by Steven Pisano and Pete Matthews
The American composer George Crumb turns 90 later this year, but the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center started the birthday celebration early with a two-part program spanning his entire musical career. Crumb and his wife Elizabeth (his high school sweetheart) were on hand both nights to listen, and they generously greeted a steady stream of young musicians (percussionists in particular) who were thrilled to meet the esteemed composer.
Crumb has long been a unique voice among American composers, having emerged from outside the traditional conservatory system, which at the time was producing monolithic atonal, abstract music. By contrast, Crumb's music is both challenging and deeply felt, spiritual and dynamic. Often employing extended techniques - prepared pianos, amplified instruments - his musical imagination seems boundless.
A survey of the Alice Tully Hall stage made it clear that Crumb does not write music for orchestras. While he occasionally has written works involving violins, flutes, and other instruments, he primarily has written for piano and percussion. Lots and lots of percussion! The stage looked like a big junkyard filled with various xylophones, marimbas, kettle drums, hammers, cow bells, bass drums, cymbals, wind chimes, and all sorts of other strange-looking unknown instruments. One of my favorites was the wind machine, a canvas chamber with a wind-up handle that mimics the sound of the wind.
Sunday's concert began with "Three Early Songs, for Voice and Piano" (1947), composed when Crumb was just 18 years old, going to school in Charleston, West Virginia. It ended with the world premiere of the newly-commissioned work "KRONOS-KRYPTOS" (2019) for Percussion Quintet." There was obvious childlike delight in the faces of the musicians as they ran around the stage banging, clanging, scraping, tapping.
But there were also beautiful melodies, such as the songs sung by the soprano Tony Arnold, whose high, clear voice was particularly moving during the Americana-laced "American Songbook III: Unto the Hills, for Soprano, Amplified Piano, and Four Percussionists" (2001).
"Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), for Three Masked Players" (1971) was an extremely unusual piece, dark and mysterious, with the stage bathed in deep blue light as if the musicians (piano, flute, and cello) were fathoms below the ocean surface. "Processional for Piano" (1983), played by veteran pianist - and longtime Crumb champion - Gilbert Kalish, was perhaps the most traditional piece on the program, with an emotional resonance that lasted long past the last note.
In addition to Kalish and the aforementioned Arnold, the concert benefitted from some of the best percussionists on the New York scene, including Victor Caccese (who founded Sandbox Percussion), Ian David Rosenbaum, Eduardo Leandro, Ayano Kataoka, and Daniel Druckman. In addition, there was featured playing by Kristin Lee on violin, Tara Helen O'Connor on flute, Mihai Marica on cello, and Gloria Chien on piano.
Tuesday's concert began with The Ghosts of Alhambra (2008), a dark, ominous work for guitar, percussion and voice, with baritone Randall Scarlata singing and whispering the spare, evocative poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. ("Everything has broken in the world./Nothing but silence remains.") That was followed by Black Angels (1970) for amplified string quartet, Crumb's dire, still startling response to the then-raging Vietnam War. Contrary to what you might think, the amplification serves not to generate overpowering loudness, but to make audible passages of extreme quiet and fragility - though there are plenty of jarring moments as well, such as when the players (Kristin Lee, violin, Sean Lee, violin, Mihai Marica, cello, Richard O'Neill, viola), shout from one to seven in multiple languages, including German and Japanese.
The concert ended with Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) (1974) for two amplified pianos and percussion, modeled on Bartòk's Sonata (1937). Lasting some 40 minutes, I was just starting to feel lulled into submission when Crumb crashes the calm with gong and bass drum (played by Ayano Kataoka and Ian David Rosenbaum.) The piece concludes with the eerie, spectral "Music of the Starry Night," in which paper placed on the strings of the two pianos (played by Gilbert Kalish and Gloria Chien) fuzzes out their sound before giving way to a gentle, quiet fade. (Note: fifteen years ago, I heard pianist Margaret Leng Tan perform the first two volumes of Crumb's Makrokosmos at his 75th birthday celebration at Zankel Hall - see below.) Happy birthday, George! And, thanks to CMS for this richly deserved retrospective of one of our greatest, most distinctive composers. Can't wait to hear what he come up with next.More photos can be found here.