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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: CMS Celebrates Crumb, American Maverick, at 90

REVIEW: CMS Celebrates Crumb, American Maverick, at 90

APRIL 17, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

It’s a cliché to describe George Crumb, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer turning 90 this year, as a maverick. But, it perfectly depicts this composer who forged his own path, bucking established pretenses to become an original, vital voice in American music.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center celebrated Crumb’s career in two rewarding concerts amounting to one of this year’s most significant artistic events. Two expansive evenings, exceptionally produced and performed, exhibited Crumb’s humanity and curiosity about the universe.

Crumb made a mark for himself experimenting with writing for instruments in new ways — amplifying them, using unusual implements (chisels, thimbles, etc.) to play them, whistling, and so on. He also incorporated non-Western musical ideas, and novel notation techniques, such as circular staves, and copious instructions and footnotes. His hand-copied scores are works of art; it was amusing to watch the page turners handle the large scores with careful trepidation.

Photo by Tristan Cook

Photo by Tristan Cook

Tony Arnold, nominated for a Grammy for her recording of Ancient Voices of Children (the piece that put Crumb on the scene in 1970), began the journey with a collection of early songs. Accompanied by Gilbert Kalish, wizard of the piano, the thoughtful soprano brought fresh life to teenaged Crumb’s art song settings Night, Let It Be Forgetten, and Wind Elegy. These pieces from 1947 show a composer bracing against the dogmatic trends taking hold in academia in those post-war years, favoring Debussy-like sonorities, and coloristic tone painting.

Photo by Tristan Cook

Photo by Tristan Cook

Moving ahead to 1964, Crumb’s Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) for Violin and Piano, is reminiscent of the miniatures of Anton Webern. He has also started to experiment with extended techniques, such as having the pianist manipulate the strings inside the piano. Gloria Chien, piano, and Kristin Lee, violin, commanded the room’s attention and acoustics, incorporating silence and time into Crumb’s evocations of night. When an indignant latecomer snapped her glasses case shut, adding a percussive punctuation to a pregnant musical moment, I was reminded of John Cage’s 4’ 33”. Ambient noise became part of the music, merely another knock in the night.

More recently, Crumb devoted himself to seven volumes of American folk song settings for voice, percussion quartet, and amplified piano. Ms. Arnold’s crystal clear diction and clean, focused sound anchored the nine songs comprising 2001’s American Songbook III: Unto the Hills. The percussion quartet — Daniel Druckman, Ian David Rosenbaum, Ayano Kataoka, and Eduardo Leandro — conjured the atmosphere of Appalachia with a battery of percussion instruments. A specialist in new American music — in particular Charles Ives (a composer prefiguring Crumb in several ways) — Mr. Kalish was busy at the piano, as much inside it, as at the keyboard. Crumb doesn’t write as imaginatively for the vocalist as he does for the instrumentalists; the folk melody is sung simply, and there is an occasional whispered phrase. I found that effect stilted, and the tunes’ multiple verses repetitive. Following intermission, Mr. Kalish gave a hypnotic account of a more straightforward work for the piano from 1983 called Processional.

Photo by Tristan Cook

Photo by Tristan Cook

Ms. Chien, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, and cellist Mihai Marica took the stage, and Alice Tully Hall’s versatile lighting, designed effectively by Joshua Benghiat, dimmed to black, then illuminated the hall deep ocean blue, revealing the musicians to be masked. Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for Three Masked Players from 1971 was inspired by the sound of humpback whale song (then newly available to human listeners). The piece uses the whale’s vocalism not only as inspiration for sonic novelties — the flutist sings into her flute, the pianist strums the piano strings with a paperclip — but as a means to commune with earth, evolution, and time.

Photo by Tristan Cook

Photo by Tristan Cook

The world premiere of Crumb’s latest opus, KRONOS-KRYPTOS for percussion quintet concluded the first installment. The title’s meaning is elusive, but this tightly constructed sonata-shaped showpiece for five spectacularly equipped percussion virtuosi, finds Crumb in top form as a constructor of compelling musical tapestries, with a still-voracious appetite for instrumental exotica. The percussionists work their stations like cooks in a gourmet kitchen, their mallet arrangement a perfect mise en place. Their intercommunication codified, one might first put some gong on to boil. Another is bringing the bass drum or wind machine to a simmer. On the other side, someone is seasoning the salad with some rainstick, or adding some acid to the stew with bowed finger cymbal. The last movement, “Appalachian Echoes,” is emblematic of Crumb — evoking the sounds of forest creatures, sneaking some folk tunes again, and a sense of theatre. Two percussionists begin the movement moving their mallets in silence, gradually hitting their instruments (vibes and Japanese temple bells) to make sound, in reverse at the end, fading to silence.

The second program began with another work from this century, The Ghosts of Alhambra (Spanish Songbook I), settings of poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca for baritone, guitar and percussion. Randall Scarlata, called upon to play auxiliary percussion in addition to sing, speak, and whisper gave a fearless, committed account with the expert company of guitarist Oren Fader, and Mr. Druckman on percussion.

Crumb’s response to the Vietnam War yielded one of his enduring classics, the string quartet Black Angels. Subtitled Thirteen Images from the Dark Land, this work for amplified string quartet calls for the players to whisper, count aloud, play various percussion instruments, and use unusual tools to play their instruments. Insects, numerology, the Dies Irae, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden all make thematic appearances. The arc of this survey of Crumb’s compositional career climaxed in the tenth movement, “God-Music,” in which the cello (Mr. Marica) plays a haunting solo, while the other players (Kristin Lee, Sean Lee, and Richard O’Neill) eerily draw their bows across tuned wine glasses.

Photo by Tristan Cook

Photo by Tristan Cook

Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) was an enchanting finale. Crumb’s 1974 masterpiece is an answer to Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, requiring the same forces. Mr. Kalish and Ms. Chien performed a variety of acts in, on, and around the pianos, and Ms. Kataoka and Mr. Rosenbaum proved themselves on a spectrum of instruments, from vibes to African log drum, from marimba to Tibetan prayer stones. They also play a duet on slide-whistles into the strings of the piano, and even play a recurring melody on alto recorder.

The chamber musicians assembled by CMS assail all of these tasks assuredly, and in every instance, artfully make silence and time a part of the music. It’s amazing how long a vibraphone bar will naturally resonate after a bass bow has scraped it into motion. CMS’s George Crumb at 90 was a remarkable exploration of sound, and the human act of making sound, as art.

***

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