James Primosch

  • When honoring him with its Goddard Lieberson Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters noted that “A rare economy of means and a strain of religious mysticism distinguish the music of James Primosch… Through articulate, transparent textures, he creates a wide range of musical emotion.” Andrew Porter stated in The New Yorker that Primosch “scores with a sure, light hand” and critics for the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Dallas Morning News have characterized his music as “impressive,” “striking,” “grandly romantic,” “stunning” and “very approachable.”

    Primosch’s compositional voice encompasses a broad range of expressive types. His music can be intensely lyrical, as in the song cycle Holy the Firm (composed for Dawn Upshaw) or dazzlingly angular as in Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound. His affection for jazz is reflected in works like the Piano Quintet, while his work as a church musician informs the many pieces in his catalog based on sacred songs or religious texts.

    Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1956, James Primosch studied at Cleveland State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University. He counts Mario Davidovsky, George Crumb and Richard Wernick among his principal teachers.

    Primosch’s instrumental, vocal, and electronic works have been performed throughout the United States 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 Twentieth Century Consort. His Icons was played at the ISCM/League of Composers World Music Days in Hong Kong, and Dawn Upshaw included a song by Primosch in her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Commissioned works by Primosch have been premiered by the Chicago Symphony, Speculum Musicae, the Cantata Singers, and pianist Lambert Orkis. A second Chicago Symphony commission, Songs for Adam, premiered in October, 2009 (with baritone Brian Mulligan, in performances conducted by Sir Andrew Davis); and Luminism was commissioned and premiered by the Albany Symphony in May, 2010.

    Among the honors he has received are a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three prizes from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (most recently, an Academy Award in 2010), a Regional Artists Fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the Stoeger Prize of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center where he studied with John Harbison. Organizations commissioning Primosch include the Koussevitzky and Fromm Foundations, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Folger Consort, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the Barlow Endowment, and the Network for New Music. In 1994 he served as composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Music Festival. Recordings of twenty-one compositions by Primosch have appeared on the Albany, Azica, Bard, Bridge, CRI, Centaur, and New World labels, with new discs of vocal and choral works planned.

    James Primosch is also active as a pianist, particularly in the realm of contemporary music. He was a prizewinner at the Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam, and appears on recordings for New World, CRI, the Smithsonian Collection, and Crystal Records. He has worked as a jazz pianist and a liturgical musician.

    Since 1988, he has served on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Presser Electronic Music Studio.


