The Artist-teacher in His Element

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) recently commissioned Penn Professor of Music James Primosch to compose a piece that would make a “major statement” to celebrate their 30th anniversary year. The inventive and surprising final product, “Five Poems,” was performed May 9 at the American Philosophical Society in Center City.

Primosch, whose music has been performed all over the U.S. and Europe, says that when PCMS first asked him to compose a 20-25 minute piece, he thought it would be more of a sonata, but it turned into something very different: a set of five character pieces, two of which were inspired by particular poems, “Descent” by Susan Stewart and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. The remaining three movements do not refer to specific poems, but are equally expressive in tone, and Primosch says, “it felt right to think of them as short tone poems.”

Primosch has acquired wide acclaim for his talents at setting poetry to vocal and instrumental music. His approach is one of essentially translating the gestalt of a poem, comprehensive of text, subtext, tone, and form, into what PCMS Executive Director and Penn graduate Philip Maneval calls “music that is well-grounded in classical traditions, yet always fresh, original, and compelling.”

“The text speaks to you of the possible,” Primosch says of his process. “It tells you there’s music there that just has to be brought out. So the music is found more than made: found nestled between the words.”

As a composer, he says that he tries “to give the listeners a reading of the text to which they can readily relate.”

His approach as a teacher is very much the same, especially in his introductory music theory course, where the vast majority of students are not music majors.

“I do what I can to nurture a love of music, to invite them to relate to music maybe in a deeper way, something that might go on outside the classroom going forward in life. And I mean, look, we need the performer, the composer, the listener, It’s a three-legged stool and the stool falls over if there aren’t three legs.”

Primosch’s perspective on the close interrelation of making, teaching, and appreciating music informs his foundational belief that composing music and teaching music are inseparable.

“My teaching springs from my practice as an artist. The issues I struggle with as an artist when trying to make a piece—I bring those experiences to the lessons I give aspiring composers. That is the perspective I bring as an ‘artist-teacher’.”

So, too, does his practice as an artist find nourishment in his teaching. “My efforts to be a helpful sounding board for my young colleagues encourage a habit of clarity, and hopefully that clarity carries over into my own work.”

“I’m also blessed with really talented young people to work with as my composition students. They come in with interesting ideas and know slightly different repertoires than I do. Their wide range of styles leads me to think about the possibilities for different stylistic approaches in my own work.”

And diversity of style is a signature of Primosch’s repertoire.

“I don’t really worry about having a consistent identifiable voice. Part of that is wanting to serve the project at hand.” Primosch’s projects are themselves widely diverse, composing music for performers that range from youth orchestras to big-name New York freelancers, and music to be performed in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall, to Boston’s Emmanuel Church, to the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall.

“Jim has an exceptional command of the craft and techniques of composition, which he uses in the service of a highly distinctive, empathetic, searching, and poetic voice,” says Maneval. “The premiere of his “Five Poems for Violin and Piano” will be an exciting opportunity to hear leading young players bring a major new work to life.”

Penn music professor James Primosch