Last night the American Symphony Orchestra made history – and paid tribute to an important figure in 20th century American music – by presenting a concert at Carnegie Hall entirely devoted to the music of George Crumb. Mr. Crumb, who was born in 1929 in West Virginia, made a big splash on them musical scene in the 1960s and 1970s with such works as "Ancient Voices of Children," "Black Angels" (for amplified string quartet), and "Echoes of Time and the River," which won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 1968 after a 1967 premiere performance by the Chicago Symphony. Despite these achievements, and a major premiere of a commissioned piece, "Star-Child", by the NY Philharmonic in 1979, Crumb's music has not attained repertory status and public performances of his orchestral works are rare.
It turns out that ASO Music Director Leon Botstein has a very personal connection to this music and this composer. As a student at the University of Chicago, he attended rehearsals for the premiere of "Echoes of Time and the River" and got to know the composer, which whom he maintained contact over the years. In the program note for the concert, Botstein write: "If I may be permitted a personal note, this concert is the realization of a dream I have harbored for a long time." Botstein goes on to explain the connection. In his view, "George Crumb has taken his place alongside the greatest of American composers. His unmistakable American voice and intuition for innovation, all in a manner immune from commerce and the politics of fame, has earned him international renown." I think perhaps there is a little special pleading going on here, given the limited attention Crumb's music has received. One can assemble a relatively large representation of his music on recordings, but not so large as to justify Botstein's claims – if one measures "international renown" by lots of performances around the world and multiple recordings of major works.
On the other hand, recordings can't do justice to Crumb's music. One of his major innovations is to reject the view of the symphony orchestra as a static institution. He adds instruments to those normally encountered, has performers use the instrument in unconventional ways, introduces innovations in seating as well as coordinated movement among the musicians, and writes music that might be described as rejecting traditional conceptions of what a musical composition should be. In a sense, "Echoes" is more of a theater piece than a musical composition in the traditional sense, not because it has characters and a plot but because it has the orchestra enact some sort of ceremonial event in a series of "processionals". We don't really know what the ceremonial event is about on any specific level, but we do know that something is going on that commands attention. There are no "tunes" in the conventional sense. Instead we experience interesting juxtapositions of sounds, moods and colors, and lots of activity.
The first work on the program, Variazioni for Large Orchestra, is the product of Crumb's student years, and is a more conventional sort of piece, although even here there are the signs of the composer would subsequently emerge from his influences and do something original. It was interesting to hear the influences that earlier 20th century music had on the young student, who scored this for a huge orchestra and indulged in captivating rhythmic contrasts from one variation to the next. At the end of the piece, Botstein, perhaps regreting that his favorite variation had not come off well enough, quickly cut off applause and announced that they would "repeat our favorite variation" as a sort of unrequested encore, which they did to great effect.
"Echoes of Time" and "Star-Child" are very different pieces, but clearly emanate from the same musical intelligence in their eschewal of the traditional music of theme & variation, instead presenting a sort of collage of sound. As noted above, "Echoes of Time" is characterized as a series of processionals, and has musicians parading about the stage at various times while they play. "Star-Child" involves choral forces and a soprano soloist (the adventurous Audrey Luna on this occasion) as well as a trombone soloist (not specifically identified in the program, but presumably ASO principal Richard Clark), and subdivides the forces into autonomous bodies with three assistant conductors leading their disjunct adventures. I was reminded of "The Unanswered Question" by Charles Ives, to which the music played by the strings bore a close resemblance, and as well of the finale of Ives' 4th Symphony, which layers different bodies of musicians proceeding at different tempi atop each other. There were some very effective moments in this piece, although I found my interest lagging towards the end.
Overall, it was a most satisfactory concert, and certainly the composer, who was in attendance, seemed very gratified by all the work that went into it and by the enthusiastic response of the audience. And, of course, we now have a recorded medium in which Crumb's music can more effectively be conveyed – digital video. Just hearing his work on a traditional audio recording could not begin to convey the scope of what he has devised; at least when a visual medium is added, with the possibility of surround sound, one might come closer to making it possible for people to become more intimately acquainted with his music through repeated listening, which is probably the most valuable service that recording can do for newer, unfamiliar music.
It would be great of some enterprising recording company could undertake to make available audio/video recordings of Crumb's music! Until then, those of us who were there last night will have to subsist on our memories….