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.

September Heat Wave Miscellany

  • Check out two recent pieces on composer George Walker from the Washington Post and The Guardian – the latter including a Spotify playlist.
  • Network for New Music is building its programs for the coming season around the centennials of Babbitt and Persichetti, while Orchestra 2001 will offer four concerts, each featuring as conductor a different candidate for the position of successor to James Freeman as music director of the ensemble.
  • I recently finished reading Harvard Composers: Walter Piston and His Students, from Elliott Carter to Frederic Rzewski by Howard Pollack. The book is made up of brief essays on 33 composers who were all students of Walter Piston, some of whom you know and others you have probably not heard of, like Nicholas Van Slyck and Eugenia Frothingham. It presents Piston as a central figure, with influence comparable to that of Hindemith and Stravinsky, a curious way to think about a composer whose music I have never heard live (apart from practicing the piano part to his Flute Sonata years ago). But the main focus is on the students, not the teacher. Pollack offers appreciations of several composers whose work I was pleased to get to know a little better, including people like Billy Jim Layton, Robert Moevs, Arthur Berger, and many others.

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.

All Souls Day Miscellany

– soprano Kameryn Leung is singing my “Cinder” today at the Civic Morning Musicals Vocal Competition in Syracuse, accompanied by pianist Szilvia Mikó. I see the judges for the competition include Marni Nixon. Good luck, Kameryn!

– Two, count ’em, two new music concerts you should be at in Philly tomorrow, Nov. 3, with Orchestra 2001 doing Joan Tower, Schoenberg and Walton – 2:30 at Swarthmore College, followed by Network for New Music doing Daniel Asia, George Rochberg, Philip Maneval, Richard Wernick, and Shulamit Ran at the Ethical Society, 8:00 pm. Some relevant videos from Network:

– Marti Moss-Coane recently hosted Terry Teachout on Radio Times for a discussion of Teachout’s new bio of Duke Ellington – go here to listen. The book is being very well-received, and is definitely on my Christmas wish list.

Back to School Miscellany

Labor Day has yet to happen, but I was back at my day job today. I have some more substantive posts planned, but you will have to make do with a few  links for the moment:

– One of my current composition projects is to write an oboe quartet for Peggy Pearson on a commission from Winsor Music. The premiere is planned for the fall of 2014. Winsor has a handsome new website, with information about their concerts as well as some intriguing and uncommon projects, like their relationship with Project STEP and their Songs for the Spirit hymnal-in-progress.

– Go here to read Stephen Sondheim’s acceptance speech at this year’s MacDowell Medal Day; there are also links to remarks by Michael Chabon and Frank Rich.

– Season announcements are being flung over the digital transom. Go here for Orchestra 2001 (highlights include a Gunther Schuller premiere and Richard Wernick’s Kaddish-Requiem); here for Network for New Music (including a 2-concert Harbison festival with premieres by the guest of honor and five more composers – I’m working on something for that); and here for Songfusion (opening with more Harbison, including a program at Small’s jazz club featuring Mary Mackenzie – who will be doing a program at Penn on October 23.)

Mid-Hiatus Miscellany

– Two of the projected five movements of my piano consortium piece are now complete. I showed you a bit of one movement here, and here is an excerpt from the other movement:

As with the previous fragment, this still needs some editing of the notation, but it will give you a little taste of the piece. Will comment on it in another post. I want to replace the tired name “Scherzo”, but no idea yet what it might eventually get called.

– If you like words (hey, you’re reading something, so I guess that might include you), you might find these as interesting as I do.

-regarding some Boston friends:  Cantata Singers is offering Bach, Brahms, Zelenka, Marjorie Merryman, and James MacMillan, among others during the coming season. In addition to the usual Bach Cantatas, Emmanuel Music is doing the Bach Christmas Oratorio, and the Boston premiere of Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I assume this will be done in the recent “pocket version” that Jacques Desjardins re-orchestrated, rather than the original version done at the Met.

-Here in Philly, Orchestra 2001 is offering an all-Cage program and a collaboration with Pifarro, the Renaissance Wind Band this coming season.

Voices from the Heartland

George Crumb says he has now finished his American Songbook project, with the final installment premiered last night in Philadelphia by Orchestra 2001 with James Freeman conducting. This has been a huge undertaking: seven big cycles of folk song settings, all for solo voice or two singers, accompanied by percussion quartet plus amplified piano. This last set, called Voices from the Heartland, includes settings of “Softly and Tenderly” “Lord, Let Me Fly!”, and “Beulah Land”, among others, as well as a couple of American Indian chants. There is a delightfully Ivesian treatment of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens” combined with “On Top Of Old Smokey” – the two songs are sung simultaneously in different keys. In a sense, the pieces break no new ground for Crumb – he has his language  – but within that language they are unfailingly imaginative, varied, and beautiful. The performance was very fine, with George’s daughter Ann and baritone Patrick Mason as soloists. These singers, along with the instrumentalists of Orchestra 2001, are so experienced in performing Crumb’s music that the special demands he places on them – whispered vocal effects, or myriad non-Western percussion instruments – pose no problems. It is uncommon to hear players, for example, consistently command the extremely soft dynamics that George often requests.

I do wish the voices had been amplified more subtly – not just more softly, but not as closely miked. I feel there must be a way to use the amplification to support the voices and help them compete with the loudest percussion passages while still making it feel like the voices and the percussion are in the same acoustical space. In contrast, the amplification of the piano made some of its more delicate effects audible while keeping the instrument integrated with the non-amplified percussion. You were constantly aware of the voices being amplified – it shouldn’t draw attention to itself in this way.

The amplification was also a bit too loud for the Boulez Anthèmes 2 on the first half of the concert, in a virtuosic performance by Gloria Justen, with Peter Price assisting at the laptop.  As for the piece itself, it is a pleasant 8 minute demonstration of how a computer can process live violin sound. Unfortunately, the piece went on for 3 times that length. While the sounds were attractive, Boulez just presents them, never shaping them into a narrative. Not that every piece has to have a linear narrative; a succession (rather than a progression) of contrasting gestures can work, but if you are going to have a piece that long, you would need less repetition of gestures, or at least some genuinely extended phrases, rather than short phrases going on at length. A comparison with the Crumb is instructive: both pieces rely on an unusual sound palette, but the carefully shaped forms and the sensitive attention to timing in George’s music makes for a vastly more successful piece.

The concert began with a short piece by Louis Andriessen, a setting of a letter he received from mezzo Cathy Berberian, the spouse of composer Luciano Berio. In the letter she speaks of how Stravinsky re-shaped what became his Elegy for J. F. K. for her. The piece is straightforward, light in manner, with a hint of elegiaic tone, for it memorializes an artist who died too young. Ann Crumb served the piece well with her charismatic theatrical flair.

Here I am with George after the performance:

 

More about George and the Songbooks, here, here, and here.

Tuesday Night Miscellany

– Stephen Hough has a remarkably poetic post on Anglican Evensong.

– Matthew Guerrieri on the Harbison 6th.

– George Crumb premiere coming up this weekend in Philly with Orchestra 2001. David Patrick Stearns has a preview.

Prism collaborates with Music from China in NYC February 3 and in Philly Feb. 4. Details here.

Here’s a video prepared by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with Gil Kalish on Crumb: