Monthly Archives: April 2013

Night Cadenza on Now Is the Time

northamericanight480It’s different ways to say good night on Now Is the Time, Sunday, April 28th at 10 pm. Alex Freeman’s solo piano Night on the Prairies leads to a sextet in Jeremy Beck’s In Flight until Mysterious Night (and do we hear Steely Dan in there?). Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble then runs with the Night of the Flying Horses of Osvaldo Golijov.

Then, two quartets. Night Blossoms of Mary Jane Leach is a haiku for four singers, and the four string instruments of Kronos play Terry Riley’s long-breathed Cadenza on the Night Plain, out into that good night.

from Terry Riley: Cadenza on the Night Plain 

Alex Freeman: Night on the Prairies
Jeremy Beck: In Flight until Mysterious Night
Osvaldo Golijov: Night of the Flying Horses
Mary Jane Leach: Night Blossoms
Terry Riley: Cadenza on the Night Plain

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Gretchaninoff in New Jersey

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 26 April 2011, under the title In search of a forgotten composer; edited for this post.]


This is not the Pines. Not Central, that’s, what, New Brunswick. But it can’t be South Jersey this far up. No: it must be Central, has to be Central Jersey.

This is not the suburbs, although floating among the horse farms and tree farms are housing tracts that used to be farms. Every once in a while there’s a lake that’s quiet and pretty, but so are most lakes; these aren’t picturesque so much as alone. There are stores in a clump. Outlets, they’re called on a sign. Premium Outlets. The parking lot asphalt is new: dark and bright.

Great Adventure is here, around here, anyway; you don’t see it, signs you see. Also “School / Bus Stop / Ahead” signs, so there must be people around, somewhere, with children enough, among the few houses that were here before the tracts. One or two, maybe three houses at a time bob within the waves of eastern white pine and white oak and pitch pine and thin, wild rhododendron that lap against the shoulders of the roads running through.

No, to me—who grew up well below here, near the widening Delaware, near where Petty’s Island bellies into Philadelphia’s Port Richmond, nestled in Coolidge-era housing separated by small, reckless highways laid for slower cars motoring past industrial parks producing ink resins and truck parts—to me this is that large swath between Fort Dix and, oh, Freehold, say—between Lakehurst and the waist of New Jersey just below Trenton—where a road connects two towns and the name of the road is the name of the two towns, so that you know where it begins and where it ends, that is, if it doesn’t change names at a bend or if they don’t just call it by its three-digit county number—pushing an hour by car toward a place not mysterious but not known, not really; not on the way to anything—not the Shore, not the Pines, not New York; even for the northern Shore towns (Spring Lake, Long Branch, Sea Bright) you’d take 70 or even 195 if you started from farther up—no, you wouldn’t go here or anywhere near here unless you knew somebody here, and I never did.

I rode my bike this way once, to see how far I could go. I didn’t know where I was heading, but I knew it was in this direction. It was that long, desperate Saturday that finds us when we realize we won’t be in high school much longer, when we know that something needs to happen.

I wanted to write music but didn’t know how, didn’t know anything. I pedaled my one-speed all the way to Moorestown’s leafy Main Street—already far—and just kept going, onto sun-baked Marne Highway skirting the freight tracks, and farther, pushing, where, in the direction of… okay, of Newfoundland, of Providence, for all I knew. Wherever did I think I was going? Reaching the Rancocas, exhausted, I lay on my back on the grass under silver maples by the creek. I couldn’t think. I didn’t know anything. The sun sparkled through the leaves. That was 40 years ago.

And now I write music and now I’ve come back to find the grave of Alexander Gretchaninoff. In front of a church on a hill, I am standing at it, looking at an egg sitting on the bottom ledge of a six-foot-high gravestone, the egg left here a few weeks earlier, probably, after Russian Orthodox Easter, to symbolize the life of the Resurrection. It symbolizes the Resurrection but it also tells you that somebody else was here, just like you, and that’s a good symbol, too.

It could be why Jews leave stones on graves. I’ve never asked, but I know it’s why they piled up stones at Gilgal, after crossing the Jordan on dry ground into Canaan; they said so. It might be called an altar, a cairn, but it’s just stones piled up, piled up so that when, years later, a boy would ask his dad, Why are there stones piled up like that?, his dad would tell him, It’s because that’s where we crossed the river, son, on dry ground, after 40 years in the wilderness. A boy knows, everybody knows, that stones don’t pile up like that by themselves, and stones don’t sit on graves, and eggs don’t sit on graves. Somebody has to be there. And now you’re there, and here and now just like that you have been attached to someone else. The someone who was buried here and the someone who was standing here.