  • Cover Title (Subtitle) Duration Instrumentation
    143-40013 Christus Vincit
    For Organ
    4:00 Organ
    143-40014 Little Suite
    For Organ
    9:00 Organ
    143-40009 Meditation On “What Wondrous Love Is This?”
    For Organ
    4:00 Organ
    140-40111 Piano Variations
    For Solo Piano
    25:00 Piano
    140-40119 Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift
    For Piano
    14:00 Piano
    Chamber Ensemble
    144-40724 A Flutist’s Sketchbook
    Thirteen Easy and Not So Easy Pieces
    18:00 Flute, Piano
    144-40625 Badinerie Squared
    For Two Flutes
    2:30 2 Flutes
    10177 Chamber Concerto
    for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble
    17:00 Solo Cl.; 1Perc. Pno. Synthesizer Vl. Vcl. Cb.
    14393 Chamber Symphony
    18:00 1(Picc.) 1 2(B.Cl. ext.) 0 – 1 1 1(F Attachment) 0; 2Perc. Pno. Str.
    144-40629 Exchanges
    For Flute And Bb Clarinet
    8:00 Woodwind Duet
    144-40229 Fantasy-Variations
    16:30 Piano Trio
    144-40705 Five Poems
    20:00 Violin, Piano
    144-40651 Oboe Quartet
    18:00 Oboe Quartet
    144-40303 Piano Quintet
    25:00 Piano Quintet
    144-40510 Short Stories
    10:00 SATB Saxophones
    144-40218 String Quartet No. 2
    (after Zurbarán)
    18:00 String Quartet
    144-40398 String Quartet No. 3
    22:00 String Quartet
    144-40602 Times Like These
    For Bb Clarinet And Piano
    8:00 Bb Clarinet, Piano
    14394 Five Meditations
    for Orchestra
    21:00 3(Picc.) 3(E.H.) 3(B.Cl.) 3(Cbsn.) – 4 3 3 1; Timp. 4Perc. Pno.(Cel.) Hp. Str.
    23473 Luminism
    for Orchestra
    15:00 3(Picc.) 2 3(B.Cl.) 3(Cbsn.) – 4 3 3 1; Timp. 3Perc. Hp. Pno. Str.
    14399 Some Glad Mystery
    for Orchestra
    11:00 3 3 3 3 -4 3 3 1; Timp. 2Perc. Hp. Str.
    21727 Variations on a Hymn Tune
    6:00 2(1 dbl. Picc.) 2 2 2 – 2 2 2 1; Timp. 3Perc. Str.
    Vocal / Choral
    141-40093 Ariel Songs
    For Voice And Piano
    10:00 Soprano, Piano
    23469 Dark the Star
    for Baritone and Chamber Ensemble
    22:00 Solo Bar.; Cl.(dbl. B.Cl.) Vcl. 1Perc. Pno.
    10032 Fire-Memory/River Memory
    for SATB Chorus and Orchestra
    21:30 SATB Chorus; 3(Picc.) 2 2(B.Cl.) 2 – 4 2 2(B.Tbn.) 0; Timp. 2Perc. Hp. Str.
    14396 Four Sacred Songs
    12:00 Sop. or Mezzo-sop.; Fl.(Picc.) Cl.(B.Cl.) Vln. Vcl. Perc. Hp.
    23488 From a Book of Hours
    for Soprano and Ensemble
    18:00 Solo Sop.; 1 1(dbl. E.H.) 1(dbl. B.Cl.) 0 – 1 0 0 0; 1Perc. Pno. Str. ( or small ensemble)
    10148 From a Book of Hours
    for Soprano and Orchestra
    18:00 Solo Sop.; 3(dbl. Alto Fl./Picc.) 3(dbl. E.H.) 3(dbl. B.Cl.) 3 – 4 3 3(B.Tbn.) 1; Timp. 3Perc. Cel.(Pno.) Hp. Str.
    141-40047 From Psalm 116
    For Voice and Piano
    3:00 Voice, Piano
    141-40055 Holy The Firm
    21:00 Soprano, Piano
    23536 Holy the Firm
    21:00 Solo Sop.; Fl. (dbl. Picc.), Cl.(dbl. B.Cl.); 1Perc. Hp. Str.( or small ensemble)
    342-40174 Meditation for Candlemas
    SATB Chorus, A Cappella
    4:00 SATB Chorus
    14400 Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”
    for Soprano, Baritone, and Ancient Instruments
    30:00 Ancient instruments (four players): Renaissance Lute, Citole, Medieval Hp., Psaltery,Treb.Viol., 2 B.Viols, Vielle, Rebec, 6Rec. (Sopranino, Sop. 2Alto, Ten., B.), Dumbek, Nakara, Crotales (E, B), Susp.Cym., Tamb.
    23537 Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”
    30:00 Solo Sop., Solo Bar.; Fl.(dbl. Picc., AltoFl.) Hp. 1Perc. Vla. Vcl.
    17387 Songs for Adam
    30:00 Solo Baritone; 3(dbl. Picc.) 3(dbl.E.H.) 3(dbl.B.Cl.) 3 – 4 3 3 1; 3Perc. Pno.(Cel.) Hp. Str.
    441-41021 Three Sacred Songs
    1030 Voice, Piano
    141-40025 Weil Alles Unsagbar Ist
    23:00 Voice with Instrument
    Works with Electronics
    14397 Sacra conversazione
    for Chamber Ensemble with Electronic Sound on Tape
    21:00 Vln. Vcl. Fl.(Picc./A.Fl.) Cl.(B.Cl.) Perc. Pno.
    140-40067 Secret Geometry
    15:00 Piano, Tape

  • Not every composer’s music can support such weighty themes, but I find myself returning again and again to Primosch’s songs.
    –Musical America Blog

