Local Crumb Premiere at The Barnes

I didn’t keep up with reporting on my concert going this past fall, but here is a first attempt to catch up with a few thoughts about some performances in the last several months.

– 11/8/17: Margaret Leng Tan at the Barnes Foundation. The big news here was the substantial new set of piano pieces by George Crumb called Metamorphoses. Modeled after Pictures at an Exhibition, the ten movements were suggested by various paintings, including works by Klee, van Gogh, Chagall, Kandinsky, and others. (It’s not the first time Crumb’s music was inspired by visual media as his A Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979 was suggested by frescoes in the Arena Chapel.) While the new work doesn’t break ground stylistically, the piece embodied all the attributes we associate with this master: beautifully integrated extended piano techniques at the service of highly characterized expression; exquisite timbral sensitivity; faultless timing. Crumb returned to the theatrical use of the pianist’s voice in this work, and included a part for toy piano, a specialty of Ms. Tan.

While Margaret Leng Tan is an admirable artist, I can imagine an even more vividly compelling performance of the work with a greater dynamic range. George’s music needs to be larger than life, and that wasn’t always the case here. Perhaps the vast space in which musical performances at The Barnes take place played a role; perhaps the amplification of the piano needed to be more powerful. The magical spell cast by George’s music was impaired by the lengthy pauses between movements. Part of what makes the first two books of George’s Makrokosmos such an intense listening experience is that the dramatic tension is maintained throughout the entire piece. While it may be that George does not request the movements of Metamophoses to be played attacca, as is the case with the Makrokosmos sets, (I have not seen the score) it should still be possible to hold the listener in the aura of the work’s “otherworldly resonances” (to borrow the title of another work by George.) Helpfully, the Barnes briefly projected slides of the relevant paintings before each movement, but inexplicably replaced them with works by another artist that only vaguely related to the moods of George’s piece, leaving those images projected while the piece was being played. The Crumb work was preceded by one of Cage’s more boring prepared piano pieces and a few of Cowell’s pioneering works, with The Banshee standing out for its moody atmosphere.

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