Cleveland native James Primosch was commissioned to write a new composition inspired by J.S. Bach marking the 50th anniversary of Baldwin Wallace’s Riemenschneider Bach Institute. He also won the prestigious 2020 Virgil Thomson Award for Vocal Music. Photograph by Deborah Boardman

“I don’t think there is a way to have choral performances until there’s a vaccine,” notes James Primosch, DMA, professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Primosch is the winner of this year’s competition for a commissioned piece marking the 50th anniversary of Baldwin Wallace University’s (BW’s) Riemenschneider Bach Institute.
While Primosch is disappointed his work didn’t premiere at the 2020 BW Bach Festival last spring (cancelled due to COVID-19), he’s having a big year in any case. Primosch won the prestigious 2020 Virgil Thomson Award for Vocal Music presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters earlier this year and has recently released two CDs. While there may be a way to perform instrumental music safely during this pandemic, a chorister’s respiratory droplets are suspected of traveling as far as 30 feet due to the power with which singers project their notes. So unfortunately, Bach Festival fans won’t get to hear Primosch’s “Fantasy-Partita on ‘Von gott will ich nicht lassen” until there’s a way for a chamber choir and string quartet to perform together safely.
The goal of the competition was to commission a new work “inspired by Bach.” Primosch notes the application asked for an explanation of “how your piece would connect with the work of Bach.” Here’s how Primosch explains that connection (edited for brevity):
“I chose to write a set of variations on a chorale employed by Bach in several cantatas, an organ chorale prelude and a number of independent chorales. The opening section playfully juxtaposes the chorale in one of Bach’s harmonizations with a solo tenor singing one of the French versions of the secular tune on which the chorale is based. At two points I quote additional Bach harmonizations of the chorale. An exuberant version of the tune in 6/8 time, the meter employed by Bach in his use of the tune in the last movement of Cantata 107, is followed by a finale that recalls the introduction.”
Primosch grew up in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs. He attended St. Joseph High School (now called VASJ) and took accordion lessons at Petromilli’s and Sodja Music, then located on E. 185th Street. He taught himself to play the organ, then took up piano shortly before attending Cleveland State University. He also performed with local bands including the Velvetones and the Cordials. This respected composer vividly recalls that his first gig as a Velvetone was for a Christmas party at Cleveland’s Slovenian National Home. He stated in an email, “I remember we went in the back door, walking under a sign that said ‘cooks and musicians’ entrance.’” After graduating from Cleveland State, Primosch went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania (“Penn”) and Columbia University. He’s been on the faculty at Penn since 1988 and has received numerous grants and awards over the years, including the 1992 Cleveland Arts Prize for Music. His works have been widely performed by such organizations as the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
When asked what J.S. Bach might think of the “Fantasy-Partita on ‘Von gott will ich nicht lassen” Primosch quipped, “Probably what [the author John] Milton would think if he read T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ because my work is in a contemporary idiom.”
Currents readers who are forlorn about having no Bach Festival or other live concerts might want to purchase Primosch’s newest CD, “Carthage,” performed by the Grammy-winning choral ensemble, The Crossing, and conducted by Donald Nally. Listening to brilliant CDs is still safe for everyone.
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Photograph by Donald Boardman