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.

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.

Upcoming in Philly and NYC

– March 18 – soprano Mary MacKenzie (of SongFusion) performs with Shuffle Concert this Friday, March 18 at Baruch College. It’s a nice idea – the audience picks the program on the spot!

-March 19 and 20 – Orchestra 2001 plays Hindemith, Berio and Roberto Sierra. Julianne Baird, soprano; Marcantonio Barone, piano, Lori Barnett, cello are featured. The performance on the 19th is at the Trinity Center in Center City, Philadelphia, on the 20th at Swarthmore College.

– March 22 – the Philadelphia chapter of the American Composers Forum presents a webcast interview with George Crumb at 7 PM. Audio trailer here.

– March 29 – Penn Contemporary Music presents violinist Maria Bachman and pianist Jon Klibonoff at Penn’s Amado Recital Hall in Irvine Auditorium, 34th and Spruce Street. Program includes Glass: Sonata No. 1; Paul Moravec: Three Pieces; George Rochberg: Sonata; and the first performance of a new work by Penn faculty composer Jay Reise, The Flight of the Red Sea Swallow. The Glass and Moravec works are Philadelphia premieres. The late George Rochberg was, of course, a long-time Penn faculty member, and he wrote his sonata for Bachman.

– April 12 – looking a little ahead, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra will perform Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony at the Kimmel Center, Christoph Eschenbach conducting, with Di Wu, piano and Thomas Bloch, ondes Martenot.

Crumb’s American Songbooks

George Crumb is a quintessentially American composer – to my mind, ranking with Ives and Copland. Wildly popular in the 1970’s, Crumb’s stock fell a bit in the 1980’s, though I think his popularity overseas did not wane as much as here in the states. Crumb has experienced a late-in-life creative blossoming, in some ways comparable to that of Elliott Carter, two decades older than Crumb. Carter was extraordinarily productive in his 90s, and during the same period, Crumb was similarly productive in his 70s, finding in American folksong a rich compositional resource. The result has been a series of American Songbooks, now grown to six substantial sets. In these, Crumb has arranged folksongs, spirituals, and other traditional tunes, either for solo voice, or two singers, accompanied by percussion quartet and piano. The medium is perfect for Crumb, with his exquisite ear for instrumental color and preference for long ringing sounds. Each set uses an extraordinarily large complement of instruments, including various non-western ones. (The works would surely be more widely known if the instrumental resources required were not so great.) The piano, as the composer has remarked, serves as a bass for the percussion ensemble which it would otherwise lack.

The pieces have been written with Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 in mind (see a relevant video clip at their website), and the group’s performances, led by its artistic director James Freeman, are exemplary. The first four of the Songbooks have been recorded for Bridge Records, with Barbara Ann Martin, and the composer’s own daughter Ann Crumb as the superb soloists. (Find Songbooks II and IV on disc here; Books I and III here.) The Bridge releases are part of a their “Complete Crumb Edition”, an admirable commitment to documenting the work of a true American treasure.