Voices from the Morning of the Earth

Complete George Crumb Edition, Volume 17: Voices from the Morning of the Earth (American Songbook VI); An Idyll for the Misbegotten; The Sleeper. Bridge Records 9445. George Crumb’s profoundly American compositional voice is perfectly suited to the tunes and texts that form the basis of his huge American Songbook cycle, based on folk tunes of all kinds (plus a couple of folk-like tunes of his own devising) and scored for one or two solo voices, percussion quartet, and amplified piano. Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, has this repertoire deep in its bones, and all of Crumb’s meticulously detailed effects are realized with exquisite care. While baritone Randall Scarlata sings with affecting beauty, it’s the composer’s daughter Ann Crumb who is even more captivating with her highly characterful singing. Ann and pianist Marcantonio Barone offer a reading of Crumb’s Poe setting, The Sleeper that is full of misty atmosphere, and flutist Rachel Rudich, alongside three percussionists, is eloquent in the Idyll. It was surely no simple matter to capture for recording both the barely discernible rumbles and tremendous bass drum thwacks of this piece. The uncommonly wide dynamic range of Crumb’s music benefits greatly from the capabilities of digital sound.

With the country in the midst of both political and ecological catastrophes, the mournful songs that Crumb draws upon (the texts include dying children, dying cowboys, dying lovers, dying solidiers, and the dead in general), enveloped in the ghostly resonances of Crumb’s sound-world, struck me as especially poignant.

Jamie Jordan at Penn, “Alleluia” at Emmanuel

I am a bit frantic as I work to finish a quintet for oboe + piano quartet (requested by Peggy Pearson, to be premiered at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival on June 9), so there is only time for a brief post to say thank you for some recent performances. Jamie Jordan and Steven Beck gave a splendid recital at Penn last week, including excerpts from my Holy the Firm (read more about the program here). Here they are with George Crumb, whose Apparition was a concert highlight. (How it is that Steve read the oversize score for the Crumb off what appeared to be an iPad mini remains a mystery.)

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Holy the Firm was heard in its entirety later last week, as Katie O’Mara, Sarah Cooper, and Rebecca Achtenberg, all students from Westminster Choir College, collaborated with pianist J. J. Penna in a performance as part of the 2017 Art Song Festival at the College. I wasn’t able to attend, but J. J. is such a splendid pianist and admired coach that I am sure the performances were excellent.

On Sunday, Emmanuel Music did my Alleluia on a Ground as part of the weekly Eucharist at Emmanuel Church in Boston. I count myself very lucky to have an ongoing relationship (23 years!) with Emmanuel, with virtuosic performances of my motets in the context of a deeply welcoming community that knows how to listen thoughtfully thanks to decades of Bach cantata performances as an integral part of worship. Thank you to conductor Ryan Turner and all the singers, especially Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellow Sarah Yanovitch who was angelic in the little solo near the end of my piece, and spectacular in BWV 51 later in the service.

Rehearsing in the Emmanuel sanctuary:

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Emmanuel Music warming up before the service:

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And the cantata in full flight:

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Yuletide Miscellany

– I very much enjoyed last night’s performance of Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Met. Stellar performances from Eric Owens, Tamara Mumford, Susanna Phillips, the Met orchestra and chorus, and conductor Susanna Mälkki were framed by the best of the Robert Lepage productions I have seen – simpler than his Ring, or the Adès Tempest (though certainly not simpler technically), and the more effective for it. The music is gorgeous and moving but sometimes distractingly static. It seemed odd for something so finely made and fluid in small details (though with a good bit of repetition) to be less varied on a larger level. I kept waiting for the bass to move during the storm scene at the beginning of Act IV – and it never did. I suppose one could respond that the sea – where most of the piece takes place – never changes on the larger level either. Here’s a trailer:

and here is Susanna Phillips rehearsing (it’s not right that the pianist is not identified!)

– coming up on January 13, 2017, the Daedalus Quartet will be presenting George Crumb’s Black Angels along with works by Joshua Hey and Scott Ordway at the Chinese Rotunda of the Penn Museum. (Friday the 13th, perfect for this piece!) Young composers who think extended performance techniques are something novel need to check out this piece and see how such devices can be used for maximum expressive impact. Here’s a preview:

– lastly, here’s my annual reminder to keep up your musicianship skills during Christmastime.

