Orchestra 2001 plays Crumb

Bring on the percussion


    Orchestra 2001 preceded the world premiere of George Crumb’s Voices from a Forgotten World with an unexpected touch. The concert’s guest soloist, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Jeffrey Khaner, played Debussy’s Syrinx for unaccompanied flute offstage. Debussy’s other-worldly flute line floated through the hall from an unknown source while conductor James Freeman and seven musicians stood on the stage waiting to unveil the Crumb.

    There was no particular reason why Syrinx should be played offstage, but the interlude had a ritualistic quality that fits Crumb’s work. Some of Crumb’s pieces even look like rituals as the musicians move around the stage manipulating odd-shaped gongs, long whispery rattles and other exotic items.

    You can also argue that Crumb’s individualistic expressionism is a close cousin of the French approach to music. Like Crumb, French music has always emphasized tone color, and it usually attempts to evoke scenes and create moods.

    George Crumb’s music has been a regular feature of Orchestra 2001’s programs since James Freeman staged his first concerts 19 years ago. Crumb plays around with doctored pianos and odd effects, but he uses novel means to achieve classic ends.

Piano as a sound effects vehicle

    Voices from a Forgotten World sets ten classic American songs for male and female soloists, accompanied by a percussion section that spread instruments over half the Perelman's stage and required four of our region's leading freelance percussionists.  The hard working percussionists were reinforced, in addition, by  a pianist, Marcantonio Barone, whose part treated his instrument as a percussion/sound effects vehicle in classic George Crumb style. Voices is the fifth volume in a series devoted to American song, and the most straightforward of the volumes I've encountered so far.  In the last group I heard, the familiar melodies were fragmented and dominated by a cosmic background that treated them as lonely voices in the huge dark universe that looms over much of Crumb's sonic poetry.
    In this collection, most of the melodies are sung pretty much as we’re used to hearing them. Crumb’s main contribution is a series of accompaniments that exploit all the scene-painting potential of a percussion section. In spite of the stage full of equipment, Crumb’s accompaniments tended to be simple and almost sparse. He used the mammoth percussion section as a huge pallet and usually applied his colors a dab and a stroke at a time— the hiss of a South American rattle, the tap of a gong, the pluck of a heavy string on the piano.

A celebration of laziness

    For the opening song, “Bringing in the Sheaves,” Crumb stretched out the melody and slowed the tempo, transforming the hymn into something slightly plaintive, as opposed to the exuberance it pulled out of the congregation in the Southern Baptist church I attended in my teens. His arrangement of “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” emphasized its celebration of a strain that runs through American life in spite of all our talk about the virtues of hard work. George Crumb was sitting right in front of me and baritone Patrick Mason sang the piece with a ne’er-do-well swagger that had the composer himself laughing. 

    The only disappointment was “Beautiful Dreamer.” Crumb had the vocalists whisper the words. It was an effective treatment of the words and the mood, but when you love that melody......

    Some of Crumb’s accompaniments bordered on the obvious, as in the booming drums behind the Navajo “Song of the Thunder,” but they all did things that a standard guitar accompaniment couldn’t attempt. Crumb’s techniques may look outré, but he does the same thing good accompanists do when they create scenes and moods as they play a standard piano accompaniment.

A civilized approach to technology

    The program teamed Voices from a Forgotten World with two other novelties, the area premiere of Crumb’s Otherworldly Resonances for two amplified pianos and  the area premiere of Concert Piece for Flute and Strings, which is, at least in part, a newly discovered work by Tchaikovsky. The Crumb opened with a section called “Double Helix,” in which one of the pianos always plays the same four notes while the other piano dances and weaves around it. The volume level was a good example of Crumb’s civilized approach to technology: He’s interested in the special sound of amplified instruments, not their ability to shatter defenseless eardrums. 

    The Tchaikovsky, according to James Freeman’s notes, has been pieced together from sketches, an incomplete manuscript discovered in 1999, and a flute-and-strings arrangement of one of Tchaikovsky’s solo piano pieces. The three movements combine the ethereal sound of a French flute solo with the soulfulness and emotional force of Tchaikovksy’s orchestral works.
    Most of the flute concertos in the repertoire were composed during the Baroque period or the early Classical era. We have nothing of importance from the Romantic period, as far as I can tell. The Concert Piece may have a questionable birth certificate, but it’s a beautiful work and it fills a huge gap in the flute literature. Jeffrey Khaner introduced it with feeling and authority. I enjoyed meeting it and look forward to future visits.

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