Feature Review – Total Immersion: George Crumb [5 December 2009, Barbican Centre, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 18 & 26 December]

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

Total Immersion: George Crumb

Cinema 2 (10.30 a.m.)

The Voice of the Whale (1976)

Director Robert Mugge

Introduced by Stephen Montague

Barbican Hall (1.00 p.m.)

George Crumb

A Little Suite for Christmas, AD 1979¶

Ancient Voices of Children§

Makrokosmos Volume 1: Twelve fantasy pieces after the Zodiac¶

Joanna MacGregor (piano)¶

Anna Patalong (soprano)§

Louis Watkins (treble)§

Guildhall New Music Ensemble [Ruth Bulman (oboe), Thomas Besnard (piano), Anneke Hodnett (harp), Travis Finch (mandolin) and Calie Hough, Taichi Imanish, Louise Morgan (percussion)

Richard Baker§

Cinema 2 (4.00 p.m.)

George Crumb: Bad Dog (2009, world première)

Directed and introduced by David Starobin

Mozart Room (6.00 p.m.)

Talk with George Crumb, David Starobin & Stephen Montague

Barbican Freestage (7.30 p.m.)

Stephen Montague

Lux in tenebras (to George Crumb)

Alex Julyan (visual artist), Fulham Symphony Orchestra, CoMA Ensemble, Dancers from Trinity Laban, Chorus, and Kirsty Arnold & Alice Tatge (dance assistants)

Paul Burnell, Alex Campkin, Marc Dooley, Alissa Firsova & Stephen Montague

Barbican Hall (8.00 p.m.)

George Crumb

Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II)

A Haunted Landscape


Claudia Barainsky (soprano)*

Helen Vollam (trombone)*

Trinity Boys Choir*

New London Chamber Choir*

Handbell Ringers*

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Martyn Brabbins with *Matthew Coorey, Benjamin Shwartz & Nicholas Collon

Saturday 5 December 2009

Barbican Centre, London

This time last year we were celebrating the centenary of Elliott Carter, who is now best represented on the American label, Bridge Records. Even more closely associated with Bridge Records is this year’s anniversary American composer being celebrated with a “Total Immersion” day at the Barbican Centre, courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with the man himself present: George Crumb at 80.

The day started with the first of two films (and the most interesting), made by Robert Mugge and named after one of Crumb’s trademark works, Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), appropriately filmed at rather close range in marine blue, contrasting with both the sepia-tinged interviews with spectacular 1970s’ style shirts sported by Crumb and his interviewer and engaging film of family life. Fellow American composer Stephen Montague introduced the film pointing out Crumb’s West Virginian heritage and an Ivesian childhood with his Masonic bandmaster father and an isolation that allowed him to acquire a unique soundworld.

The first concert of the day showed off Crumb’s individual techniques for solo piano and chamber and vocal ensemble. Joanna MacGregor proved an admirable guide to Crumb’s way with the piano: not for him a prepared instrument (he argues that you’re limited only to new sounds with such an instrument), but rather a series of techniques to alter the timbre during the performance – standing up to lean into the body of the piano to suppress the resonance (creating a not-unmusical suppressed ‘thud’ at the base of the instrument), or to slide a chisel along the string (for a ethereal glissando) or laying a rod over a series of strings to take us back to the twang of a harpsichord.

Given its subject matter, it is perhaps no surprise that A Little Suite for Christmas, AD 1979 reminded at times of Messiaen (interestingly Crumb – with reference to his teaching methods and, particularly about imposing his own aesthetic on his students – remarked that he had often seen students “subsumed by Messiaen”), with its evocation of Christ’s nativity, with two of the seven glistening movements directly inspired buy Giotto’s Nativity frescoes in Padua.

Another inspiration, Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, lies behind Makrokosmos, for piano. Rather literally, Crumb’s zodiac looks to the astrological cosmos with – Enigma Variations-like – portraits of friends, identified by initials in movements of (again) Messiaenic or Tippettesque titles (for example, Pastorale (from the Kingdome of Atlantis c10,000 BC) for Taurus, Crucifixus for Capricorn, Music of Shadows (for Aeolian Harp) for Libra, The Magic of Circle of Infinity for Leo, The Abyss of Time for Virgo). Just like Elgar, Crumb himself is enshrined in the work, as The Phantom Gondolier for Scorpio. Each of the three sections (of four star-signs each) end with a symbol – Crumb’s scores pictorially representing a cross, circle and spiral respectively; although this is hard to detect aurally.

