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.

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.

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:

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.

Ways of Listening

You may have noticed the link at the end of the recent NY Times review of the Tanglewood performance of my Dark the Star – it takes you to a YouTube posting of a track from the Bridge recording of the piece. The recording is by William Sharp, baritone, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor. You really should pick up a copy of the disc (there are links to do that at the Bridge website), but if you disdain physical media (and paying artists for their work!) and want to hear the piece from the beginning, go here. Dark the Star consists of nine movements played without pause, which means the separate videos for each track of the piece interrupt the flow in disconcerting ways, sometimes in mid-phrase – another reason to spring for the physical disc. The pieces from the Sacred Songs cd featuring soprano Susan Narucki are also on YouTube – here’s the first track from the cycle Holy the Firm.

Another way of listening to my work is to visit the audio excerpts link above. I’ve just posted two items:

– under solo voice, you can find the recent premiere of Shadow Memory, with soprano Lisa Williamson and pianist Rami Sarieddine, recorded at SongFest this past June. The piece is on a text by Susan Orlean.

– under instrumental, you’ll find the Oboe Quartet I wrote for Peggy Pearson and the Apple Hill Quartet, this taken from their performance at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA this past spring.

And, yes, I was thinking of this title when I titled this post, though not of the book’s content.

Opera News on “Sacred Songs”

A review by Joshua Rosenblum of my Sacred Songs album has appeared on the Opera News website. It’s only available for subscribers, so I’ll just offer a few quotes here:

“Primosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama…”

“Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation…”

“Baritone William Sharp uses his resonant, authoritative voice to provide a gripping, inexorable build…” [in the song cycle Dark the Star]

Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross.  Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.”

“These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple… Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment.”

Sacred Songs: program notes, part II

Here are the program notes for the other two pieces on my new CD on Bridge. (The first installment is here). The pictures below are of the Grammy winning soloists on the disc, Bill Sharp and Susan Narucki.

Dark the Star

Unknown-3Composing 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 poems 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 yet encircle us.

William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort premiered this cycle in 2008.

Holy the Firm

Unknown-2The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for this song cycle draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted from a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte.  The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.

The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song. In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”

Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish gave the first performance of the original piano and voice version of Holy the Firm in 1999. I subsequently made this chamber version for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort; those artists gave the premiere in 2002.

“Songs and Dances” at the Cathedral

I had never expected to hear the piece again in this instrumentation. I am speaking of my work for soprano, baritone and early instruments called Songs and Dances from ‘The Tempest’. It was premiered by the Folger Consort in 1998, with Ellen Hargis and William Sharp as the soloists, and subsequently recorded by them for Bard Records. But the idea of another early music group taking on the piece seemed to me rather unlikely. Nor did I expect the Folger to revive it. Yet there we were this past weekend, in Washington’s National Cathedral, with the Folger, William Sharp, and a different soprano, Rosa Lamoreaux. 

I was very happy with the performances. Bill has lost nothing in the sheer beauty of his voice and his skill at charming characterization. Rosa’s voice was new to me, and proved to be a real find: lovely in timbre, smoothly flexible throughout her range, and finely nuanced. The core members of the Folger – Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall – were joined by several musicians from Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia’s baroque orchestra, the guest ensemble for the program. Gwyn Robert’s lyrical recorder playing – from haunting bass to brilliant sopranino – taught me how much recorder playing involves an essentially voice-like conception. Lisa Terry and and Robert Eisenstein provided the foundation for the ensemble with their viols and Fran Berge enriched the palette of timbres with her kemenje and vielle (the latter two being fiddle-like instruments). Christopher Kendall’s lute filled out the harmonic texture as well as adding touches of delicate melodic tracery. Danny Villanueva’s percussion offered tasty color and rhythmic verve. Anna Marsh helped out with atmospheric psaltery in one movement and served as a third recorder player in another. All the early instrument performers were good sports about dealing with my writing for instruments with which I was not very familiar.

The Folger and Tempesta attracted big audiences, with perhaps 800 on Saturday night and somewhat less on Friday. I was touched to see a big portion of the audience stand when I took my bow Saturday night.

The whole ensemble is shown here, except for Danny, who is in the next picture, and Anna – sorry, didn’t get a shot of you, Anna! L to R: Lisa Terry, Robert Eisenstein, Rosa Lamoureux, Bill Sharp, Christopher Kendall, Gwyn Roberts, and Fran Berge. IMG_3763

IMG_3694

The soloists in action, with Christopher Kendall on lute:

IMG_3698Last minute adjustment of a viol chord – I didn’t know Robert would be playing a seven string viol capable of a low d-flat:

IMG_3726Rosa and I after the show:

IMG_3844The composer ponders the score. With a performance this fine, I really had no reason to look so concerned:

IMG_3758 - Version 2Many thanks to my dear friend Peter Hoyt for coming up from South Carolina for the concerts and for taking these pictures.

More pictures from the National Cathedral here.

Tempest in Washington DC

056320W3I’ll be heading to Washington soon for performances of my Songs and Dances from ‘The Tempest’ this coming Friday and Saturday – details here.

