Reviews from Boston

Nothing from the Globe so far, but the Boston Musical Intelligencer had reviewers at both the Collage and Winsor concerts from last Sunday. From Mark DeVoto’s review of the A Sibyl premiere:

Rich expressiveness that cries out for more performances infused all of these intense but not expansive poems. Other groups should take note of this gratifying premiere.

“A Sibyl” and “Quintet” in Boston

At the moment I am on the Amtrak coming home from a busy and marvelous trip to Boston for performances of two works. Collage New Music, with soprano Mary Mackenzie and conductor David Hoose premiered my new song cycle on text by Susan Stewart, called A Sibyl. It’s a demanding and varied challenge for the soloist, and Mary brought terrific intensity and subtle nuance to the piece. The instrumentalists were no less fine, partly on their individual merits, partly because of the ESP that develops among long-term colleagues. I had been impressed in rehearsals by the detail David Hoose gave to expressive details, and it paid off beautifully.

There was a similar sense of commitment from Winsor Music when they played my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano yesterday evening. The piece is highly varied in expressive character, and many of the comments I received focussed on the third movement, an instrumental version of my song Who Do You Say That I Am. The movement is warmly lyrical and quite tonal (you could probably make a lead sheet of it), standing in strong contrast to the preceding severely dissonant movement. I was worried as to whether the contrasting voices heard in the piece would hang together, but the fiercely committed performance overcame any doubts.

I’m deeply grateful to both ensembles for their passionate advocacy of my music.

Here are a few pictures from the trip. I wish I had a shot with Mary Mackenzie from the Collage concert, but I had to get going to the Winsor event, so I only got the one picture, this with conductor David Hoose:

Here’s a shot from after the Winsor concert. L to R: Kendra Colton, Peggy Pearson, Rafael Popper-Keizer, JP, Gabriela Díaz, John Harbison, Rane Moore:

Quintet for oboe, strings and piano with Winsor Music

The third of the three performances coming up for me in and around Boston this coming Sunday, October 15, will be Winsor Music’s program at St. Paul’s in Brookline (pictured) at 7 pm. The piece is scored for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano – sort of a piano quintet, but with oboe instead of one of the violins. It was premiered last summer at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival. Peggy Pearson, who requested the piece, will be the oboist, with Winsor Co-Artistic Director Gabriela Diaz, violin; Mark Berger, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; and Sally Pinkas, piano. It will be wonderful to work with these splendid players, some of whom I have known for a long time. The fabulous Peggy Pearson first played my music when I wrote Matins for her, a work for oboe, strings and chorus that was premiered by Cantata Singers back in 2003, with David Hoose conducting. (It’s David who will conduct the premiere of my new song cycle, A Sibyl, with Collage New Music and soprano Mary Mackenzie earlier in the day on the 15th.) Peggy later commissioned and premiered my Oboe Quartet with Winsor Music – you can hear the result by going here and scrolling down. (The strings in that recording are members of the Apple Hill Quartet; the score is available for online perusal here.) I met Sally many years ago when we both played on a concert, the exact location of which I no longer recall, though I think it was in the Boston area. I do remember that I played a work by the superb Israeli composer Yinam Leef. Years later I had contact with Sally and her husband Evan Hirsch when Penn presented them playing George Rochberg’s huge cycle for two pianos called Circles of Fire. Sally never had a chance to play my music until now, and I am delighted that she has taken on this piece. I’ve heard Gabby Diaz and Rafael Popper-Keizer perform with Emmanuel Music, and Rafael tells me he played my Four Sacred Songs a number of years ago, though I missed that performance. Mark Berger is new to me; he joined the Lydian Quartet in 2014. In short, it’s an all-star group!

Here’s a program listing and note on the Quintet:

I. Variations
II. Dirge
III. Poem (after Kathleen Norris)
IV. Signals and Dances

The variations of the first movement of my Quintet are not on a melody but on a chord progression first proposed by the strings and piano. Four variations and a coda follow, increasingly rapid in their surface. Next come two slow movements, the first very dark, marked “wailing” at its climax; the second consoling, inspired by a poem by Kathleen Norris called “Who Do You Say That I Am?” that offers increasingly ecstatic responses to the Biblical question. The finale opens with a raucous call to attention, and the various dances that follow are sometimes bluesy and sometimes folk-like. Late in the game, some fragments of the previous movements unexpectedly return, and what was left open at the end of the first movement now finds affirmation.

With her request for this piece, Peggy Pearson granted me a third opportunity to write for her profoundly eloquent oboe, this time alongside the comparably gifted voices of her colleagues in La Fenice. I am deeply grateful.

“A Sibyl”, Wagner, and Chopin

I wasn’t teaching at my day job this summer for the first time in a while, so I had a little more time than usual – but the unbridgeable gap between what one hopes to accomplish and what actually happens remained wide. Still, a few things got done.

The most important task accomplished was completing A Sibyl, my Fromm commission for Collage New Music. This is a cycle on texts by Susan Stewart that she wrote specifically for the project, and is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Mary Mackenzie will be the soloist. I estimate the piece will run about 25 minutes. There are six songs, setting poems that build on what can be found in Virgil and Ovid about the mysterious figure of the Cumaean Sibyl in somewhat the way Susan built her texts for my Songs for Adam (a work for baritone and orchestra) upon the Biblical stories. Collage has set the premiere of A Sibyl for the afternoon of October 15, the same day Emmanuel Music will do a motet of mine in the morning at Emmanuel Church, and Winsor Music will do my recent quintet for oboe and piano quartet in the evening. Three performances in Greater Boston in a single day is an amazing trifecta of good luck – more details to follow.

