Transfixing Tribute to George Crumb

United StatesUnited States  Music of George Crumb: Audrey Luna (soprano), The Collegiate Chorale, James Bagwell (conductor), The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun (artistic director), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor), Teresa Cheung (conductor), Geoffrey McDonald (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 19.4.2012 (GG)

George Crumb:
Variazioni for Large Orchestra
Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II)
Star-Child: A Parable

George Crumb is unusually popular for a contemporary classical composer, even more so because he is associated with the avant-garde and experimental traditions. But even as he hones his ideas down to an obsessive core, or explores esoteric mysteries, or gives voice to his internal dreams of musical history, he cultivates a beautiful and physically substantial sound that appeals to many listeners, especially ones perhaps not as familiar with classical music but who are actively interested in the more creative and experimental styles of rock. There’s overlap, for example, with fans of the Kronos Quartet—who generally tend not to follow the standard repertory of classical music—via their powerful recording of Crumb’s masterly Black Angels.

So it’s a surprise there are so few concerts of his music, especially the orchestral pieces. This involving and satisfying tribute to the composer, with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, both emphasized that question and proved why it’s so rare to hear Crumb on orchestral programs. It has nothing to do with the quality of his work in general and these pieces in particular, but rather, the difficulty in preparation and performance.

Any orchestral work that includes two choirs demands rehearsal time and cost. Additional challenges in Crumb’s pieces—reconfiguring the standard instrumental array—multiply these: putting the winds and brass in the central position with strings behind for the Variazioni; developing and practicing the ritual choreography for Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II); and managing the orchestras-within-the-orchestra, the remote groups and the three secondary conductors in Star-Child. The logistical challenges are beyond the patience and budgets of most orchestras, which made the effort this April evening that much more special.

The night was also special because Crumb was in the audience, and acknowledged an enthusiastic ovation before the music began. His presence was the cause, I believe, of something I have not seen in the concert hall before. After the final notes of the Variazioni—an excellent and rigorously formal early piece that shows the composer’s beguiling reconfiguration of Renaissance concepts as an already mature and accomplished style—Botstein interrupted the applause to announce that they would repeat the third “Toccata” variation because it was their favorite. Once the playing began, it was clear that the actual reason for the repeat was due to a subpar performance the first time, with entire orchestral sections missing their cues.

While the early work is technically finished, the other two orchestral pieces are deeply expressive of Crumb’s aesthetic, which captures, in structured sound and silence, ritual and liturgical ideas that are clearly and carefully ordered and colored—like stained glass, with a Gnostic conception of revelation and enlightenment through the act of making music. There were no discernible technical problems. The playing, in fact, was as beautiful as Crumb’s scores with their expressively curvilinear staves. Everyone was completely concentrated on the deliberate pacing of the processions of musicians and calibration of colors in Echoes —one of the most extraordinary orchestral works of modern times—and the complex coordination of simultaneous musics and apocalyptic drama of Star-Child, in which seven trumpet blasts resounded around the hall. In the latter, the setting of the “Dies Irae” in the “Musica apocalyptica” was crushingly powerful. Audrey Luna sang with force and a transparent, cultivated intonation in the demanding solo part—an oracular one—and the orchestra also distinguished themselves with their confident and expressive vocal bursts.

It’s worth noting the audience. There were clearly many patrons who knew members of both choirs, and it was equally clear that they felt some sense of discomfort and intimidation in the opening moments, especially with the chanting in Echoes. But Crumb’s sound is so captivating and psychologically intriguing—a unique synthesis of Machaut and Debussy, with sincere nods at Mahler and Varèse—that he manages to charm with both notes and time. The notes mix and move in a clear, sinewy logic, while in the latter, he manages the feat of development while creating the sensation that time is standing still, as if all this beauty is taking place between breaths, between heartbeats. It’s rare and precious.

George Grella