Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Chambered Nautilus with Khorikos

KhorikosOrtusMy great thanks to Khorikos for performing The Chambered Nautilus Saturday night on their 2nd Annual International New Music Competition! For the 2nd year we went up to St. Anthony of Padua in SoHo, since a piece of mine, Where Flames a Word, was also chosen last year. This somewhat floors me, since artistic director Jesse Mark Peckham says they’ve received more than 600 entries each time out.

So Jackie and I made a weekend of it, leaving me a regretted oh-for-the-month for The Crossing’s Month of Modern concerts, where I missed fantastic things in Philadelphia each of the last three weekends.

But there were fantastic things on the Khorikos concert, including two works by composers I was glad to have met there. Kala Pierson‘s Sky Sight, on her own poem, is shot full with emotion and brave stabs of color. It was thrilling. On four Ashkenazi Jewish songs, strung together without break, was Shirei Shira (“song of songs”) by Karen Siegel. It bubbled excitedly with the mixed twos and threes of chant.

Khorikos sang two of the Four Lullabies of the English Graham Lack, solid and sweeping at the same time with deft harmonic wisps that came at me sideways. Everything on the program charmed in individual ways, but I was entrapped by the strong, almost violent heart-rending of The Language by Khorikos singer and assistant conductor Alec Galambos, on a Robert Creely poem. He did what a composer must do but too often shies from: He left himself nowhere to hide. I loved it.

Peckham whittles down the entries to about two dozen finalists, then gives those to the choir. The 30 singers then choose the winners which are performed in concert. He allows his two assistant conductors, Galambos and Justin Ballard, to pick which they’d like to conduct. When Peckham, a fine tenor, isn’t conducting, he slips into the choir. Ballard, who otherwise seems to be a sensible fellow, has asked to conduct mine each year, and so I was delighted to hear his interpretation of The Chambered Nautilus.

I was touched by it. Soft and lilting, and saving big moments without grandstanding, he delivered a Nautilus that was nuanced and powerful. On the famous (or once-famous) poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., it is described here, along with text and a live recording of the premiere.

So, in the show two years in a row, and, yes, two years in a row I didn’t win the grand prize. Khorikos has online voting during and until about 5 minutes after the concert. Frank La Rocca’s haunting Miserere won last year, and this year the winner was the last piece on the concert, a beautiful setting of Sara Teasdale’s I Would Live In Your Love by Nathan Jones.

Go here for short videos about each of the pieces.

Peckham was magnificent, with brisk pacing but a fineness of detail. Actually, you don’t realize until later how elegant and impressive his conducting is, I think because he prepares the choir so well and because he doesn’t call attention to himself. He’s a force. His is a tremendous undertaking, this competition, on top of everything else he’s done with Khorikos in its 10-year existence.

Thank you, Jesse, Justin, composers, and the athletically gorgeous singing of Khorikos.

My Dinner With Beethoven

[First published in the Broad Street Review, June 23, 2015.]

Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, “My Dinner with Andre.” (© 1981, New Yorker Films)

Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory. “My Dinner with Andre.” (© 1981, New Yorker Films)

My belief in God, it turns out, is partly described by My Dinner with Andre. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory have dinner in a restaurant in the 1981 film. Mostly, Shawn listens incredulously as Gregory tells one tall tale of mystic coincidence after another. But one facet shines brighter than the entire movie to me. Periodically, someone brings food or clears a plate. At that point, the two friends do something that took me by surprise: They look at the server and smile. Every once in a while they say, “Thank you.” That is what I remember from My Dinner with Andre, and that, it turns out, is one description of my belief in God.

I’m sure I said “Thank you” to waiters before 1981, but, what with growing up with little money and then proceeding to undergraduate school, marriage, and graduate school with less than little money, I hadn’t the means to habitually develop restaurant mores. So when I saw two men on the big screen looking up and saying “Thank you” as if they meant it, I thought, This must be what culture is; this is good.

It shouldn’t have taken me into my 20s to learn this aspect of basic civility, because a few years before, in college, one of the jobs I had was parking lot attendant. Mostly I worked at a small lot that no longer exists, at 17th and Rittenhouse. There’s an apartment building there now; then, it was a busy postage stamp of a parking lot.

