Monthly Archives: June 2011

It is Time, CD review

In Philadelphia, a choir among choirs…
Bruce Hodges in Monotonous Forrest

“…Meanwhile, the group has an impressive new recording out, It is Time (Navona Records NV5845), with works by David Shapiro, Kile Smith, Paul Fowler, Frank Havrøy, Erhard Karkoschka and Kirsten Broberg. This superb program, most of which uses texts by Paul Celan (except for Fowler’s gorgeous Breath, by Philip Levine), shows off the group’s impeccable tuning, rhythmic accuracy and shimmering texture. Shapiro’s title piece makes a blazing opening, but the album is almost worth getting just for the arresting final chord of Broberg’s Breathturn that ends it all. The immaculate sound is by Paul Vazquez of Digital Mission Online, who regularly records the ensemble in the Chestnut Hill church’s pristine acoustic.”

The Wanamaker Organ, my first podcast

On the WRTI homepage is my first-ever podcast for them. It’s the mini-review I wrote last year of A Grand Celebration, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Rossen Milanov, accompanying Peter Richard Conte on the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s. You can listen here. It focuses on the main piece of the CD, the Joseph Jongen Sinfonia Concertante, composed for this organ and this orchestra.

Wanamaker Organ Day is tomorrow, Saturday, June 25th, the center of a bustle of activity around the world’s largest functional musical instrument. Check out the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ website for information on this and my friend Rick Seifert’s sound-and-image tribute to the Wanamaker Organ in Greek Hall on Sunday, June 26th.

I “voiced” the review (which jargon I’m now picking up means that I spoke the review into a microphone), and grabbed audio from the CD for a bed under the voice. Tricky, to get the right music to match what I’m talking about, leaving time for the music, and time for the words, fading in and out to (I hope) make it interesting.

Actually, I edit the copy somewhat, because hearing spoken words is a different experience from reading them on the page, so there’s some little changes from the original copy to the podcast. Those who do this all the time know this, of course, whereas I’m just learning. But anyway, take a listen, and by all means check out the CD, and the celebrations at Macy’s if you can.

The Waking Sun "A hit"

The Crossing’s performance of The Waking Sun was reviewed in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer… David Patrick Stearns calls it “a hit.”

The Waking Sun, his setting of Seneca texts often divided into two or three contrapuntal strands that strained against one another in new, ear-pricking ways.

The piece has a huge musical range: unsettling rhythms of the opening movement; playful, quirky syncopation describing the bacchanals of the second; then the final movement fanning out into 12-part vocal writing to characterize universal love. There the music hit an intensely charged sweet spot that seemed to hang in a climax, unable to turn back but not knowing how to move forward, becoming even sweeter before concluding.

The intricate orchestration for baroque chamber orchestra Tempesta di Mare played to the group’s higher-personality members, theorbo player Richard Stone and concertmaster Emlyn Ngai. But the vocal writing is no doubt what prompted the hero’s welcome from the audience that packed the church up to the organ loft. Objectively speaking, The Waking Sun is, for lack of any better word, a hit.

Later, he calls my musical language “pared-back Anglican,” as opposed to Gabriel Jackson’s “lush Anglican” (his lovely Not No Faceless Angel was also on the program). I find the Anglican comment very funny. I mean, he very well may be right; I can’t say. I think of my voice as heavily informed by Lutheran chorale and American shape-note tunes, but I am aware that I’m not in the best position to judge these things. A very early piece of mine I thought to be indebted to Hindemith prompted a friend to comment on my influence from Ravel. And the hymnal I was raised on, the 1958 Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, is thin on chorales and fraught with Anglicanisms, or at least the Bb melting-pot American sound whose main ingredient is British Protestant. It was a time when American Lutherans were terribly afraid of anything Teutonic, something many of them still haven’t gotten over, shame on them.

Plus I recall that my first musical infatuation was Vaughan Williams (as opposed to my first love, which is Brahms). I haven’t gotten over either of them, praise be.

Vespers on WQXR

The Crossing will be featured on the the June 19 edition of WQXR’s new weekly radio show, The Choral Mix with Kent Tritle. Kent selected Piffaro and The Crossing’s recording of my “Vater unser” from the Vespers CD. You can listen Sunday at 7am and 11pm EST on WQXR 105.9 FM and any time online at WQXR.

So when Jeff Dinsmore told me about this, I said, “Well, I like ‘Vater unser,’ but I wouldn’t think that’d be the first thing someone would pick from Vespers if they were going to play one thing from it.” Jeff responded, very nicely and patiently, as if to a child, “Father’s Day.”


