Thank you, George

DSCF2027It’s certainly not summer here in Philadelphia, in fact it barely feels like spring. But there will be Music for a Summer Evening tomorrow night at Swarthmore College. I’m referring to the work by George Crumb for two pianos and percussion that will be played on an Orchestra 2001 concert tomorrow night, March 27. There will be a pre-concert chat with Stephen Bruns from the University of Colorado, a leading scholar on George’s music, at 7:30 pm, with the concert at 8:00 and a party on the stage of Lang Concert Hall to follow. There are several reasons to celebrate: it’s a slightly late birthday party for George Crumb at 85; it’s the end of James Freeman’s 27 years as Artistic Director of Orchestra 2001; and it is 41 years since the premiere of Music for a Summer Evening, written for the opening of Lang Concert Hall, pictured at left. Not only will the piece be played in the hall where it was first heard; remarkably, the pianists will be the same two artists who gave the premiere: James Freeman and Gilbert Kalish. William Kerrigan and David Nelson will be the percussionists tomorrow evening; the original percussionists were Raymond DesRoches and Richard Fitz. All four of the first performers recorded the work for Nonesuch in the Teresa Sterne era; that recording is still available as a reissue from Arkiv Music, on a disc with the incomparable Jan DeGaetani’s performance of George’s Ancient Voices of Children. 

I rate Crumb very highly in the canon of American music, and Music for a Summer Evening belongs near the top of his catalog. It’s a big piece – about 40 minutes, scored for two amplified pianos and an extensive array of percussion. The amplification serves to help project the delicate piano sounds derived from the extended performances techniques – pizzicato, muted notes, and so forth – as well as create a larger-than-life sound image. Crumb’s first two books of Makrokosmos explore extended techniques for solo piano, but the additional instrumental resources of this third volume in the series (the work is subtitled Makrokosmos III) permit a more orchestral conception (the climaxes in this music are assuredly cosmic in their dimensions!) that points toward the piano plus four percussionist instrumentation for George’s much later American Songbook series, which arrange folk and traditional melodies. In fact, the March 27 concert will be followed by another Orchestra 2001 program on March 29 featuring Voices from the Morning of the Earth, the sixth in that Songbook set. The composer’s daughter Ann Crumb, soprano, and Randall Scarlata, baritone, will be the soloists. The program on the 29th is at the Curtis Institute at 8:00 pm.

It’s been my privilege to play George’s music on many occasions, including Music for a Summer Evening, in a performance led by veteran (now retired) Philadelphia Orchestra percussionist Alan Abel. I’ve played Makrokosmos I numerous times, notably at the Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in 1977, and repeatedly performed Celestial Mechanics (Makrokosmos IV) with pianist Lambert Orkis. We subsequently recorded the piece. Most recently, I played A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 at a Penn concert last year. While extended piano techniques have been commonly used for decades now, nobody has used them better than George. But it is not just the successful integration of those extended techniques that make George’s large body of music for piano significant; the conventional keyboard writing is no less poetic. This is music of extraordinary imagination and meticulous craft, speaking to listeners with unusually powerful expressive intensity. There is much here for which we should be grateful, as pianists, as listeners. Thank you, George.

Note: this WordPress design I switched to a while ago is great, but it is easy to overlook when comments have been posted on a blog entry – check the comments below (click on the word “comments” after the list of tags) for more about playing Crumb’s piano music.

3 thoughts on “Thank you, George

  1. Ah, I love Crumb. I played the Christmas Suite on my masters recital and, not long after, the Apparition cycle with Julia Foster. Both would have been easier if I were about 6 feet tall and didn’t have to stand up to reach in the piano. Still, I really enjoyed learning and performing them both!

  2. Thanks for reading, Susan! Yes, the body type thing does play a role in realizing George’s music. I am not terribly tall, but I have somewhat longish arms for my height, so that helps. One consideration is that George did not write these pieces on a nine-foot piano, I think there was a seven-foot in his studio, maybe smaller. It’s a little easier to get around inside the smaller instrument. In fact, there is a harmonic in the last movement of Mak I that is almost unplayable on a 9-foot Steinway – you have to reach under a strut. It’s not a problem on at least some smaller instruments.

    David Burge, for whom George wrote the early Five Pieces for Piano, and Mak. I, was rather tall, so he had a bit of an advantage. On the other hand, Gil Kalish is not tall, and he, of course, does just fine with this music.

    As an undergrad I once or twice tried playing this music in a three-piece suit, and the buttons of my vest clicked against the piano when I had to really scoot forward and reach inside. The best thing is to lose the suit entirely – Lambert Orkis and I always played “Celestial Mechanics” wearing black turtlenecks and no jackets.

    I could say more about my experiences with playing George’s music – maybe will get to that in another post – but I will leave you with one other practical detail: there is a supplemental strut across the mid-range of a 9-foot Steinway that can actually be removed, which makes work in that area easier.This bar is held in with screws. I have heard it claimed that it is dangerous to take that strut out, that the piano will explode if you play it with the strut removed (!) but I’m more inclined to believe something else I have been told, that the strut is only there for extra support when the instrument is turned on its side to be moved. Lambert always removed the strut when we played “Celestial Mechanics”.

  3. Huh, that’s interesting to know about the strut! I have not done any of the Makrokosmos, so I hadn’t encountered that particular problem.

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