Where you are standing.

The accent is on the third, not the second syllable: Gretcha-ni-noff. Two Russians have told me this. Nicolas Slonimsky also states this, in his translator’s foreword to Gretchaninoff’s autobiography My Life. Where I work we spell it Aleksandr Grechaninov. I know the reasons behind the spelling, behind the transliteration from the Cyrillic, but to be honest, we spell it that way because the Library of Congress spells it that way and to communicate you must have standards; I understand that. But here, where this Russian Orthodox church buried him and carved this stone, I’m thinking that’s a good standard, too, and they spell it Alexander Gretchaninoff.

Photo by Sandra Dackow

Photo by Sandra Dackow

In front of this church that sits on a hill in New Jersey is his grave. His name’s in Cyrillic on the front, but they also inscribed the English or Roman letters on the side. It was kind of them to do that. They put his name and his dates and his bas-relief profile on the front, and they put the word Composer there. They are proud of him. He wrote music.

The Czar gave him a salary because of the religious music he wrote, but the Revolution took the Czar away and then the Revolution took the Composer’s salary away. He left in 1925, moved to Paris, moved to New York City. The Philadelphia Orchestra played his Fifth Symphony, his last symphony, in 1939. He became an American citizen.

He was never in style. Fashions came and went—Scriabin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky early, middle, late—but he was a 19th-century Romantic and avoided every other trend. Maybe because of that, or maybe because he wrote religious music as if it meant so much it hurt, or maybe because of a hundred other reasons, waves of reasons floating him west, he had no money. Friends gave concerts of his music to support him, talked famous people into performing his music, gave him envelopes with cash so that he wouldn’t starve. Then his wife died, the woman he left Russia with, and then he died, and the church buried him here, 91 years after he was born. Died the year I was born.

There are so many things I should know. I should know Alexander Gretchaninoff. He’s buried here. I should know where South Jersey ends. So many things.

My brother, who knows more about these roads than anyone I might ask, told me, in the way older brothers tell younger brothers things, “make a right at the first intersection and keep your eyes open,” and I have done so. I have found the grave of Alexander Gretchaninoff. I am looking at the egg sitting on his gravestone.

I walk back to the parking lot, over that spiky, dry, hard grass that grows in the sandy New Jersey coastal plain, to my car under trees where it is cool. Driving back to Philadelphia I keep to the three-digit county roads, not too soon crossing over the river. This is not my home, not anymore, but I’m in no hurry. A state, a grave, eggs and stones and wildernesses and bright Canaan are all my home.

And somewhere approaching New Egypt I feel that this is not the Pines, and that I am not driving, but that the car is running, like the way they say a ship runs, running along a channel, parting the waves. And through the pines and rhododendron I trail a silver Maxima that slowly pulls away, and I am running, floating west over the macadam that sparkles (there is a kind of macadam that sparkles, perhaps you’ve seen it).

Anthems performed at Ursinus College

Bomberger HallA big thank-you to John FrenchAlan Morrison, and the combined Ursinus College Choir and Meistersingers for their work on my six anthems tonight at Ursinus College. What a beautiful concert! Even when some nice people entered Bomberger Hall late!

Also on the program were two works I didn’t know but was glad I heard. They featured saxophonist Holly Hubbs, who performed brilliantly. She played alto on the Richard Proulx Fantasy on “Veni Creator Spiritus,” and, with the choir, soprano saxophone on the James Whitbourn Son of God Mass.

My anthems the choirs performed (with great feeling) were:

  • Behold, the Best, the Greatest Gift
  • Come, Gather All
  • Holy Mountain
  • I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew
  • My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
  • Unto the Hills

Thank you, John, singers, Alan, and Holly for a wonderful evening. Thank you, Ursinus, and by the way, congratulations on your new Music Major program!

Somewhere on the Way, on Now Is the Time

StreamOfStars480We’re traveling far and enjoying the journey on Now is the Time, Sunday, April 21st at 10 pm. From his CD Stream of Stars, Dylan Mattingly’s Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island imagines the last flight of Amelia Earhart, somewhere over the Pacific, finishing with the movement “Islanded in a Stream of Stars.”

