The Voice of the Sibyl in Boston: A Conversation with James Primosch / by Collage New Music

James Primosch, composer

James Primosch, composer

Collage anticipates premiering James Primosch's "A Sibyl" at our season opener. In this interview with the composer, Collage Fellow Joseph Sowa dives into this new commission, the collaboration with renown poet Susan Stewart, and the exciting "Primosch Day" on October 15th.

To learn more about this work and the other great composers on our first concert, please join us prior to the performance at 2pm on October 15th for a pre-concert conversation led by David Hoose.


Congratulations on your upcoming premiere with Collage New Music! Your latest song cycle, A Sibyl, will be premiered this October 15. How did the commission come about?

The project came about as the result of a commission awarded by the Fromm Music Foundation, which is based at Harvard, and has long been a generous supporter of new music. I contacted David Hoose and Frank Epstein about the possibility of applying for a Fromm [Music Foundation] commission, asking if they would commit to performing the piece if the grant came through, and they agreed to do so. The application was successful and here we are! I’m grateful both to the Fromm and to David and Frank for putting their faith in me and committing to a piece that didn’t yet exist.

What has it been like to work with Collage New Music over the years? Is there a specific highlight in your collaboration with the ensemble?

My relationship with Collage actually goes back decades as the late Gunther Schuller conducted my Septet on a Collage program back in the 1980s. Later David Hoose conducted my Four Sacred Songs, with Janice Felty as soloist, and most recently Christopher Oldfather, the fabulous pianist with the group, gave the Boston premiere of a set of piano pieces that he had co-commissioned. (In fact, that most recent performance was the last time I saw Gunther, sad to say.) I can’t single out any one of these concerts as a highlight; I’ve been terrifically pleased every time with the high standards Collage brings to its performances.

In addition to working with Collage over the years, you’ve also had a long working relationship with Susan Stewart. A Sibyl marks the fourth time you’ve set her poetry. What initially drew you to Stewart as a collaborator? For this most recent work, what about the Cumaean Sibyl spoke to you and Susan?

Susan Stewart, poet

Susan Stewart, poet

I came upon the work of Susan Stewart about 20 years ago thanks to a newspaper article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the occasion of her receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. The article included a short poem of Susan’s called “Cinder.” As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to set it; it spoke to me that powerfully. I did not realize that Susan was at the time a professor in the English department at Penn, where I also teach. We met, she gave me permission to use “Cinder,” and my setting of her text became the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm, composed for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish — in fact, my setting of “Cinder” is my most performed piece. Subsequently, I used two of Susan’s poems in a cycle with baritone entitled Dark the Star, and she wrote new poems specifically for a piece with baritone and orchestra, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, Songs for Adam. The poems of A Sibyl were again created especially for this project.

Speaking for myself, I understand the sibyl as an archetype of a singer, her voice guiding us to moonlit places, speaking of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love. Susan’s poems reflect on the mysteries the sibyl utters, but also ponder the vulnerability of the sibyl herself and how her power and identity are embodied in her voice.

You’ve noted the “amazing trifecta of good luck” to have two other Boston performances on October 15. In addition to the afternoon premiere with Collage New Music, Emmanuel Music will present one of your motets in the morning and Winsor Music will play your Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano in the evening. What would you say to a Boston music lover considering to undertake the full Primosch marathon? What kind of experience might they have hearing these pieces back to back? Do you have any favorite Boston restaurants you might recommend between concerts?

I will certainly be delighted — thought a little surprised — if anyone wishes to attend all three performances. There is a nice variety of performing media with these three pieces: choral, solo voice with ensemble, and purely instrumental ensemble. There is also variation in the age of the pieces. The work for Collage is a premiere, while the piece Winsor Music will play is receiving its second performance, having been first played earlier this year. In contrast, the motet that will be done at Emmanuel’s morning Eucharist dates from twenty years ago. I don’t see a lot of stylistic difference between the recent pieces and the older one, but maybe that will become apparent by hearing the pieces in close succession. Certainly all three pieces, written specifically for these organizations, have deep Boston connections, as I have been lucky enough to have all three groups engage my work over the years. (Even the text for the Emmanuel piece has a Boston connection in that its author is Denise Levertov, who attended Emmanuel for a time.)

As for dining options on October 15, I will leave that kind of advice to those more informed than I. I’ve certainly had lovely brunches within walking distance of Emmanuel over the years, as well as some fine dinners in Brookline, not far from St. Paul’s, where Winsor Music will perform. I hope my contribution to the music of the day provides its own kind of nourishment.

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