    …[his music] doesn’t strive always to be in a holy space, but instead to describe it and give it a human response. In this way Primosch is able to take us to, be in the presence of, and then take us out of, sacred time and space, an attribute which is at the center of the Western musical art form.
    –Daniel Asia, Huffington Post

    …he is a composer that decidedly has a knack for selecting a small portion of text and maximizing its expressiveness.
    –Greg Hettmansberger, WhatGregSays Blog

    …open, wandering lines led to a big, pumping midsection, then back to a dreamy coda…
    –Miriam Seidel, Philadelphia Inquirer

    …gorgeous…it featured a brooding opening section, soaring and expressive vocal lines and creatively scored, beautiful instrumental writing.
    –Vivien Schweitzer, New York Times

    …22 minutes passes swiftly but with the sense of a journey taken that is of note and meaning, finding sacred space and then retreating from it.
    –Daniel Asia, Huffinton Post

    Strongly recognizable melodic sequences unfold and overlap in Primosch’s piece. The music builds and accelerates with almost a Brahmsian fervor…
    –Lesley Valdes, Philadelphia Inquirer

    The composer’s gift with words catches the subtle rhythms of the text in a way that makes it seem as if he has simply freed the music lurking just under the surface of the words.
    –Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer

    Primosch’s work centers on two poems by Denise Levertov about the Vietnam War’s destruction, finding a note of irony in wrapping the bitter words in often brilliant, dissonant music. He made a strong effect with singing and playing that in places began softly, then swelled to near-outcry, then returned to silence.
    –Dan Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer

    It revels in suspension and release, choral part writing that is set off very effectively by poetic orchestration, a solo violin part that weaves in and out of the neo-impressionist orchestral light and shadow. The final of the two movements has some fireworks of an orchestral sort and more of the beautiful choral writing that permeates the work as a whole.
    –Grego Applegate Edwards, Classicalmodernmusic.blogspot.com

    In Primosch’s “Four Sacred Songs,” the power of chant reasserted itself.
    –Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer

    The score is very approachable, handsomely made and austerely beautiful.
    –John Ardoin, Dallas Morning News

    …distinctive scoring, filled with sumptuous textures punctuated by percussive tintinnabulation.
    –Musical America Blog

    Primosch is a composer whose work deserves wider exposure. …reveals both his sensitivity to the texts and to orchestral color as a means of extending and enhancing the dramatic possibilities of the human voice.
    –John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

    Rilke’s poems have a distinctly modern sensibility that was beautifully reflected in Primosch’s austere but profoundly thoughtful settings.
    –Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times

    Primosch’s musical language…is appropriately wide-ranging, sophisticated, and often unsettling.
    –Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News

    The poetic words are sensitively matched to music that evokes images of fire, Jacob’s ladder, an everyday god and deathbed sensations.
    –Wilma Salisbury, Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

    …one of Primosch’s most striking cycles.
    –Musical America Blog

    These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple.
    –Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News

    The work succeeds largely because of the variety of textures employed, from dense contrapuntal figures to a blaze of sound when dawn breaks at the end of Hopkins’s poem…the oboe lines lent the music a welcome and crucial depth. Primosch showed a particular gift for choral writing: The a cappella parts were beautiful.
    –David Weininger, Boston Globe

    …the middle section, Nocturne…weighs in as a perfect composite jewel: 3:32 of elegant, electro acoustic sensuality. A preceding Variations and concluding Toccata comprise a listener’s pleasure. I’m certain I’m hearing a masterpiece.
    –Mike Silverton, Fanfare

    …an impressive sonata structure built up from an economical array of fourths and tritones, with electronic tape and…piano blending in fully notated synchrony.
    –Alex Ross, New York Times

    …”Sonata-Fantasia” evinces an ear for keyboard sonority which is nothing if not inclusive. The work is composed for piano and synthesizer, cross-cut and superimposed so that the sound of one merges directly out of, or into, the other…the two instruments combine in opening-out the timbral and dynamic spectrum to impressive effect. …cordially recommended…
    –Richard Whitehouse, Gramophone

    …a tour de force for piano and synthesizer… The unusual sounds from the Kurzweil synthesizer expand the timbral possibilities of the piano and the horizons of the listener.
    –Gail Wein, The Washington Post