I spent many summer hours at the piano, working on the B-flat minor Scherzo of Chopin and playing through the piano score of Die Walküre. On the basis of playing that score, I can confirm a few things you already knew about the Wagner: yes, it really is very long;  yes, if you had a dollar for every diminished seventh chord in the piece you could retire today, and yes, the harmony in the Todesverkündigung is impossibly gorgeous. What I had not realized is how many passages throughout the opera are essentially recitative of a relatively straightforward kind – the “endless melody” you read about in your undergrad music history textbook is not quite so endless as Wagner fools us into thinking.

I still get bothered by the amount of literal repetition in the Chopin Scherzi; I suppose I wish the pieces were actually four more ballades. At least there is less literal repetition in the B-flat minor than in the B-minor, the other one I have practiced. Much of my time was spent on baffling questions of fingering – when it is better to stretch, when to cross…  Fingering remains a mystery to me – I often don’t realize when I am doing something unnecessarily awkward, or don’t see what could be a viable alternative. The cliché about the easiest fingering not necessarily being the best fingering is not terribly helpful when “easiest” and “best” seem to be moving targets that shift from day to day. Pianistic issues aside, engaging with pieces by playing them is essential nourishment for me – as a composer, but also as a person, and I was glad to have a little more time for that nourishment over this past summer.

Notes Aligned in Boston

It’s a little ways off, and I don’t have all the details, but I want to let you know about a happy coincidence has taken shape on my schedule of performances. On the afternoon of October 15, Collage New Music with soprano Mary Mackenzie, will premiere my current project, a song cycle called A Sibyl on Susan Stewart poems, at the the Longy School of Bard College in Cambridge, MA. David Hoose will conduct. And that evening, Winsor Music will present the second performance of my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano, this at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA.

Mary Mackenzie, who has done a fabulous job with my music on several occassions, including this CD, will be the soloist for A Sibyl.

I’ve put in a request with Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music to do one of my motets at Emmanuel Church that morning – maybe there will be three performances of my music in Boston that day!

UPDATE: Ryan has confirmed that he will include my music at Emmanuel’s 10 am service that day – it’s a Primosch festival in Boston!

Oboe Quartet in Philly, “Come Brothers All…” in Boston

Brilliant musicians who had previously played my music in other contexts separately came together to play my Oboe Quartet at Penn last Friday. Oboist Peggy Pearson, who commissioned the piece, collaborated with members of the Daedalus Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at Penn. The result was superb, richly shaded, strongly shaped. The premiere of an oboe quintet by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, the intensely strange Janáček first quartet, and a Haydn quartet arranged with oboe substituting for one of the violins rounded out the program. Anna’s piece was wonderfully varied and imaginative. She conjures memorable musical images that sound the way life feels. Peggy’s playing here, as throughout the evening, was extraordinary for her ability to subtly blend with the strings.

I traveled on to Boston the next day and attended the Cantata Singers benefit that evening:

This was held at the Liberty Hotel, which served as a jail until surprisingly recently.

Now some touristy pictures taken while walking from the subway to the benefit. Beacon Hill does look a little like some of the smaller streets in Philadelphia, though the buildings are typically three stories in Philly, not four: IMG_1912

 

The St. Gaudens memorial to Colonel Shaw and his African-American Civil War regiment:

IMG_1910(“Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat…” – from “For the Union Dead”, Robert Lowell) which is right across from the State House:

The next morning I went to Emmanuel Church, looking in on John Harbison before the service as he rehearsed a Victoria motet and a movement from his own And Mary Stood.

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Sunday afternoon – this 11th century corpus was a favorite piece:

 

Then Sunday evening was the first performance of my little contribution to Winsor Music’s “Songs for the Spirit” project, Come Brothers, All; Come Sisters, Too on a text by Georgia Douglas Johnson. Kendra Colton demonstrated the tune, then the audience joined in a reprise, with satisfying energy. Just before the performance:

It was great to have another chance to hear Anna’s quintet, plus the Haydn from Friday. The Winsor program closed with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, with clarinetist Rane Moore joining the Daedalus in a powerful rendition of this profoundly melancholy piece.

Thank you to all these musicians for your beautiful performances! I look forward to coming back to Boston for a Winsor Music concert next season that will feature a performance of my recently completed Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello and piano.

Oboe Quartet at Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival

The Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland was the venue for the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival performance of my Oboe Quartet this week. Commissioned by Winsor Music, and its Artistic Director, oboist Peggy Pearson, the piece received its fourth performance, the first three having been given by Peggy and members of the Apple Hill Quartet this past spring.

This time it was not members of a particular string quartet that played, but rather an all-star group put together for the occasion: Robin Scott, the newly appointed first violin of the Ying Quartet; Steven Tenenbom, violist of the Orion Quartet; and Marcy Rosen, who was cellist of the Mendelssohn Quartet for 31 years. I was delighted by the group’s superb performance. For example, the fourth movement of the piece is lyrical, but with the principal line frequently passed from player to player. It was impressive to see in rehearsal how readily these players intuited when to come forward and when to pull back, creating a finely crafted web of song.

Here’s a picture of the Deco-ish interior of the Avalon Theater in Easton where one of our rehearsals took place:

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And here is a shot from the sound check before the performance, this at the Academy Museum of Art:

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The festival schedule is packed with elite players performing both standard and lesser-known repertoire. Heartfelt thanks for Marcy Rosen and J. Lawrie Bloom, Artistic Directors of the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival, for giving me a chance to share my music with such wonderful players, and with an appreciative audience.