James Aikman’s CD Tremors From a Far Shore yields his Violin Sonata No. 2, a large-breathed work opening with a piano-centered Habanera. It also includes a second-movement Homage to his grandmother. Miguel del Aguila’s softly delicious Pacific Serenade leaves us wanting to hear more from him, as we continue on our way.

from Miguel del Aguila: Pacific Serenade 

James Aikman: Violin Sonata No. 2
Dylan Mattingly: Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island
Miguel del Aguila: Pacific Serenade

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Anthems in concert at Ursinus College

UrsinusBombergerHallI’m looking forward to hearing a whole slew of my anthems sung by the combined Ursinus College Choir and Meistersingers this Saturday, April 20th, 7:30 pm at Ursinus College. John French conducts, and Alan Morrison is the organist.

I attended rehearsal last week and the music was already well in hand. John French shaped inner lines with a fine ear for depth and color. (It’s at times like these that I’m glad I worry over inner lines.) Some of the anthems (Behold, the Best) are recent; some (Unto the Hills) go back quite a ways. Some use existing hymn tunes and some of the melodies are original.

John asked me to speak to the choir during the rehearsal, and I hope I was able to shed some light on the music, or at least didn’t get in the way of it. Kind of like composing, come to think of it. The anthems are:

  • Behold, the Best, the Greatest Gift
  • Come, Gather All
  • Holy Mountain
  • I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew
  • My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
  • Unto the Hills

They will also sing the James Whitbourn Son of God Mass on this concert. Along with organ accompaniment, it has an extensive part for soprano saxophone, which Holly Hubbs will play.

Thanks to John, and to the students and community of Ursinus!

Francis Pott in the Heart of Things

My latest CD review for WRTI, podcast with musical examples below. You can read all my CD reviews here

In the Heart of Things: Choral Music of Francis Pott
Commotio. Matthew Berry, conductor
Naxos 8.572739

FrancisPott480Whether communication is too easy, or articulation is too difficult, our time is not a time of counterpoint. Instead of corresponding, we post or tweet; instead of reasoning, we shout and repeat, louder and louder. Music is often an event or a stepping-up of rungs of events: hooks and ladders, clanging past, looking for a fire.

The choral music of Francis Pott, however, flows by, refreshingly contrapuntal. That joy in the working of voices is particularly evident in his 2012 CD, In the Heart of Things. If counterpoint seems anti-modern, he admits it, and points to Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and other past masters of the polyphonic Mass as models. That’s appropriate, because In the Heart of Things is a collection of his choral music revolving around the most substantial work on the recording, his Mass for Eight Parts.

From the Kyrie through the Agnus Dei, this Mass is a triumph of intricate beauty. Upper, middle, and lower streams of voices glide by and mingle, their complexity unnoticed because they shimmer. Sometimes they sneak in, as the “Hosanna” does at first in the Sanctus, or roll in waves, gathering strength as at the end of that movement.

Sometimes the power is overwhelming, as at the end of the Gloria, the final “Amen” surging, unexpected, rank upon rank. Pott composed the Agnus Dei in memory of someone he didn’t know, a past singer of Commotio, the choir that commissioned this. His gentle, pointed lyricism melts the voices into a sea of comfort.

Francis Pott was raised in the English chorister tradition, and knows this repertoire from the inside. His setting of a familiar text, such as Balulalow (known by many from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols), or the new Mary’s Carol (Pott wrote this in memory of his father-in-law), always balances freshness of expression with aptness to the language.

His Lament honors a soldier killed in Afghanistan. Using the poem of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, “But we, how shall we turn to little things / And listen to the birds… nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things,” we know the composer feels deeply what we also feel. This fellow-feeling is at the heart of artistry.

Francis Pott weaves a living counterpoint of music and emotion because he himself has sung it. His music breathes the life of tradition, but it is ever fresh, ever modern.

A Boy and a Girl on Now Is the Time

cirrus480It really is spring, and our thoughts turn to… Now is the Time, Sunday, April 14th at 10 pm. Why not make up a story, and let the boys start. Eric Whitacre’s emotionally surprising A Boy and a Girl leads us to the fresh Gate of Michael McDermott. A Charles Wuorinen Divertimento, bracing and lively, hints at—

Wait; now it’s the girls’ turn—a Tell-Tale Fantasy, perhaps, here told by Jane Brockman. Then six multi-tracked trumpets blast us into Lois Vierk’s brilliant Cirrus, and all that’s left, after all that story, is a single human voice. Joelle Wallach brings in a tenor to sing up into the silence. It really is spring.

from Michael McDermott: Gate 

Eric Whitacre: A Boy and a Girl
Michael McDermott: Gate
Charles Wuorinen: Divertimento
Jane Brockman: Tell-Tale Fantasy
Lois V Vierk: Cirrus
Joelle Wallach: up into the silence

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.