Crumb at 90 Part II: Ghosts, Angels, and Music for a Summer Evening

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: April 16, 2019, Alice Tully Hall (New York City)

All Crumb Program: The Ghosts of Alhambra (Spanish Songbook I) for Voice, Guitar, and Percussion; Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land) for Electric String Quartet; Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) for Two Amplified Pianos and Percussion

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented its second program in tribute to George Crumb’s upcoming 90th birthday (in October) to a well-filled house, with the composer in attendance. Leading off the program, The Ghosts of Alhambra continues the long line of vocal works by Crumb inspired by the hallucinatory poetry of Federico García Lorca, here sung in the original Spanish. Scored for guitar (Oren Fader), percussion (Daniel Druckman) and baritone (Randall Scarlata), the piece requires the singer to vocalize, shout and play percussion in addition to merely singing, a feat Mr. Scarlata accomplished without batting an eye. Of particular note is Crumb’s setting of the poem “Malagueña,” famously used as the second piece in Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony. Crumb’s setting couldn’t have been more different. Whereas the Russian composer offers a wild and frenetic dance, Crumb’s setting presented the figure of death as a smooth-talking lounge lizard. It was quite wonderful, as was Scarlata’s ability to throw a whisper out into the hall, and sing while clicking and clacking his percussion instruments, ably assisted by Oren Fader and Daniel Druckman.

Black Angels is one of Crumb’s most imaginative and iconic works. The electrically amplified string quartet also has to shout, count to seven in various languages, play a range of percussion (including a marvelous “God Music” interlude for tuned water goblets), and do things to their usual instruments that no one ever intended. The opening “Night of the Electric Insects” sounds just like the title–it’s one of the most harrowing sounds in Western music. The quartet for this performance (Sean Lee and Kristen Lee, violins; Richard O’Neill, viola, and Mihai Marica, cello) did a beautiful job projecting the music’s otherworldly sounds and moments of fleeting lyricism. The piece isn’t long, but Crumb has the gift of creating the kind of atmosphere that suspends time while keeping the listener spellbound. When it’s all over you emerge as if having participated in a kind of sacred ritual. And this was just the concert’s first half.

After intermission, we had another Crumb classic, Music for a Summer Evening, for two amplified pianos (Crumb veteran Gilbert Kalish and Gloria Chen), and two percussionists (Ayano Kataoka and Ian David Rosenbaum, whose proud parents were sitting behind me). This is by any standard a major work: five movements lasting about forty minutes, and covering a huge range of expression, from the desolate sound of two intertwining slide whistles blown into the sounding board of the pianos, to the powerful climaxes of “The Advent.” The piece ends with a reference to Bach and an exquisite lullaby based on the gently rocking conclusion of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, a recurring motive in Crumb (we find it also, aptly, in Ancient Voices of Children). There were moments in this performance where the two pianists seemed to get a touch out of sync, and compared to Kalish’s benchmark premiere recording of the piece for Nonesuch back in the 1970s the tempos have slowed, but the percussionists were terrific and Crumb’s always atmospheric writing won the day.

Finally, a word about the composer, who received a much-deserved standing ovation at the concert’s end. Since discovering his personal voice, Crumb has remained true to his musical vision. His idiom is instantly identifiable, compelling, communicative and it still sounds remarkably fresh. In recent years voices have been raised declaring his music to be passé, but we don’t need to pay much attention to the “flavor the month” school of cultural commentary. Crumb’s music, despite its aural sophistication and technical demands, expresses primal feelings and emotions. It challenges listeners, but rewards them as well. It is warm, humane, timeless, and above all, honest. Crumb has earned this tribute, and it’s great to see him receiving recognition while he is still around to enjoy it.

David Hurwitz