    …there is something about Primosch’s music that both grounds and makes the composition soar. …”Come Unto These Yellow Sands” from Act I, scene ii was a big wow. Decidedly pleasing was the soothing but subdued closing duet “Our Revels Now Are Ended.” It left [this author] wanting more of Primosch.
    –Karren LaLonde Alenier, www.scene4.com/karrenlalondealenier

    …intriguing and beautiful… Stewarts’s poetic images…melds comfortably with Primosch’s lyrical, essentially tonal harmonic grammar. The vocal writing for baritone ranges from introspective to angry declamation, bestriding a large orchestra that is used with acute subtlety, sensitivity and evocative instrumental color, never covering the singer.
    –John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

    …much of the scoring is strikingly luminous and transparent.
    –Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

    “Adam” is the work of a skilled melodist and orchestrator.
    –Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

    It has confidence of expression… Primosch pushes both himself and thus his listeners onto new ground with Susan Stewart’s verse… Both poet and composer share an ability to contemplate how basic elements of existence might feel for the first time, and the duo know how to capture that in their respectively cultivated vocabularies, with an emotional rightness that never becomes too analytical. …well written for the voice…masterly orchestration…
    –David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer

    …a handsome, somewhat elegiac work, built around a hymn tune, written in a language that is both harmonically diverse and emotionally unified…a satisfying and personal statement.
    –Tim Page, New York Newsday

    …Particularly striking… Primosch’s quartet…draws its musical raw materials from the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” The hymn tune is serene, melancholy and medieval, and it makes a strong effect when Mr. Primosch brings it back unadorned between imaginative variations that range from the violent and harsh to the grandly romantic.
    –Allan Kozinn, New York Times

    James Primosch’s “Three Sacred Songs” for soprano and piano are tonal and ardent.
    –Lesley Valdes, Philadelphia Inquirer

    …stunning in its ability to illuminate texts… Primosch…is a master of text painting…
    –Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer

  • Vocalisms VOCALISMS
    Albany Records (TROY1743-44); September 1, 2018
    Performer(s): Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Heidi Louise Williams, piano
    Work(s): Holy the Firm
    Journey to America: 20th Century American Piano Music JOURNEY TO AMERICA: 20TH CENTURY AMERICAN PIANO MUSIC
    Centaur Records (3531); May 5, 2017
    Performer(s): Youmee Kim, piano
    Work(s): Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift
    Cathedral Music CATHEDRAL MUSIC
    Albany Records (TROY1615); February 1, 2016
    Performer(s): 21st Century Concert; Christopher Kendall, conductor; Mary Mackenzie, soprano
    Work(s): Sacred Songs and Meditations
    Times Like These TIMES LIKE THESE
    Potenza Music (); August 1, 2014
    Performer(s): Lisa Oberlander, clarinet; Yien Wang, piano
    Work(s): Times Like These
    Sacred Songs SACRED SONGS
    Bridge Records (Bridge 9422); March 11, 2014
    Performer(s): Susan Narucki, soprano; William Sharp, baritone; 21st Century Consort, Christopher Kendall, conductor
    Work(s): Dark the Star
    Four Sacred Songs
    From a Book of Hours
    Holy the Firm
    Metamorphosis METAMORPHOSIS
    Innova Records (806); February 28, 2012
    Performer(s): Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Alan Harler, conductor
    Work(s): Fire-Memory/River Memory
    Extreme Measures EXTREME MEASURES
    Albany Records (TROY1217); September 1, 2010
    Performer(s): Jean Kopperud, clarinet, Stephen Gosling, piano
    Work(s): Times Like These
    The Tempest THE TEMPEST
    Folger Consort (5637300080); January 1, 2008
    Performer(s): Folger Consort
    Work(s): Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”
    Aleck Karis: Secret Geometry ALECK KARIS: SECRET GEOMETRY
    New World Records (CD 707); February 1, 2007
    Performer(s): Aleck Karis, piano
    Work(s): Secret Geometry
    Aubade AUBADE
    Azica Records (ACD71229); February 7, 2006
    Performer(s): Karel Paukert, organ
    Work(s): Meditation on “What Wonderful Love Is This?”
    Dream Journal DREAM JOURNAL
    Albany Records (TROY488); January 1, 2002
    Performer(s): Network for New Music Ensemble
    Work(s): Dream Journal
    New Electro-Acoustic Music NEW ELECTRO-ACOUSTIC MUSIC
    Centaur Records (CRC2338); August 12, 2000
    Performer(s): New York New Music Ensemble
    Work(s): Sacra Conversazione
    Icons ICONS
    CRI/New World Records (80523-2); April 8, 1998
    Performer(s): Cavani Quartet; Leonardo Trio; James Primosch, piano
    Work(s): Fantasy – Variations
    Piano Quintet
    String Quartet No. 2 (after Zurbarán)

