the beginning of December. (By the way, the Daedalus gave a wonderful concert yesterday at Penn, with works by Schulhoff, Korngold and a rare performance of the Schoenberg Ode to Napoleon, with pianist Charles Abramovic and baritone Randall Scarlatta as narrator. It’s a remarkable piece. Charlie described it to me afterwards as being “as crowd-pleasing as Schoenberg from that period gets.” I had only heard the piece live once before, a performance at Columbia University, with, of all people, Wallace Shawn as narrator.)

– My new song for Lyric Fest on a text by Susan Scott Thompson is also due in December; I want to look it over one more time before sending it in – for once I finished something far enough in advance that I have time to make final adjustments after letting the piece rest for a bit. It’s amazing what you see when you come back to a score after even a few weeks.

Composer Scrapbooks

Theodore Presser Co. has begun a series of online scrapbooks, bringing together a timeline and some photographs for a Presser or Carl Fischer composer. The first one is on Norman Dello Joio who received the Pulitzer in 1957 for his string orchestra work Meditation on Ecclesiastes. Dello Joio is one of those composers whose name is not as well known as it once was, the kind of Pulitzer winner who gets cited as an example of how the prize has gone to people should not have received it. This is called blaming the victim – if the work of some Pulitzer winners was played as often as it should be, then their prizes would seem less anomalous. (I say this well-realizing that there are plenty of artists who never won a Pulitzer who should have.)  I’ve always liked the Meditation – it is clear and direct, well-written for the strings, relatively simple but not at all simple-minded. You can check out the scrapbook, as well as the score for the Meditation plus two other Dello Joio scores here.

Ives’ Organic Birthday

My friend (and fine composer) Daniel Dorff has let met know about an upcoming event celebrating Charles Ives on the occasion of a new Theodore Presser Co. publication. Danny writes:

I’m writing to invite you to celebrate Charles Ives’s birthday, Saturday October 20, 2012 by joining the worldwide Ives Complete Organ Music Birthday Bash (ICOMBB), also celebrating the new publication of his COMPLETE ORGAN MUSIC. The book includes many unfamiliar Ives organ works, as well as critical editions of Variations on “America” in both the original 1892 version and the familiar 1949 E. Power Biggs edition.

To participate, simply ask your organist-friends to get a copy of the book when it comes out in mid-September, and schedule a performance of part or all of the book on Ives’s birthday. We plan to make lots of noise on this special day, so please forward this invitation to your friends, colleagues, and make internet announcements, to help the party go viral.

Please feel free to publicize your events and everyone else’s, upload to YouTube, and let us know concert info c/o and the complete list will be publicized to the media and available for all other organizations to share and announce.

There are no rules or protocols, just a global birthday party celebrating Ives and his organ music.

More info on the book since it’s not out yet – Charles Ives COMPLETE ORGAN MUSIC contains 62 pages of music and 16 pages of historical and critical notes. Organists already familiar with Variations on “America” will be able to learn the other works during the time between the book’s release and the birthday event. The publication will be available from the shopping cart at as soon as we receive it, and from your favorite dealer as soon as they order it (443-41003, $29.95).

You can go here to see sample pages from the book. It looks fascinating. I had no idea the familiar version of the Variations on “America” was an edition prepared by Biggs, and it will be interesting to compare it with the original. And who could resist a piece called Burlesque Harmonizations of “London Bridge”? (Probably not that kind of burlesque, but still…)

There are a number of options for the Variations on YouTube, but I especially liked this performance by young organist Tom Trenney:

Theodore Presser scores online

I’m happy to report that my publisher, Theodore Presser, has started putting perusal scores online. The files can’t be downloaded or saved, but you can peruse to your heart’s content. I have two pieces posted so far: Songs for Adam, my song cycle for baritone and orchestra, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony; and Four Sacred Songs, a set of arrangements of chant melodies with Latin texts for mezzo-soprano (or soprano), flute, clarinet, percussion (1 player), harp, violin and cello. Presser did a decent job of posting at least a few items from most of the composers in their big catalog – there are over 450 items here.

Vary Pianistic

Theodore Presser Co. has issued my Piano Variations. Thanks to master engraver/editor Ken Godel, the score looks great – see if you agree by going here, scrolling down, and clicking on the link for sample pages.

