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.