  • 2014: Knight Foundation Arts Challenge Composers Competition
    2010: Academy Award in Music, American Academy of Arts and Letters
    2008, 2004, 2002, 1998, 1990: Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant
    2005: Independence Foundation Fellowship
    2001, 1988: Residencies at MacDowell Colony
    2000: Nominee, Alpert Award in the Arts
    1999: Elise Stoeger Prize of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
    1996: Pew Fellowship in the Arts
    1996, 1994, 1990, 1989, 1987, 1985, 1982, 1980: Meet the Composer grant
    1995: Winner, G. Schirmer Young American Art Song Competition
    1994: Composer-in-residence, Marlboro Music Festival
    1994: Regional Visiting Artist, American Academy in Rome
    1993: Goddard Lieberson Fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters
    1992: Cleveland Arts Prize
    1992: Residency at Bellagio Conference and Study Center
    1991-1992: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship
    1990, 1985: American Music Center copying assistance grant
    1988: Winner, League of Composers/ISCM National Composers Competition; work subsequently heard at World Music Days, Hong Kong
    1987: Winner, New Music Consort Composition Contest
    1986-87, 1982-84: Graduate Assistantships in Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center
    1985: Guggenheim Fellowship
    1985: Charles Ives Scholarship, American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters
    1985: Residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts
    1984, 1982: ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Grant
    1984: Margaret Lee Crofts Fellowship in composition, Berkshire Music Center Tanglewood
    1984: Tanglewood Prize in composition, Berkshire Music Center
    1984-1985: Preceptorship, Columbia University
    1984: Eda and Boris Rappoport Prize in composition, Columbia University
    1983: Finalist, Ancona Prize for composition, Ancona, Italy
    1982: BMI Student Composers Award
    1982: First Prize, Holtkamp Organ Composition Contest
    1981-1982: Scholarship, Columbia University
    1981: Joseph H. Bearns Prize in composition
    1980-1981: Third Prize, Shreveport Symphony Composer
    1981: Scholarship for Yale Composer
    1980: David Halstead Prize in composition, University of Pennsylvania
    1980: Recognition award from Mader Memorial Fund Composition Contest
    1979-1980: CBS Foundation Fellowship, University of Pennsylvania
    1979, 1980: Fellowships for Composers Conference, Johnson, Vermont
    1979: Helen L. Weiss Prize in composition, University of Pennsylvania
    1978-1979: University Fellowship, University of Pennsylvania
    1978: Named member of Pi Kappa Lambda (national music honor society)
    1977: Third prize and “people
    1976-1978: Scholarships from Cleveland Fortnightly Music Club, including Arthur Loesser Memorial Scholarship, 1977-78
    1974-1978: Fine Arts Scholarships from Cleveland State University

  • Chamber Concerto
    for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble
    Chamber Symphony
    for Chamber Orchestra
    Dark the Star
    for Baritone and Chamber Ensemble
    Fire-Memory / River-Memory
    for SATB Chorus and Orchestra
    Five Meditations
    for Orchestra
    Four Sacred Songs
    for Voice and Ensemble
    From a Book of Hours
    Four Songs for Soprano and Ensemble
    From a Book of Hours
    Four Songs for Soprano and Orchestra
    Holy the Firm
    for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble
    for Orchestra
    Oboe Quartet
    Sacra Conversazione
    for Chamber Ensemble with Electronic Sound on Tape
    Some Glad Mystery
    for Orchestra
    Songs for Adam
    for Baritone and Orchestra
    Variations on a Hymn Tune
    for Orchestra