The boss’s rule was: The lot is never “full.” On Saturdays it was not unusual to stack the spaces on both sides two deep, and stuff the row between them with two lines, creating a perfectly gridlocked quilt of cars. When the lot was de facto if not de supervisor full, you’d park on sidewalks and in loading zones, keeping an eye out for police until you could work the cars back in.

You took keys and threaded needles with two-ton vehicles. You took money and gave change. You hoped that the customer’s estimated time of return was close to correct, and you hoped that the small bills would hold out. Your head was on a swivel. Most people, you found, were impatient. Most people—this was surprising—didn’t look at you. If someone said, “Thank you,” you remembered.

Hair-shirt thank yous

My Dinner with Andre brought this all back, so I started saying “Thank you” to waiters. I found that I couldn’t stop. I’ve been looking at and thanking postal workers, pilots, plumbers, and, especially, parking lot attendants ever since, each “Thank you” a hair-shirt reminder of how long it took to learn this.

The odd thing is, as natural as it now feels, it makes no sense to say “Thank you.” For a gift, yes, but not in these instances, where someone is paid to do something. My job was to park cars. I was paid (not much, but paid), to perform this function. Airline pilots and bus drivers make more than I do, but I thank them as well. A waiter is paid, a waiter is tipped, and still we look and thank.

There is no reason for it. We would excoriate the thought, if it occurred, to base our thanks on how much or how little the server makes. There is the ancient subservience of an inferior to a superior, and there is its opposite, noblesse oblige, but looking at and thanking a person is not either of those. We are simply obliged. We feel it, we say it. When the cashier hands us our receipt, we know it.

“The heavens declare…”

Which brings me back to God. Lyric Fest asked me to compose a work for the Singing City choir with soloists, piano, and audience participation, for a concert on the theme of the James Weldon Johnson poem “I’ll Make Me a World.” I set Psalm 19, The Heavens Declare, whichbegins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies announce the work of his hands.”

Now, if I hadn’t read the work of clever fellows like Richard Dawkins, I would have heard it from a few of my clever friends, that the heavens declare no such thing. In my program notes for the piece I even alerted any atheists and agnostics that the “slow, low, halting refrain, acknowledges, I hope, their demurral” from the psalm. The skies don’t talk, an unbeliever would say, and on this point the psalmist actually agrees: “There is no speech, there are no words,” and nature “is not heard.”

Yet the declaration “goes out over all the earth; they proclaim to the ends of the world.” Dawkins ascribes such belief to idiocy or mental illness, but I think of it simply as halting my conversation every once in a while, looking up from the table, and saying “Thank you.”

Observation and acknowledgement

I mean no disrespect to Dawkins to ponder (idiotically, I suppose) what must be his great frustration that, even after all his biology and all his books, something like 96 to 98 percent of the population disagrees with him. Most people, even smart people, even biologists and writers, believe in God simply by looking at the world.

And I mean no disrespect to God by comparing him, as I guess I am here, to a waiter. Make it chef if you like, but we know that the food doesn’t walk to the table by itself.

I don’t know if percentages count as Aquinian proof, but I’ll narrow it down. If I’m an idiot, then so was Beethoven. He sits across the table from me and tells his tall, mystical, Ninth Symphony tale of “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.” I listen, incredulously. “Do you sense your Creator, o world? Seek Him above the canopy of stars!”

Beethoven stops talking, looks up at the waiter, and smiles like Andre Gregory. I, Shawn-like, compose The Heavens Declare.

Threads on Now Is the Time

FennellyWe are all connected on Now Is the Time, Saturday, June 20th at 9 pm. We just learned that composer Brian Fennelly passed away on Wednesday; his loving celebration of his granddaughter was already programmed for this week’s broadcast, so we will close our look at contemporary American music on a bittersweet note with that work, Fennelly’s “Sigol” for Strings.

I never met him, but going back a few years, to my time at the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, I had infrequent, but memorable, correspondence with Brian Fennelly. He was always warm, always sincere, and always interested in what I was doing. He was humble and kind, and when I asked him to send me some of his music for Now Is the Time, I discovered, as many already had, a composer of deep feeling and care.