The Waking Sun, 6. While on such beauty the lover gazes

6. While on such beauty the lover gazes
While on such beauty the lover gazes, her cheeks suddenly glow with rosy blush. Snowy wool turns crimson thus when bathed in purple flood; so gleams the waking sun when the shepherd, wet with the dew of the dawn of the day, considers it. —Medea 

The Waking Sun centers on D, the individual sections being in these modes: 1. B minor — 2. D Dorian — 3. D minor — 4. A Mixolydian — 5. B minor — 6. D Lydian. I’ve never bothered so much with key relationships, but look for modal color appropriate to the purpose at hand. The old church modes usually provide enough variety and stability to please me, so these are what I use in most of my music.

While the text of “A king is he” would make a fine summation, it started to ring hollow as the ending for this work, especially as it appealed so un-stoically to my own ego. “While on such beauty” argues for the other side of desire, not for the elimination of it.

But what really convinced me was recently seeing a performance of the final duet of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. Soft and haunting, “Pur ti miro” (I gaze at you, I possess you) is utterly mesmerizing with its simple four-note ground bass and sweet, biting counterpoint. It is even more remarkable as the ending of an entire opera. That Seneca plays such an important role in Poppea was another connection.

All the instruments but the theorbo are silent for the finale of The Waking Sun, so when the theorbo drops out, the choir is unaccompanied for about the last five minutes of the piece. The ostinato continues in a bass voice, and the choir eventually divides into twelve parts. Each voice repeats its own short phrase, leaves, then re-enters, repeating the words of the title.

18 Jun 2011. The Waking Sun. The Crossing, Tempesta di Mare. Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 8 pm

The Waking Sun, 5. A king is he

5. A king is he
A king is he who has no fear; a king is he who naught desires. Such kingdom on himself each man bestows. —Thyestes 

If you can have a fuguing tune without the fuguing part, “A king is he” is that piece. I started to write the imitative section that should follow the homophonic opening, but was dissatisfied with every idea. So I repeated the opening, with minor variations in the voices, and peeled away the accompaniment.

I put in most every “wrong” voice-leading I could think of: doubled major thirds, tripled octaves, directisms, parallelisms, and clashes of various sorts. This was to show, I suppose, how fearless, as a king, I was.

The plan was that “A king is he” would be the last section, with “In whose kingdom shall you die?” appended at the end. But it more and more started to sound like a sermon. Now, sermons have their place; I gladly hear one every week. But I don’t think they have a place in music. One could set a sermon to music, but it would cease to be reasoned discourse. Similarly, music attempting to put forward a position ceases to be music.

In any case, the next section grew in importance as an entry into the most appealing aspect, to me, of Seneca’s thought.

18 Jun 2011. The Waking Sun. The Crossing, Tempesta di Mare. Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 8 pm

The Waking Sun, 4. Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus

4. Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus
Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus; above his guilty head hangs plenteous food; on either side, with laden boughs, a tree leans over him and, bending and trembling beneath its weight of fruit, makes sport with his wide-straining jaws. He tries no more to touch, he turns away his eyes, he tightly shuts his lips; behind clenched teeth he bars his hunger. Then the whole grove lets down its wealth, and the ripe fruits beckon from above. As his hands stretch toward the mocking gift, the whole harvest of the bending wood leaps up high, out of reach. Then comes a raging thirst, harder to bear than hunger. The poor wretch hurls himself at waves that motion to his lips, but they elude his grasp. Deep from the whirling stream he drinks but dust. —Thyestes 

The idea of writing for Baroque instruments came up because the original concept was for The Waking Sun to be paired with Membra Jesu nostri of Dietrich Buxtehude. That changed, but the concept for this piece stayed the same, and so a couple of textural gestures came to mind. Somewhere in The Waking Sun I wanted to have a violin duet. Tantalus provided the perfect opportunity.

The two violins encapsulate a bit of text-painting, the image of the two trees bending down over Tantalus, offering fruit lower and lower, then springing up before he can reach it. The duet is a strict canon at the third below, with each iteration slightly longer than the one before.

From Tantalus comes tantalize, of course, and one could hardly invent a more apt myth than this. Punished by the gods for stealing their ambrosia, Tantalus is bound in this place, and cannot escape. He is tempted above and below by attractions to his flesh. The music is static for the most part, mirroring his helplessness. Voluptuous harmonies grow with his hope, then evaporate.

There’s an old, out-of-favor word that nicely describes this condition. It is wretchedness. A theology professor once told me that it means not that you are as bad as you can be, but that you are as bad off as you can be. Tantalus is indeed a poor wretch.

18 Jun 2011. The Waking Sun. The Crossing, Tempesta di Mare. Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 8 pm