The River of Life’ meets the Delaware

Orchestra 2001 presents George Crumb’s The River of Life’

2 minute read
A manuscript of George Crumb’s score for 130 percussion instruments. (Photo by Margaret Darby.)
A manuscript of George Crumb’s score for 130 percussion instruments. (Photo by Margaret Darby.)

Every chair set up at the Cherry Street Pier was taken and audience members began to sit on the benches as they peered at the collection of 130 percussion instruments needed for George Crumb’s intriguing and melodic orchestration of spirituals and revival tunes.

Crumb was jovial as he fielded questions from long-time collaborators Marcantonio Barone and William Kerrigan before the concert—speaking modestly about his ideas for using percussion instruments. His gift is finding the melody in every instrument, including tuned glasses, temple bells, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, gongs and bells dipped into buckets of water, and suspended cymbals played with strings—and incorporating those sounds into an orchestration which complements the songs.

Mark Loria provided the confident conducting that made the music hang together—his calm and clear signals allowing the singer, pianist, and percussionists to synchronize all the intricate parts.

Voices and players

Chrystal E. Williams, mezzo-soprano, pulled pitches out of the ether and let her cool, liquid notes blend with the complex percussion as the sounds melted into or contrasted with her voice. The bowed saw, the bowed glasses filled with water to specific pitches, the bowed marimbas and xylophones sometimes became indistinguishable from Williams’s voice, thanks to her innate sense of dynamic balance and intonation.

Each song retained its original character, but with Mr. Crumb’s inventive genius, was surrounded by the sounds of piano (which, of course, is also a percussion instrument), the soft shimmers of a string pulling against a suspended cymbal, the ringing sound of Japanese temple bells, and the rumble of the PATCO train roaring past. The latter, was, unfortunately, not always in sync with the music.

Williams is extremely versatile—speaking, humming, whispering, and, for “Nearer my God to Thee,” disappearing into the upper floor of studios where she let her voice drift over the audience as if from a cloud. Her crisp and lightning-fast diction lent humor where warranted and kept the lyrics crystal clear throughout the hour-long concert.

Marcantonio Barone, who has made many recordings of George Crumb’s music, reached into the piano to play strings, created a banging gunshot sound, inserted paper, and for the delightful “One More River to Cross (Noah’s Ark: A Humoresque),” stretched his legs to sit on the toy-sized bench and play the toy piano.

Music of life

The ensemble was superb—with five people managing myriad instruments and preparations, including a bucket of water deployed for the water gong, water bells, and chime—magically making it all fit together. The instrumental piece, “Time is a Drifting River: A Psalm for Daybreak and Morning,” contained a panoply of melodic sounds for percussion alone.

Crumb, who turns 90 on October 24, is still actively composing. He wrote all seven volumes of The American Songbook (2001-2012) for Orchestra 2001, which premiered and recorded all seven of them. They plan to take this production of The River of Life: American Songbook I on an extended tour this spring.

What, When, Where

Orchestra 2001 presented The River of Life: American Songbook 1 (2003): (Songs of Joy and Sorrow: A Cycle of Hymns, Spirituals, and Revival Tunes). Chrystal E. Williams, mezzo soprano, and Mark Loria, conductor, with pianist Marcantonio Barone and percussionists William Kerrigan, Malavika Godbole, Phillip O’Banion, and Brenda Weckerly. September 20, 2019 at the Cherry Street Pier, 121 N. Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia. (267) 687-6243 or

Accessibility: Cherry Street pier is a wheelchair-accessible venue, including ADA-compliant bathrooms.

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