Opening the program, Paul Lansky’s Threads takes the form of a Bach cantata, but for percussion quartet, mixing sonorities in ever-delightful ways. Michael Colquhon performs on flute his own You Can’t Get There From Here, and Martin Rokeach in North Beach Rhapsody sends us a postcard of San Francisco and the energy that connects all of us, no matter where we live. May music continue to connect us all.

from Brian Fennelly: “Sigol” for Strings 

Paul Lansky: Threads
Michael Colquhon: You Can’t Get There From Here
Martin Rokeach: North Beach Rhapsody
Brian Fennelly: “Sigol” for Strings

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Lyric Fest Residency: A Look Back on Film

As 2014–15 Composer in Residence for Lyric Fest, the Philadelphia art song group, I wrote three works for them: Mark the Music, a Shakespeare song for soprano, tenor, baritone, and piano, In This Blue Room, a 45-minute cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and piano, and The Heavens Declare, a setting of Psalm 19 for the Singing City choir, trio (soprano, mezzo, baritone), audience, and piano.

John Thornton filmed us all during the year, as did Joe Hannigan of Weston Sound, who also recorded audio. John then put together the 18-minute film above. Some of the footage is from an interview during an on-air shift one afternoon at WRTI. He asked some very good questions which I don’t know if I got near to answering, but John lovingly edited and assembled this tribute to Lyric Fest and their vision in having their first-ever composer in residence in their 11-year history.

My huge thanks go to everyone involved.

For Mark the Music: soprano Jessica Lennick, tenor Eric Rieger, baritone Michael Adams

For In This Blue Room: mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Daniel Teadt; poets Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, and all inspired by the vibrant batik artwork of Laura Pritchard.

For The Heavens Declare: soprano Elizabeth Weigle, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, baritone Randall Scarlata, Singing City and their director Jeffrey Brillhart

Most of all, my deepest gratitude and thanks go to Suzanne DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward, who are the artistic directors of Lyric Fest but more than that have become dear friends who are “connecting people through song” and who know the real purpose of music. I am honored beyond words to have been able to work with them.

Jacques Ibert 125th Anniversary

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, June 6th, 5-6 pm.

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962). The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1920)
Ibert. Escales (1922)
Ibert. Divertissement (1929)

IbertSince his name is not Debussy or Ravel or Satie, and since his name was not in a group called “Les Six,” the overlooked French composer of the 20th century’s first half may well be Jacques Ibert. But since 2015 is the 125th anniversary of his birth, this is a good time for Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection to assess his music.

Critics have often called Jacques Ibert “eclectic,” but that may have more to do with their not being able to pigeon-hole him into one school of music or another. What stands out most of all about Ibert, though, is that he is a remarkably resourceful composer. His efficiently scored works are always beautiful, and more often than not have a theatrical flair.

He knew what he was doing from the beginning. He had already won the top prize, the Prix de Rome, at the Paris Conservatory, but then went into the French Navy during the First World War. Even through these years, however, his compositional gifts were percolating. He began a substantial orchestral work based on the Oscar Wilde poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” at this time. Wilde, who had been imprisoned at Reading, witnessed the hanging of a man who had murdered his wife. One line in the poem has become famous: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

The 1922 premiere of The Ballad of Reading Gaol was conducted by fellow composer Gabriel Pierné, and was a success. Another success immediately followed it. Escales, or Ports of Call, is inspired by Ibert’s naval experiences in the Mediterranean. He salutes Rome and Palermo in the first movement, the Tunisian cities of Tunis and Nafta in the second, and gives over the final movement to the Spanish port of Valencia.

Ibert composed Divertissement as incidental music for a 1929 theatrical comedy, but within a year produced a concert version. It and Escales are his two most popular orchestral works, and along with Reading Gaol made a name for Ibert, opened doors to publishers, and eventually led to the directorship of the French Academy in Rome, where he spent much of his life as an ambassador in Italy for all things French. He composed operas, piano music, film music (even for Gene Kelly and Orson Welles), and much else.

His life was not without setback, however. World War II interrupted his stay in Italy, and then the Nazi-allied Vichy government ruling France banned his music. He ended up in Switzerland, but returned to France—and his beloved Italy—when peace returned to Europe.

So for the 125th anniversary of the birth of Jacques Ibert it’s two familiar works, and (because it’s Discoveries) something not so. All in all, it’s the hard-to-label but nevertheless gorgeous music of Jacques Ibert.