George Crumb Festival opens with a triumphant foray into the composer’s delicate, haunting soundscapes

Sat Feb 01, 2020 at 1:44 pm

By John von Rhein

The Music Institute of Chicago presented the first concert of its George Crumb Festival Friday night at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.

During the 1970s, George Crumb hit the contemporary music scene like a clap of ear-opening thunder.

The modest, soft-spoken composer from West Virginia startled everyone by crafting a unique sound world the likes of which had never been heard before. Using a language of extended instrumental and vocal techniques, conventional instruments outfitted to produce unusual sounds, and elements of non-Western musical practice, Crumb created highly evocative and poetic dreamscapes of mystical, exotic, otherworldly resonance.

A string of masterpieces, such as the quartet Black Angels (in which the string players shout and play water glasses), his Pulitzer-Prize-winning orchestral work Echoes of Time and the River, and Ancient Voices of Children (the first of many Crumb settings of poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca) established him as one of the most fiercely original voices in new American composition. Few of his colleagues were more successful at reaching out to an audience of younger listeners and musicians alike.

Yet by the 1990s Crumb’s output grew slimmer and his creative life looked as if it would not survive his fame. Throughout much of the ‘90s, his pen fell silent. A new-music community swept up in post-minimalism, neo-romanticism or trendier hard-edged strains of rock- and jazz-influenced art music, appeared to turn its back on his delicate, exquisitely crafted music.

But his voice would not be stilled, and Crumb bounced back in 2002 with Unto the Hills, the first of his many songbooks based on folk Americana, and the start of what became a kind of creative Indian summer. Recordings continued to appear on Bridge as part of that enterprising label’s ambitious project to commit to disc virtually every note he has written. And last April the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gave the world premiere of the composer’s KRONOS-KRYPTOS for five percussionists.

The composer turned 90 in October, and the renewed attention his music is receiving by virtue of that anniversary marks Crumb as a durable survivor of the American avant-garde, perhaps because he was never a part of it. Dedicated performer-champions of Crumb’s music, such as soprano Barbara Ann Martin and pianist Fiona Queen, are helping to keep the flame alive.

Martin and Queen, along with their faculty colleagues of the Music Institute of Chicago and guest artists, are celebrating the man and his music with a George Crumb Festival of two concerts, a panel discussion and a score display this weekend at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. The event was conceived by Queen—director of performance activities at the institute—and is made possible by a grant from the American Music Project.

The first concert, primarily devoted to three of the four books of Crumb’s style-defining collective masterpiece, Makrokosmos (1972-79), took place on Friday night. The triumphant results augured well for the remaining events of this important retrospective honoring a true American original.

No composer has expanded the available color-palette of the modern piano as brilliantly as Crumb has in his Makrokosmos, the first two books of which comprise 24 “fantasy-pieces” based on signs of the zodiac, drawing on the myths and symbols of ancient civilizations, his love of Debussyan impressionism and his own acute poetic imagination to conjure sound-worlds at once cosmic and ritualistic, still and teeming with life.

Hearing the dozen amazing pieces for amplified piano that make up Makrokosmos I, as performed by Marie Alatalo reminded one of Crumb’s genius in fashioning timbres to make other timbres. The composer gives these zodiacal vignettes evocative titles (“Primeval Sounds,” “Night-Spell I,” “Spring-Fire,” and so on) and opens up coloristic possibilities by “preparing” the inside of the instrument with various foreign objects.

Along with producing spectral glissandos, eerie harmonics, Aeolian-harp strums and Messiaen-like twitters on the keyboard and inside the instrument, the pianist also is required to utter a wide range of vocal effects and talismanic chants, all to intensify the expressive effect. The resonant shimmers that come after keys are violently struck also are crucial to evoking the sense of a world beyond time and space, indeed, beyond mortal ken.

To bring all of this off successfully requires a special sort of pianistic, and extra-pianistic, virtuosity, one closely attuned to Crumb’s metaphysical thought processes and, of course, his acute ear for sounds previously unimagined. Alatalo – a member of the MIC artist faculty and director of its Chicago campus – is that sort of musician. Her performance held one at rapt attention through each dynamic whisper and roar, each subtle shift of color, timbre and mood, never losing the expressive continuity from one exquisite piece to the next.

The most haunting vignette of the set is the penultimate “Dream Images (Love-Death Music) (Gemini).” Alatalo made the softly recollected quotations from Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu flow seamlessly out of Crumb’s own language, one poetic image informing the other.

Both works for multiple pianos and pianists came off just as successfully.

Celestial Mechanics, the fourth book of Makrokosmos, is, in the composer’s words, a suite of four “cosmic” pieces whose titles refer to stars of the first through fourth magnitude. The piano four hands team of Louise Chan and Susan Tang literally threw themselves into their amplified instruments, making the dislocated rhythms, explosive roars, glistening high notes and low rumbles speak with acute beauty and concentration. They were ably assisted by Christopher Morrow, who, although listed in the program book merely as “page turner” (Crumb does love his sly little jokes), had a great deal to do in his own right, digging into the piano’s innards in tight synchronicity with Chan and Tang.

The most recent work on Friday’s program, Sun and Shadow (Spanish Songbook II), from 2009, showed that Crumb’s language has not changed all that much from that of the works that, if you will, launched his star.

The cycle consists of five songs for soprano and piano, based on English translations of Lorca poems. Each is a perfect little gem of tone painting on the broadest imaginable canvas, vividly imagined as perhaps only Crumb could devise. Martin has long been one of the composer’s most technically and musically gifted champions (one still recalls her amazing performance of Ancient Voices of Children with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra more than a decade ago) and she was alive to every sung, spoken, chanted, whispered nuance of these settings. Alatalo proved a brilliant collaborative force herself, at and inside the piano.  

Bringing the evening to a splendid close was Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), the most lavishly scored book in the collection, calling for two electronically enhanced pianos (Louise Chan and Queen) and two amplified percussionists (John Corkill and Joshua Graham), playing an unusually rich and varied battery ranging from vibraphone and xylophone to such exotica as slide whistles, Tibetan prayer stones and African thumb piano. The final section, “Music of the Starry Night,” tolls the music into infinity over a deep G-flat pedal, haunts me as I write this.

To some of us, Crumb is less convincing when his musical rhetoric ventures from the restrained to the histrionic – and in this suite from 1974 I am afraid it does. But one could have nothing but praise for Friday’s superb performers, who made this neo-primitive, ritualistic music fairly sizzle with coloristic allure and surrealistic beauty.

Kudos, too, to the uncredited sound personnel for their expert handling of the amplification.

The Music Institute of Chicago’s George Crumb Festival will continue with a panel discussion, 5 p.m. Saturday ($10, free admission with concert ticket); and a second and final concert, performed by mezzo-soprano Barbara Ann Martin, members of the Fifth House Ensemble, pianist Jeffrey Jacob and other artists, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston.; 847-448-8326.

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