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Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates George Crumb at 90

by Steven Pisano and Pete Matthews

47599683842_4ca55646b5_o(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

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.

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New York Woodwind Quintet at the Tenri Cultural Center

2On any given night in New York, there are literally dozens - hundreds - of music events competing for your attention. Most of which are well above grade. But, you could do far worse than the recital I heard last Friday at the Tenri Cultural Institute, a multi-use space dedicated to Japanese culture tucked into 13th Street, adjacent to the New School's Mannes School of Music. The New York Woodwind Quintet, now in it's 70th (!) season, consists of veteran wind players Charles Neidich (clarinet), William Purvis (horn), Marc Goldberg (bassoon), Stephen Taylor (oboe), and Carol Wincenc (flute), all of whom have been with the group for at least three decades. 

The first half of Friday's program featured a pair of 20th century works which put the range and expertise of these veteran players on full display. John Harbison's Quintet for Winds (1978) is bright, flavor-forward music that ranged from a tender and emotional Romanza to an Allegro finale that had an almost cartoonish quality, full of squeaks and squawks. By contrast, György Kurtág's Woodwind Quintet (1959) was spare and uncompromising, leaving you with a haunting sense of unease. Goldberg, who performed the work for Kurtág at Marlboro 20 years ago, told the audience that the composer spent a full week with he and his fellow musicians preparing this 8 minute piece. 

After intermission, the quintet was joined by pianist Bryan Wagorn - who among other roles is Associate Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera - to perform the Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 25, arranged by the quintet's founding flutist, Samuel Baron. At first, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of winds playing this driving, propulsive music, which has long been one of my favorite pieces of chamber music. But, once I embraced the arrangement on its own terms, I appreciated the clean lines of the winds, which paired surprisingly well with Wagorn's spot-on piano and brought out colors and textures I'd never heard before. "As winds," Neidich told us beforehand, "we don't have the same balance issues (as strings.)" The concluding Rondo didn't pack quite the same visceral punch as I've grown accustomed to, but the players did pick up the pace over the final few bars, generating a loud and well-deserved ovation. 

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Janacek's "Diary of One Who Disappeared" at BAM

by Steven Pisano

47496985642_a841d5a9db_o(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) is perhaps best known in this country for his operas Jenufa and The Cunning Little Vixen, though he wrote seven other operas, as well as orchestral, chamber and vocal music. One of Janáček's most striking works is Diary of One Who Disappeared (1919), which arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week in a production by the Belgian group Musiektheater Transparant, directed by Ivo van Hove

Van Hove has seemed to be everywhere in recent years. While his principal work has been with International Theater Amsterdam, the largest theater in the Netherlands, he regularly has directed plays both in the UK and New York, winning both the Olivier and Tony Award for directing (for 2015's A View From the Bridge.) Often cited for his minimalist style, he works frequently with his longtime life partner, Jan Versweyveld, who created both the stage and lighting design for this run at BAM.

Diary of One Who Disappeared is a 22-part song cycle written for piano and voices. It was inspired by a series of anonymous poems that appeared early in the twentieth century in a Brno newspaper. The poems told of an all-consuming love that a boy felt for a Gypsy girl, and Janáček soon found a parallel in his own life. In 1917, in his early 60s, Janáček met Kamila Stosslova, a married woman with children who was almost 40 years his junior. Although she was not romantically interested in him, and their interactions with each other were intermittent, Stosslova became Janáček's muse for the prolific last decade of his life. Some 700-plus letters from Janáček to Stosslova survive, in which he repeatedly tells her she was the inspiration for many of the characters in his works. In one letter he wrote: "If the thread that binds me to you were to break, it would also break the thread of my life."

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