The Gift

Composer James Primosch’s newest composition, Songs for Adam, premieres in Chicago.
December 1, 2009

At the end of an informal talk before the premiere of his newest musical composition, Songs for Adam, James Primosch, G’80, was asked, “What should I listen for? What do you want me to get from the piece?”

Songs for Adam is a song cycle for baritone and orchestra whose lyrics were written by poet Susan Stewart, Gr’78. On October 29, the composer and the poet were on stage fielding questions as last-minute concert goers quietly filled seats in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.

“Listen mindfully,” Primosch told the audience. “Susan and I made this gift for you, so attend to it the way you would attend to a gift from a friend.”

Primosch is the Robert Weiss Professor of Music. His instrumental, vocal and electronic compositions have been performed throughout the U.S. and in Europe by such ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Collage, the New York New Music Ensemble and the Twenty-First Century Consort. American soprano Dawn Upshaw included one of his songs in her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Primosch is also a prizewinning pianist who specializes in contemporary music, and he has performed as a jazz pianist and a liturgical musician.

"There was a good eight seconds of silence in the hall. People were held by it; they weren't eager to get on with the next thing." – James Primosch

Songs for Adam was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and premiered on the composer’s 53rd birthday. The orchestra had previously commissioned music from him based on Rilke’s Book of Hours, but this time they invited him to work with a living poet. Primosch had gotten to know Stewart while she was an English professor at Penn and had already set some of her poetry to music. “I told Susan we’re going to do a piece for baritone,” he recalls, “and it occurred to her that Adam—as in Adam and Eve—was a baritone. How this came to her, I don’t know exactly.” (Currently Stewart is on the faculty at Princeton.)

Primosch thinks of the six movements that make up the piece as meditations on the creation and fall as told in the Book of Genesis. “The songs are thoughtful retellings or reconsiderations of those myths,” he insists. The 30-minute song cycle moves from Adam’s first stammerings as he names the creatures that emerged into being with him, to the creation of Eve and the couple’s expulsion from Eden. It ends on a dark and painful note: the murder of Abel by his brother and the echo of that deed down through the eons.

From the March 16, 2009, preview of Songs for Adam,
part IV, “In the Cool of the Evening,”
Chicago Civic Orchestra

When writing Adam, Primosch embraced Stewart’s poetry as his muse. Poetic structures, narrative themes and even individual words suggested musical patterns and colors and gestures, he explains. It provided a framework on which he could hang the score. But mostly, a deeper resonance inspired the music. “Susan’s poetry has a kind of wisdom about it,” he notes. “It can almost sound like folk poetry, like proverbs. There’s a plainness about it, but the plainness belies a real depth.”

As the score began to take form under the composer’s pen, Stewart reports, “I could sense the density and complexity and sheer lyric power of the emerging music. It was very exciting—like entering a place of great natural beauty that only reveals itself in glimpses at first and then becomes more and more sublime.”

Writing for the Chicago Tribune, classical-music critic John von Rhein called Songs for Adam “intriguing and beautiful” and praised the premiere as an event “to lift the evening beyond the ordinary.” Lawrence Johnson, in the Chicago Classical Review, said “much of the scoring is strikingly luminous and transparent,” adding that “Primosch’s Songs for Adam is a rich-textured, moving and effective song cycle that deserves to be heard.”

The highly regarded composer Augusta Read Thomas was at the premiere and seconds that opinion. Technically, she gives Adam “a huge A-plus” and hopes it will be “picked up and performed all over the place.” It takes a long time for new music to find its way into the repertoire, she comments, pointing to Mahler and Beethoven. In Mahler’s case, it didn’t happen until 50 years after his death, she says. “Now orchestras play and record him every week. I believe Jim’s piece will have that good fortune too. I just hope it happens soon.”

Thomas was the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for nearly a decade. She knows Chicago audiences and reports that the applause was “especially warm and receptive” when the composer and the poet came on stage to take their bows. “I myself was screaming “bravo!” from across the auditorium,” she says.

While it’s rewarding to hear a new work performed for the first time, Primosch kept pricking up his ears for the silence between the notes. Is there a lot of coughing during the soft parts? Are the listeners restless? Stewart remembers “how quiet the audience became, how attentively they were looking at [the lyrics in] their programs and the way the piece held surprises for them—some comic, others quite solemn.”

Songs for Adam ends with the orchestra and the baritone’s hushed voice fading into silence. “There was a good eight seconds of silence in the hall,” Primosch recalls. “People were held by it; they weren’t eager to get on with the next thing”—even if the next thing was applause.

“It was the best birthday present ever,” he confides.