MacGregor attacked both works with confidence, revelling in the individuality of Crumb’s methods diving into the instrument’s innards or using her lower arms. Crumb was present to applaud her performances.

Between the two piano works was a nod to Crumb’s longstanding relationship with the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, Ancient Voices of Children, wonderfully performed by the Guildhall New Music Ensemble, conducted by Richard Baker, and had the advantage of treble Louis Watkins. He was to have sung the, largely off-stage, role at the Royal Albert Hall Proms performance this year until it was discovered that the hall’s licence did not allow a child performer at a late-night appearance. Thankfully there was no problem with a performance early afternoon, and Watkins was just as assured as his older compatriots in this overwhelmingly brilliant performance. With the seven instrumentalists joining in with vocalisations as well as offering spectral sounds from their instruments (including clacking stones), Crumb’s response to Lorca – similar to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder – is never less than mesmeric, starting with the soprano (Anna Patalong) singing into the piano, creating a distinctive halo of sound. Too intricate to describe adequately in words, there is no doubting that this is a 20th-century masterpiece.

The second film, George Crumb: Bad Dog! – reflecting a recent preoccupation of dogs, in his cycle Mundus Canis (A Dog’s World) – included complete performances of three works: Three Early Songs, the solo piano Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik and Apparition (to texts by Walt Whitman). As filmed by guitarist and regular member of the George Crumb Ensemble, let alone boss of Bridge Records, David Starobin, and including a wealth of family photographs, this is much less individual than Robert Mugge’s Voice of the Whale, although proves a useful adjunct of Bridge’s ongoing Complete Crumb Edition, of which it forms Volume 14.

Starobin also joined composers Crumb and Montague for the packed Mozart Room talk, on hand to help if Crumb’s voice failed. Crumb is thoughtful, soft in speech, with a refreshing unhurried delivery and a dry humour which is rather infectious. His memories of growing up in West Virginia were delightful and it was a shame that his recent loss of voice meant that Stephen Montague was all-too-happy to repeat virtually the whole of his introduction earlier in the day to the first film. Talking of film, Crumb was asked if he’d ever composed a film score. He turned down The Exorcist, but ten seconds of one of his scores was used in the film, royalties for which have netted more for Crumb than any of his other pieces!

Montague as composer was more appealing than Montague as talker, although one wonders if his BBC Learning commission, a Crumb tribute inspired by Star-Child and entitled Lux in tenebras will have many more performances. It filled almost every available alcove in the Barbican foyer with groups of players and performers and, thrillingly, reversed Crumb’s trajectory and moved from vibrant light to subdued darkness. Given the substantial pillars that bisect the Circle Foyer of the Barbican, I suspect there was no ideal spot for the audience to watch, or indeed the performers which is why Montague goes one better than Crumb in requiring five conductors!

Star-Child itself was the culmination of the final concert, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. It was the least successful of Crumb’s works on offer. Its odd amalgam of Latin religious text and cosmic resonance, requiring children’s chorus, men’s speaking chorus and bell-ringers, let alone turning the orchestra on its end, by placing the strings at the back of the stage facing away from the audience (and separately conducted), seemed to muddle any message that might be hiding there. For once it seemed that Crumb had failed to follow his own inclination but rather hooked himself onto the declining coat-tails of hippyism.

Much better were the earlier two orchestral works, the ritual of Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II), beating Birtwistle in its perambulatory requirements for players to move across the stage: here there are four groups of percussion, brass and two sets of wind (clarinets and flutes), some of whom end up playing into the open piano for more ethereal, subtle sounds. It really is ‘music theatre’ although how it will work on the radio I’m not too sure.

Most impressive was A Haunted Landscape, necessitating a major stage change (adding an extra interval) and an unusual range of percussion, including Caribbean steel drums and an Appalachian dulcimer. Crumb’s inspiration is the notion that a landscape can contain the history of its previous inhabitants – rather like a palimpsest you can peel away and find earlier and earlier civilisations. There are echoes of Mahler and fellow late-romantics in the slow trajectory of the music, rising to monumental climaxes but mostly eerie and atmospheric. Brabbins’s conducting seemed utterly idiomatic and successful.

The performances are broadcast on 18 and 26 December 2009, though not, for whatever reason, as presented live. A Little Suite for Christmas joins Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II) and Star-Child on Performance on 3 on 18 December, while A Haunted Landscape, Ancient Voices of Children and Makrokosmos is on Hear and Now on Boxing Day.

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