 

Music of the Starry Night

I just got in from the Orchestra 2001 performance of George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening. Nearly 41 years ago to the day, James Freeman, Gilbert Kalish, Richard Fitz and Ray DesRoches gave the first performance of the piece for the opening of Lang Hall at Swarthmore College, and tonight Freeman and Kalish were reunited to perform the work, alongside percussionists William Kerrigan and David Nelson. This is one of Crumb’s most successful pieces in which the expanded piano idiom he developed in the two books of Makrokosmos solo pieces is utilized for a work of epic scale. The finale of the piece, “Music of the Starry Night”, is deeply moving, orchestral in conception and dazzling at its climax with ecstatic layerings of ringing sound.

The performance was very fine, as one would expect from these musicians, though I wish the piano amplification was stronger. After the last quiet notes died away, the members of the ensemble and the audience kept silent for a remarkably long time – no one wanted the moment to end. Finally some called out “Bravo” and we were released back into daily life.

Here is the setup before the concert, showing the glass wall at the back of the Lang stage:

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and another view from the side:

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Note the crotales on the timpano head, ready for the gliss effect at the end of the first movement:

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Gil Kalish, Jim Freeman, George Crumb and Crumb expert Steve Bruns (L to R) at the pre-concert chat:

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the ensemble about to start the 4th movement (Jim Freeman has his kalimba at the ready, Gil Kalish his guiero):

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time for a bow (George has his hand on David Nelson’s shoulder, then Bill Kerrigan to Dave’s left):

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There was, Lord help us, Crumb Cake after the show – imprinted with a facsimile of the score of the last movement! (when cutting a slice I pointed out the George that I had decided to make a cut in his score):

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And here I am with my teacher, colleague, friend (sorry about the blur):

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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.

Celebrating Crumb and Wernick

Sadly, thanks to the failure of a car service that was supposed to pick him up, Dick Wernick was not at the concert we had at Penn featuring his music and that of George Crumb. However, George did get there, and here are a few pictures to prove it.

First, George and his wife Liz after the concert (in the background, Penn emeritus Tom Connolly with his wife):

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Min-Young Kim, first violin of the Daedalus Quartet, which had just played George’s Black Angels, chatting with George:

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Here’s a close-up of George:

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And a picture of many, many Penn composers:

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standing from left: Andrew Davis, Kai Young Chan, Michael McMillan, Gerald Levinson, myself, Luke Carlson, Jay Reise, Ke-Chia Chen, Marc LeMay, with George and Liz Crumb seated.

Crumb: A Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979

Here is a program note for the work by George Crumb I will be playing in a few hours at a Crumb & Wernick program to be held at Penn:

A Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979 was written for Lambert Orkis, who premiered the work at The Smithsonian Institution in December of 1980.

The idea of a set of piano pieces reflecting on different aspects of the Christmas event may remind the reader of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944) of Olivier Messiaen, and one can point to certain general stylistic traits shared by Messiaen and Crumb. But Crumb’s work is on a much more modest scale than the French composer’s massive pianistic compendium. In fact, it is a “little” suite by comparison with several earlier piano works by Crumb. It does not call for the piano to be amplified to create the “larger-than-life” sound quality desired in the four volumes of Makrokosmos (1972, 1973, 1974, 1979). Nor does the piece involve “symbolic” notations (where the staves are arranged in the shape of a cross or circle), vocal effects from the performer, or the use of additional objects to modify the piano sound, all of which appear in the Makrokosmos series. However, in the Little Suite, Crumb does continue in his refined use of harmonics, muted tones, and pizzicato, using these in combination with material performed on the keyboard in the conventional fashion.

The music created with these means is sometimes contemplative in mood, as in the hushed reverence of the second movement, or the surreal setting of the 16th century “Coventry Carol” in the sixth; sometimes visionary, as in the solemn repeated chords and melodic patterns of the first movement or the exuberant cosmic dance of the fifth.

Crumb uses a curious example of self-reference in the fourth piece, “Adoration of the Magi”. In this movement, there appears twice, in pizzicato, a melodic fragment from the “Wanderer-Fantasy” movement of Music for a Summer Evening, the third piece in the Makrokosmos series. A connection is thus made with the Magi who have “wandered” from afar to Bethlehem. Although this is a particularly private example of musical symbolism, it is consistent with Crumb’s use of quotation to add an additional level of musical expressiveness.