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Friday, April 20, 2012

Concert Review: Celestial Mechanics

The American Symphony Orchestra plays George Crumb.
An appearance by composer George Crumb...
on a t-shirt. Image © Zazzle.com.

The American Symphony Orchestra specializes in "deep cuts": unusual pieces from outside the repertory. Occasionally, though, music director Leon Botstein focuses on contemporary American masters. At Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, Dr. Botstein presented the major orchestral works of George Crumb. The composer was in attendance.

This is unusual music, and Dr. Botstein had his players seated in an unusual configuration on the Carnegie Hall stage. Woodwinds formed a line across the front, with French horns on extreme stage left opposite a complicated percussion station. The double basses were in the back, changing the balance of sound considerably.

Dr. Crumb is best known for his quirky works for solo piano and chamber ensemble. The concert opened with his Variazioni, a work that served as the young composer's doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan. It starts with a simple, Bach-like theme that forms a tone-row, a serialist technique where notes are arranged in a manner ignoring the conventional system of scales and keys. 

This plaintive, moving theme served as a digression point for the rest of the work. At one point, the brass play a stately toccata. Strings intertwine with unusual percussion instruments, creating unearthly soundscapes. The piece ended where it began, with a reprise of the original theme. Dr. Botstein spoke briefly to the audience, and reprised the Toccata one more time.

Echoes of Time and the River shows the maturing composer experimentingfurther wih percussion. Gongs are crucial to this work, stationed on either side of the stage and carried about by musicians in a strange series of processions, either through the house or across the stage. These little parade maneuvers were announced with the ring of antique cymbals, echoed by gongs and the shake of a sistrum-like Chinese bell-tree. 

Echoes is part tone poem and part performance art, with interspersed sprechstimme texts. The brass joined the parade, forming a line across stage left, aiming the bells of their instruments squarely at the listeners, and then breathing through them, a hollow, ghostly sound familiar to anyone who has learned trombone. A little procession of wind players appeared too, gathering around a piano and playing short melodic lines as if to entertain the musician manning the keyboard. 

The orchestra was re-arranged again for Star-Child an apocalyptic oratorio-like piece that depicts a Biblical end to the world in terms familiar to listeners who know the Mahler Resurrection and the Berlioz Requiem. A rarity because of its staging challenges, this piece was originally commissioned by the New York Philharmonic during Pierre Boulez' fearlessly experimental administration.

This massive work features, in addition to a large orchestra,  small ensembles and soloists scattered about Carnegie Hall, seven trumpets (some using disposable aluminum pie plates as mutes) soprano soloist Audrey Luna, and two choral groups: the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the men of the Collegiate Chorale.

This enormous piece begins with Music of the Spheres, a celestial drone on the strings and wind that permeates the entire 30-minute work. A dialogue began, with Ms. Luna pleading for divine mercy. She was  answered (in a manner recalling the old Peanuts® cartoons) by a trombonist using a metal mute to make his instrument sound voice-like.

The crushing second section (Musica Apocalyptica) featured the actual apocalypse in Mahlerian terms, with batteries of percussion, skittering strings and the seven spatially arranged trumpets who remained strangely silent during the Tuba Mirum. At this point, the still-silent Brooklyn Youth Chorus looked genuinely scared at the unfamiliar sonorities whirling forth from the orchestra.

The children finally sang in the last movement, another series of hymn-like calls and responses. They answered in clear, angelic voice, responding to the Latin text sung by Ms. Luna. She hit the dizzy heights required by the score, as the work swelled to a series of massive, celestial climaxes. Eventually, the drone faded into silence, and the composer rose from his box seat to receive the roar of approval from the audience.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.