Last night Orchestra 2001 premiered Voices From a Forgotten World (American Songbook V) by George Crumb in Lang Concert Hall. About 30 seconds into the second song of the new song cycle, I had an all-too-rare feeling of visceral excitement at hearing the performance of a piece of contemporary classical music for the first time. The music was so engrossing that I was instantly enthralled and didn’t want it to end.
The last time I felt this was back in 2006 when the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by Simon Rattle, one of the world’s greatest living conductors, gave the world premier performances of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Feast During a Plague. But coupled with that piece’s beauty, excitement, and raw power was a high level of inaccessibility that made the piece less than enthusiastically received. Crumb’s new piece avoids the pitfall of inaccessibility of so much modern music without sacrificing the vitality and uniqueness that is expected of new music written today.
Crumb expertly melds the familiar with the unfamiliar in his settings mostly well-known American folksongs. The melodic line is kept intact, but with altered tempo and musical accompaniment that is always entirely original and unpredictable. The musical forces assembled to play the piece are certainly unique: an amplified piano and around 125 percussion instruments played by a quartet of percussionists with male and female vocal solos. Only the earlier 4 parts in Crumb’s American Songbook series have similar instrumentations. This made the stage set-up one of the more interesting that I’ve seen recently. Indeed a large part of the magic of this piece is watching its performance and seeing what instruments are used to make different sound combinations. There were many times during the night where I thought “I’ve never heard that instrument sound like that!” or “What is that instrument making that interesting sound?”
The beginning of each of the ten songs is jarring because of the strangeness of the music composed to accompany them, but Crumb expertly repeats sections of the music following the structure of the song. For example he often uses the same or similarly-sounding music during the chorus of the song or the same bit of music as an interlude between verses. This works to make each song somewhat predictable (but never dull) and therefore accessible after a very short amount of time. In this way Crumb is able to both surprise the audience at every turn but also allow them to quickly understand the music and not get lost in its strangeness.
But enough of how wonderful the piece is, what does it actually sound like? The songs are mostly solemn, but a couple are extremely exciting and a some are incredibly funny. The depiction of a storm in the second song, Somebody Got Lost in a Storm, was full of such strength with its loud drums of various types that it rivaled Wagner’s famous storm at the beginning of Die Walkure for impact and power. During this song and Song of the Thunder–originally a Navajo song–the orchestra members sung and hummed along, reminiscent of an effect used in the first movement of Bernstein’s Concerto for Orchestra, which gave the songs added impact.
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! was incredibly hilarious with slapstick acoustic effects to accompany a song praising lethargy sung brilliantly by Patrick Mason. The House of the Rising Sun was given an incredibly mournful setting that captured the emotional impact of the words which Jamie van Eyck sang with great restraint and feeling. The cycle concluded with the somber song The Demon Lover, where Mason, playing a demon, seduces and deceives van Eyck into leaving her husband and entering Hell to live forever with him. At the end of the song the two singers slowly walk off stage, humming together, which is the only time during the composition that the two singers sing at the same time. It was a startlingly simple ending to a piece of music that constantly dazzled me with its complex musical figures, but in the end it was Crumb’s ability to flawlessly transmit the emotional content of the songs, often in novel and complex ways, but sometimes with stark and beautiful simplicity, that made the piece one of the most brilliant pieces of music I have heard in a long time.
Although the world premier was the main event of the concert it was not the only piece performed. The concert opened with the three-movement Otherworldly Resonances, also by Crumb, for two amplified pianos, played by Marcantonio Barone and James Freeman. The title is incredibly descriptive: often very slow and repetitive figures are played on the pianos that seem to come from another world, interrupted and punctuated by seemingly unrelated outbursts in the form of plucked or stroked piano strings, or the playing of the interior of the piano with a mallet. The second movement, titled Celebration and Ritual, was more lively, with a mixture of foreboding mallet playing and agitated, almost violent from the two pianos. The third movement I found less compelling, but the piece was enjoyable if less accessible than the song cycle.
Jeffrey Khaner, the wonderful principle flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, also performed as a soloist in the concert. He played the solo part in a recently discovered and completed piece for flute and string orchestra attributed to Tchaikovsky, but of uncertain provenance. He also performed two short pieces for solo flute, one by Varese and another by Debussy. Given the Khaner’s strong ability–I saw him in an excellent performance of the Rouse Flute Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006–it is unfortunate that the the three pieces he played were so disappointing. Although the Tchaikovsky opened with the solemn foreboding of the Pathetique symphony, supposedly composed at around the same time, and also includes some of the bright, lush lyricism of earlier Tchaikovsky, the piece on the whole wasn’t that involving and didn’t impress me. The two solo pieces were also similarly unimpressive; although the Debussy did have some nice lyricism about it. But within the context of the concert it sounded like light, pleasant diversionary music when compared to the Crumb pieces; enjoyable enough but nothing compared to them.