Although I have posted many times about the difficulty of getting a work performed a second time, this is one piece that I thought would be truly unlikely to be reprised. It is scored for an ensemble of early instruments – medieval and renaissance strings and winds – accompanying soprano and baritone soloists. While it is not unheard of for an early music group to take on a new piece, (consider Kile Smith’s Vespers), it is certainly uncommon, and after the first performances of Songs and Dances in the late 90s I figured I would never hear it in its original scoring again, so I made a version for modern instruments, which has been done a couple of times. But now the Folger has revived the piece, putting it on a program with incidental music for the play by the seventeenth century composer Matthew Locke – this is the same juxtaposition that they offered on their CD that includes my Tempest music. William Sharp and Rosa Lamoreaux are the soloists for this weekend’s performances. (The image at left, with its quote from the play, is taken from the Folger website.)

Here’s a listing of the movements for the piece, and a program note:

 1. A Tempestuous Noise
sopranino recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, very small suspended cymbal

2. Come Unto These Yellow Sands
soprano, treble viol, bass viol, lute, dumbek

3. Solemn Music of Ariel
tenor recorder, 2 bass viols, lute

4. The Master, the Swabber, the Boatswain, and I
baritone, alto recorder, treble viol, bass viol, lute

5. Full Fathom Five
soprano, bass recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B

6.Flout ‘em and Scout ‘em / Be Not Afeard
baritone, alto recorder, vielle, kamenji, bass viol, citole, harp, psaltery, tambourine

7a. A Solemn and Strange Music
alto recorder, 2 bass viols

7b. Honor, Riches, Marriage Blessing
soprano, lute

7c. Earth’s Increase, Foison Plenty
baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute

7d. A Graceful Dance, a Confused Noise
soprano recorder, 2 alto recorders, lute

8. No More Dams
baritone, rebec, vielle, citole, nakara

9. Where the Bee Sucks
soprano, alto recorder, bass viol, lute

10. Our Revels Now Are Ended
soprano, baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B

Program Note
Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”
came about because Folger Consort member Christopher Kendall, who knew my work as composer and pianist from his “other” consort – the 21st Century Consort – had heard my Four Sacred Songs, a set of arrangements of plainchant melodies for soprano and a sextet of modern instruments. Christopher wondered if an arrangement of those songs could be made for the old instruments of the Folger Consort. I thought about that for a bit but ultimately decided I would rather write a fresh piece for the Folger, eventually realizing that a piece composed for the ensemble in residence at the Folger Library should really be a Shakespeare piece. My first plan was to concoct an anthology of texts from various Shakespeare plays, but I set that aside in favor of focusing on a single play, perhaps the most musical of Shakespeare’s creations, The Tempest. My suite of short pieces includes settings of songs from the play as well as a few speeches. I have also included some instrumental music, as suggested by the evocative stage directions. I hope lovers of the play will forgive me for re-ordering the texts so as to create a satisfying musical sequence that does not in all cases correspond to the sequence of the play itself.

The texts are by turns playful, drunken, evocative, and profound. Throughout they are imbued with a magical atmosphere that is unique in Shakespeare. I hope I have reflected some of this atmosphere in my music.

The challenge for a modern composer to write for the instruments of another time is formidable. You spend your life as a composer building up an image in the inner ear of what, for example, the cello sounds like in various contexts – it is difficult to set these things aside when presented with a cello-like object such as the vielle. But, at least to some extent, set them aside you must. As a pianist I feel especially ill-equipped to write for these instruments since my own instrument’s repertoire begins about a century after the newest music the Folger Consort normally plays! I lack a personal connection with the repertoires of these instruments. Still, I love the sounds of the ancient instruments, and love the repertoires the Folger so beautifully engages. So I have tried to create a sound world that would both suit the instruments and perhaps challenge them a little, all the while serving Shakespeare’s texts.

The endless patience and goodwill of the members of the Consort have played no small role in the creation of this piece. I am grateful for the chance to adventure with them to Prospero’s enchanted realm where we might enjoy the “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”

 

Sacred Songs on Bridge Records

UnknownI’m very happy to report that Bridge Records will be issuing a new CD of my music in early 2014. The disc, to be called Sacred Songs, will bring together four of my pieces for voice and ensemble:

From a Book of Hours sets four poems of Rainer Maria Rilke in German.

– Four Sacred Songs comprises arrangements of old traditional sacred melodies – plainchant as well as metered tunes – with Latin texts.

– Dark the Star brings together texts by Philadelphia-based poet Susan Stewart, Rilke (in German), and a verse from the Psalms (in Latin).

– Holy the Firm sets texts by three American women – Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard, and Susan Stewart – as well as John Climacus, a monk of the 7th century Sinai desert.

The performers are Susan Narucki, soprano, William Sharp, baritone, and the 21st Century Consort, led by Christopher Kendall.

While I am very grateful for every CD of my music, (visit the discography page to get the details on how much I have to be grateful for), this new Bridge project is especially meaningful to me. This is partly because it is the first disc devoted entirely to my vocal music, a medium that has been a major preoccupation of mine in the last two decades. It also documents an especially long-standing relationship with performers who have been among the most consistent advocates of my music. In fact, I think that over a period of more than three decades, Christopher Kendall has conducted and/or programmed my music more than any other musician anywhere!

There is a lot more to say about this album – the pieces, the performers, the process of recording with Curt Wittig and editing with George Blood, the booklet essays by Susan Stewart and John Harbison, and I will be writing about these things in future posts. For now I will leave you with the photo above. This is the interior of St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel, designed by the firm of Sanaksenaho Architects, and photographed by Jussi Tiainen. This powerful image will be used for the cover of the booklet accompanying Sacred Songs.