Tag Archives: Priscilla Smith

Palm Sunday drums

[First published 26 Mar 2013 in the Broad Street Review and reprinted with permission.]


We continued our tradition of the chanted Passion this morning, Palm Sunday. Three singers, as Narrator, Christ, and Speaker, chanted this year’s appointed setting, which is from Luke’s gospel.

We’ve broken up the chant in various ways over the years. The congregation always sings, at times, verses from the Johann Heermann / Johann Crüger hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.”

For other places, I’ve composed instrumental interludes, tweaking them from year to year. Or I write new ones, depending on who is available from the congregation to play. We’ve had recorders, strings, and handbells, with or without the organ, and when Priscilla was able to be here, a soprano shawm—very nasty, very effective.

This year I wrote all new interludes. We had two French horns, a cello (all high schoolers), and—to be played with mallets by two from the bell choir—12 handbells hanging from the bell-tree.

One bell player teaches school, one is an office worker. As for the singers: One works in a bank, one writes computer programs, one does something with music.

Orff “timpani” (tuned tom-toms) have been played over the years at various points by children and/or adults. Mike, who sells earth-moving equipment, played two of them today. Half-note and two quarters: two mallets on two drums together, over and over from up in the balcony, in the back of the sanctuary, at the moment when Jesus is arrested.

One drum is the lowest C, one is the F above, but I didn’t bother even to tune them, because when they’re that low they’re mud: just thumps: just perfect. Any lower and the tuning keys start to chatter.

Years ago, Mike showed up at September’s first handbell rehearsal with his young daughter. “We’d like to play,” he said. We thought he was using the royal “we,” speaking for his daughter; but no, Mike wanted to play, too. He didn’t know anything about music, so we taught him.

Mike learned that the open note gets four beats; the open note with a line gets two; the filled-in note gets one. Every week he learned.

For a year Mike played just one bell: the D in the bass clef. The middle line. Now he plays D, C and others if you need—accidentals, special effects, hand chimes, whatever you want. His rhythm is solid.

Mike’s daughter’s not in handbells any more. Mike is.

Rehearsing, 45 minutes before church, I look at Mike in the balcony and cup my hand to my ear. He nods, plays louder.

There are many other things that are good about church music, but at this moment I can’t think of any.


The Three Graces

The Three Graces
Orchestral (original) version: oboe, horn, cello soloists, string orchestra. 11′. Full score
Premiere of original version: 
Chamber version: oboe, horn, cello soloists, piano, double bass. 11′. Score
Premiere of chamber version, first 8 minutes: 

I composed The Three Graces over the chord changes to the chorus of “Wait Till You See Her” by Richard Rodgers. After the introduction and statement of the tune (original to The Three Graces), the soloists take turns on the choruses, first playing two choruses each, then trading off in various ways.

This started out to be a concerto grosso, but an immersion into the complete recordings of Miles Davis got me to thinking how like a jazz combo the concerto grosso formula can be. So I decided to try to compose a work of straight jazz. I grew up listening to my parents’ popular jazz albums, so the sounds of random slices from the 1940s and ’50s—of the Hi-Lo’s (from whom I learned “Wait Till You See Her”); Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; Dave Brubeck; Maynard Ferguson’s A Message from Newport 1958; Billie Holiday; Stan Getz; and of every solo on the 1947 “Star Dust” by Lionel Hampton with the Just Jazz All Stars (especially bassist Slam Stewart’s)—all these sounds inform The Three Graces, which is an homage to them all.

It was my intention for the solos to come across as improvisations. The strings (or piano and bass in the chamber version) take the role of a drummer-less rhythm section, playing what I take to be a mix of swing and early be-bop. I hoped to capture the excitement of something that sounded like it was being made up on the spot, although there is also a great tradition of written-out ensemble jazz.

This is especially an homage to our three daughters, each of the soloists taking on the character of one of the girls. Priscilla, the oldest, was just starting to learn the oboe when I wrote this. Nellie, then six, was the soulful horn. At four, Martina was to be the cellist in this fantasy piece, and cuts in with her first (Slam-inspired) solo before her turn. The two younger girls did not play instruments then, but each later decided to play, in real life, exactly the instrument I assigned to the other one.

Original version for soloists with string orchestra premiered 2,3 Apr 2001 by Gerard Reuter, oboe, Karl Kramer, horn, Wolfram Kössel, cello, and the Jupiter Symphony in New York City, Jens Nygaard conducting. Chamber version (soloists with double bass and piano) premiered 15 Feb 2008 by soloists Priscilla Smith, Patrick Hines, Rajli Bicolli, with Leon Boykins and Jeremy Gill at Rock Hall, Temple University, Philadelphia. Duration, about 11 minutes.

Thank you, Mélomanie, for Nobility of Women encore

Had a blast at Mélomanie’s season opener last night: Telemann, Boismoitier, a Chris Braddock world premiere, and selections from recent commissions, including The Nobility of Women, which they had premiered in January.

I always enjoy hearing the music of Ingrid Arauco, Mark Hagerty, and Chuck Holdeman. I love hearing Priscilla play… anything, or anything of mine, or that Boismoitier, which was a delight. The audience loved everything.

Nobility was represented by the Sarabande (Priscilla’s solo, with cello and harpsichord) and the closing Canario (which also closed the concert), with the whole band. Immanuel Church Highlands in Wilmington is a jewel of a venue for concerts: live, but not too, and beautiful. Mélomanie sounded terrific.

Truth be told, you do take a chance with so many live composers on one concert. Many came up after, in the sanctuary or at the Columbus Inn reception, to tell me how much they were transported by Nobility. Especially did I appreciate the comments of one woman, who was moved by my ingenious picturing of the river. She could really feel the movement of the water, and all I could do was thank her. She was so dear and inspiring with her compliments that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wasn’t Mark Hagerty.

(He deserved those compliments for Trois Rivières, so I happily passed them along to him!)

The Nobility of Women, Mélomanie season opener

Mélomanie’s 2012-13 season begins tomorrow night at Immanuel Church, Highlands in Wilmington with a potpourri of excerpted recent commissions. The Nobility of Women will be on the program, along with music by Ingrid Arauco, Mark Hagerty, Chuck Holdeman, and the premiere of The Grease in the Groove by Chris Braddock. Boismortier and Telemann are on tap, and Priscilla’s playing, too!

I cannot be objective about the Braddock piece, because it has a 12-string guitar, and I automatically love anything with a 12-string guitar.

Mélomanie always puts on a great show, and it’ll be great seeing them all again.

The early-music scene in NY

In Sunday’s New York Times, an optimistic look at early music in New York City leads off with Priscilla’s picture.

Priscilla Smith is a member of Piffaro, runs the early music ensemble at Temple University, is just back from William Christie’s festival in France, co-founded her own group PhoenixTail, plays everywhere, and is probably embarrassed by her very proud father right at this moment.

She also misses Gottlob.