Quick CD Comments

Persichetti: Symphony for Strings, Piano Concerto. Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Symphony), Charles Dutoit (Concerto) New World Records. It’s been a long time since I first encountered the music of Persichetti by playing his wind ensemble music, which is probably the way most American musicians first get to know his work. (The Symphony for Band is one of the great classics of the medium.) Less frequently encountered is Persichetti’s orchestral music. The harmonic idiom is a bit darker than I recall from the band music, but consistently attractive. Like so much mid-20th century American music, this is repertoire that really should be more widely played. The performances are excellent, as one would expect from the Philadelphia, though the last movement of the concerto is ill-served by the overly rapid pace set by Dutoit.

Shelly Manne and His Friends, Vol. 2 (Andre Previn, piano; Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Shelley Manne, drums) Contemporary Records. The centrality of the Broadway musical to the American musical scene in the middle of the last century was such that there developed a fad for jazz interpretations of the scores from the shows – not just individual tunes, but entire albums devoted to the shows. I believe the present 1956 album of songs from “My Fair Lady” is the first of its kind. All the players are brilliant, the arrangements are charming, but there is something a little superficial here; it’s a sort of highly sophisticated piano lounge music.

Network recalling Persichetti

In connection with its celebration of the Vincent Persichetti centennial, Network for New Music held a panel discussion with several former Persichetti students plus composer Daniel Dorff who worked alongside him at the Theodore Presser Co. Find videos of the discussion here. The last of the set also includes a fine performance of the Serenade for flute and harp. My own experience with performing Persichetti was as a member of the Cleveland State University Wind Ensemble where we played the well-known Symphony for Band and a work for chorus and wind ensemble on texts of Walt Whitman called CelebrationsI remember greatly enjoying playing both pieces.

All-American Piano

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There was an exceptionally warm and focused audience at last night’s recital at Penn. Linda Reichert and I offered an all-American program that bound together various programming threads – besides the American angle, there were three Philadelphia composers (Primosch, Levinson, and Persichetti); we heard French musical thought filtered through American voices (Levinson, Copland); and experienced the contrast of stream of consciousness (Persichetti) and aphoristic (Harbison) modes of expression.

I thought Linda did a great job on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, with the slow movement called “Nocturnal Obsessions” being a highlight: subtly pedaled, exquisitely balanced (on a not terribly friendly piano), full of atmosphere and Chopin-esque languor.

It was a thrill for me to share the Copland Sonata with my listeners, especially such attentive ones – there was a nearly uncanny quiet in the room during the very soft passages in the finale of the Copland. The piece has its technical challenges, but it is not as pianistically difficult as some of the other great American sonatas (including Barber, Ives, Carter, Rochberg, Wernick, Harbison…). However, I find the emotional intensity of the Copland draining, intense in both its breadth and depth of feeling. The short movements of the Harbison – wry, cryptic, droll, graceful, brusque – offered a welcome contrast with the high drama of Copland’s long-lined narrative.

Now I really must finish up the little piece I am doing for Network’s April 4 Harbison concert so I can attend to my commission from The Crossing – blogging is going to stay infrequent for a while, folks…

Above, I am at the Steinway. Here are Linda and myself after the show (too bad iPhoto can’t do anything to make my sport coat lay flat):

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“Amazing” to-do list

Hard to believe it’s already been a week since I got back from my trip to Boston. I should have made more progress by now with the two tasks at the top of my to-do list:

– The first is to finish my piece for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert here in Philadelphia. This is part of what I have been calling their HarbFest, a week of concerts and other events devoted to the music of John Harbison. Network has commissioned a few new pieces for the April 4 program, all based on American folk tunes that John used in his chamber work Songs American Loves to Sing. That set will be heard, as well as new music by Anna Weesner, Terell Stafford, Bobby Zankel, and Uri Caine and myself. Harbison will join with trumpeter Stafford and students from Temple University to play some jazz tunes at the concert.

My piece is called Meditation on ‘Amazing Grace‘. I am using the tune in minor, with the notes of the melody treated as dissonant color tones above the accompaniment, rather than sounding the notes of the tonic triad. For example, the first two notes of the tune (in b-flat minor) are F-natural and B-flat, but these are harmonized with a G dominant seventh. The tune is played by muted trumpet, while piano and contrabass provide a long-ringing, floating accompaniment.

– While I wrap up that project, I need to keep up my practicing at the piano, for my half-recital (a program shared with Linda Reichert) at Penn is coming up on Feb. 26. I’ll be playing the Copland Sonata, Harbison’s Leonard Stein Anagrams, and, together with Linda, Gerald Levinson‘s work for piano four-hands, Morning Star. Linda will play the Philadelphia premiere of my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and Vincent Persichetti‘s Winter Solstice. While I’ve already written about Contraption, I will try to offer some thoughts on the other pieces in the coming weeks.

Blog as memoir

You may know Daron Hagen‘s music, but have you read his blog? It’s got material about his pieces, productions of his operas and so forth, but it also has a good deal of memoir – some harrowing stuff about his family of origin, and a good bit about teachers and mentors. The latter type of post is striking because it speaks of Daron’s connections with an earlier era of American composers: Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, Ned Rorem, Louise Talma, and Vincent Persichetti all figure in his anecdotes. It’s fascinating stuff, and makes one think Daron must be older than he actually is – he was born in 1961. Maybe I don’t know the right people, but surely there aren’t that many composers his age who worked for Thomson, or used to buy cigarettes for Talma while at Yaddo.