It has been a long journey to this point. Back in the late 20th Century, pianist Lambert Orkis asked me to write him a piece for piano and synthesizer. This was for a milennium-inspired project he called “From Hammers to Bytes”, a recital program with a big sonata just for piano by Richard Wernick, and a big piece for piano and synth on the second half. Originally Lambert wanted me to write for piano and Clavinova, an instrument that I didn’t find particularly inspiring. We finally agreed on a Kurzweil, which would give me a vastly richer array of sounds to work with, compared with the Clavinova. The result was my Sonata-Fantasia, which Lambert gave a few brilliant performances and subsequently recorded for Bridge Records, along with the new sonata Dick Wernick had written for him. I knew the Kurz, like any other synth, would start to become obsolete the day I drove it off the lot, so to speak, and the more I took advantage of the capabilities of that particular synth, the more I increased the difficulty of playing the piece with some other keyboard. I very much wanted to write the piece for Lambert, but I also wanted to come out of the process with something that other musicians could play. I eventually devised a plan where a portion of the Sonata-Fantasia could, with some adjustments, live again as a solo piano piece. The first movement of the piece is a big set of variations, running about 25 minutes, and that became the now-published Piano Variations.

Lambert wanted me to think about the history of the piano while writing my piece. (You should know that in addition to being an astounding pianist, best known as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recital partner, Lambert has an interest in historical keyboards, and has played and recorded on various old instruments, or modern reconstructions modeled on old keyboards.)  We talked about the ability of the Kurzweil to emulate the sound of historic keyboards, and Lambert tracked down a set of impressive fortepiano samples. (One curious issue arose – when using the fortepiano samples, should I employ notes that are not actually on the fortepiano keyboard? I wrote in two different versions for that moment, one with bass notes lower than any fortepiano can play, one that sticks to the instrument’s actual range.) The stock harpsichord sample in the Kurz was attractive as well. Most of the Kurzweil patches I used are synth sounds of one kind or another, many percussive, some more atmospheric, and some used to modify the attack and decay characteristics of the acoustic piano. But given those samples of early keyboards, it was a short step from there to writing variations that would invoke earlier keyboard idioms – not earlier harmonic or melodic styles, but more matters of keyboard layout and texture. The harmony and melody in my piece remains rooted in the materials in my theme (see the score samples mentioned above), but, for example, there is a variation using a harpsichord patch that is laid out like one of the Goldberg Variations – two voices in canon and a third free voice. The fortepiano variation invokes one of the Schubert impromptus – this in honor of Lambert’s recording of the Schubert on fortepiano. (I permit myself the only actual quotation from an already existing piece in that movement.) The climactic variation has passages modeled fairly closely on the Chopin C-sharp minor etude from Op. 10, and there are other references throughout the piece to Chopin, Messiaen, stride piano, and even the 19th century pianist/composer Kalkbrenner, with a passage that employs his “three-handed” layout: a melody played by the thumbs surrounded by two-handed arpeggios. Contemporary composers are also in the background of some of the variations, with hints of textures you might associate with the music of three of my mentors: George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Mario Davidovsky. The piece thus becomes not just variations on a theme, but a collection of varied approaches to the piano itself.

Practically speaking, the synth and piano are arranged at right angles to one another, in the manner of a piano/celesta doubling by an orchestral keyboardist. (Lambert is the principal keyboard for the National Symphony.) Lambert preferred this to the stacking of keyboards that pop performers sometimes prefer, since that arrangement puts significant restraints on conventional piano technique. I had Lambert switch back and forth between instruments a good bit, sometimes playing both keyboards at once. Since the synth was at the left of the piano, this meant there are a few passages where Lambert’s left hand was playing in a high register on the Kurz and his right hand in a low register on the Steinway – perfectly plausible, but seemingly impractical when you look in the score, since it appears the left hand is playing five or six octaves above the right! I remember checking with Lambert repeatedly to make sure we were in agreement about which side the synthesizer would be placed.*

I prepared the piano version of the movement in time for a 50th birthday concert of my music a few years ago, and the superb Stephen Gosling gave the first performance. I finally (thanks to Ken) got around to preparing a clean copy of the score more recently, and the result is there on Presser’s website. Thank you, Lambert, for commissioning the original version of the piece, and thanks to the MacDowell Colony, where a big chunk of the first movement was devised.

I will return to writing for piano in an upcoming consortium commission, about which more soon.

*) I didn’t want to run into the problem I once heard conductor Arthur Weisberg describe in connection with a performance of the Carter Double Concerto, where, before the first rehearsal, he carefully prepared the beat patterns he would need for the closing portion of the piece where the two portions of the ensemble are in different meters. He was startled when he arrived at rehearsal to realize the ensembles were on the opposite sides of the stage from what he expected.

Academy Award (not that one)

Today the American Academy of Arts and Letters announced the 2010 winners of its various awards in music, and I will be present at the award ceremony in May as the recipient of one of four Academy Awards in Music. A link to the press release here. Curiously, all four winners of the Academy Award are published by Theodore Presser Co.Daniel Asia, David Felder, Pierre Jalbert being the other three.