The revolutionary and his disciples

Orchestra 2001's George Crumb tribute

6 minute read
Van Eyck: A gifted presence.
Van Eyck: A gifted presence.
Drama attends the music of George Crumb. The scores: Staves and circles so strange, beautiful and precisely notated that you want to put them on a wall— as they were in the lobby to admire before we got into Lang on Sunday afternoon. The stage: crammed with more than a hundred, no kidding, percussion instruments: Temple gongs, snares, Chinese cymbals, Nigerian pots, keyed percussion, Asian blocks, Latin shakers, prepared piano, so many percussionists that there's rarely room for the conventional woodwinds and strings to stand or sit, let alone the sopranos to take their turns onstage. Percussionists from every corner of the globe turn George Crumb's American Songbooks into a massive global endeavor that suits the composer's opportunity to turn the familiar upside down, polish gems so familiar we have overlooked a facet of their beauty and irony.

During the intermission, Jim Freeman, conductor and founder of Orchestra 2001, explained that he'd wanted to present two songs from each of Crumb's six Songbooks, but the percussion required for this mammoth endeavor wouldn't have fit on either the Lang or Perelman stages. So Volumes I-III were presented Friday night at the Perelman, when both programs were topped by music of James Primosch, Anna Weesner and Jay Reise (Crumb's colleagues from his former post at Penn, where he now holds emeritus status).

Panic at Swarthmore

Selections from Volumes IV-VI were heard Sunday afternoon at Lang. Swarthmore provided the extracurricular drama: Crumb's music is mostly amplified. The Songbooks call for amplified piano, chamber orchestra, percussion and singers. But Lang's sound system blew out that morning and by intermission still wasn't working. Freeman worried that the singers wouldn't be heard above the musicians, who would try to play a softer than usual music that was supposed to be "as big as the world."

Freeman needn't have worried. The acoustic versions were quite beautiful and plenty loud. Barbara Martin, who started things off in the second half with "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," (Volume IV: The Winds of Destiny, 2004), was in terrific form. Her expressive voice didn't sound strained.

This bitterly anti-war version makes marvelous use of every wind and percussion instrument and retools the traditional minor key downward so that the effect is even stranger to the ear. Unique is the quartet of bass drums. There is also the giant Canon Drum: a bass drum membrane fitted to a section of industrial heating duct about 12 feet long and 30 inches in diameter.

"When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is sinister, even Brechtian in its empathy for the soldier but not for war. It's a marvelous setting that makes you question every battle hymn and march. To add to the thrills, Crumb quotes Mahler quoting "Frère Jacques" in his First Symphony.

Haunting song of death

Martin's soprano was hushed, and potent, in "All My Trials," to the accompaniment of a Nigerian Udu pot, or clay pitcher. She sang beautifully the modal song backed by vibraphone and the haunting Udu, a song of death and spirits.

Death was again a theme in "Put My Little Shoes Away," the first of two from the Songbook VI (Voices from the Morning of the Earth, 2007). As sung by Crumb's daughter Ann, it too was haunting. Her delivery was portrayed as a child soon to die. The song is said to come from the Ozarks but was recomposed by George Crumb, who didn't favor the original melody. This one is a beauty.

Ann Crumb was in full command of her gifts as a singing actress, letting her voice do its work. Her second offering, "Lord, What a Beautiful Morning," was a knockout. She opened a capella as a gospel singer. When the fullness of the brass noisemakers (cymbals, gongs, what have you) resounded, she wasn't in any way overpowered by the players behind her. The singing was supple, rich and it had glory. A better present for her father I can't imagine.

A mezzo to watch

Jamie Van Eyck's offering, "'Tis the Gift to be Simple," and "Firefly" (Volume V: Voices from A Forgotten World, 2006), were virtuosic, elegant displays. Again, Van Eyck did herself and the orchestra proud.

Her mezzo-soprano was heard to even better advantage earlier in the afternoon during Four Sacred Pieces, by James Primosch. The set, in Latin, flattered the tessitura of the mezzo, and she had not to worry in the least about a battery of percussion. Van Eyck is a young woman to listen for. She's extremely gifted in her diction, expressivity and presence.

The Primosch set is rather like a super abbreviated Carmina Burana, with more taste and class (yes, I can hear the boos loud and clear): straightforward, musical and easy on the ears, with a lovely flow, beautifully articulated for the instrumental parts and elegantly performed by Orchestra 2001's fine clarinet, flute, cello and violin sections.

Emily Dickinson, too

Anna Weesner's The First Letter comes with a fascinating back-story—her own letters, interspersed with poems by Emily Dickinson, provide the settings for two sopranos and a mezzo. However, the resulting trio with musical accompaniment was dense in the performing, and consequently it failed to achieve the intended chamber music effect (unless density and obscurity was the intended effect). Weesner possesses fine credentials; I'm willing to try the work again.

Jay Reise's Chesapeake Rhythms stuck me as the most accomplished work of the first half. Here single tones work themselves into a sustained quiet ambience before moving into a thicket of contrapuntal rhythms in its perhaps 15-minute center. Reise works out his music through rhythmic patterns that I don't pretend to understand. He uses plenty of percussion as well, and I was fascinated with his exploration of the roto tams— thin round snares on stands like egrets' legs.

Perhaps this 17-minute concerto for chamber orchestra could have been shorter in its middle, but I found it a challenge— and challenge is good. Some of the string passages were more astringent than pleasant.

Guest conductor's oversight

As guest conductor for this piece only, Brad Smith's leadership made a good impression: It was clear and unfussy. Smith's only snafu, and a big one, was to forget to call Jay Reise up for a bow— the only composer on Sunday who didn't get one. The house applauded Reise loudly in any case.

George Crumb turns 80 on October 24. We should all be very, very grateful. His musical mastery goes without saying, and his humanity as well as his family's is obvious to anyone who has ever approached to say hello at any of his concerts anywhere in the world.

Jim Freeman has a big birthday approaching, too. We should all be very appreciative for the music he has made and made possible in 21 fine seasons with Orchestra 2001. Like, Crumb, Freeman is also one a very special Philadelphian: an artist and a gentleman, too.

What, When, Where

Orchestra 2001: George Crumb Turns 80 and Music at Penn. Works by Crumb, James Primosch, Anna Weesner and Jay Reise. James Freeman, conductor. September 25, 2009 at Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center; September 27, 2009 at Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa. (215) 922-2190 or

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