Youngsters, pull up your chairs. Way, way back in the 1960s, when serialism ruled the Earth and composers subjected audiences to the most angular, rebarbative music they could devise, along came a man — a simple, honest man — named George Crumb. With his warm and darkly poetic scores, full of exotic tonalities and birdlike warblings, Crumb appeared less a composer than a sort of conjurer, and — in an era when Milton Babbitt famously Didn’t Care If You Listened — seemed to reach out, wrap an arm around his listeners and nuzzle them on the ears.
Crumb’s music has lost little of its evocative magic, to judge by a performance at the Library of Congress on Friday night. The Orchestra 2001 ensemble has made a specialty of Crumb, and on Friday it was joined by none other than the composer’s daughter, the soprano Ann Crumb, for probably definitive accounts of the 1969 classic “Night of the Four Moons” and the new “Voices From the Heartland.” Both evoked the sense of mystery and distant enchantment that makes Crumb’s music so compelling, and “Night” in particular — with its moonlit colors and dreamlike theatricality, its whispers and sudden cries — made you feel as if you’d stumbled into some ancient ritual. Ann Crumb clearly has this music in her bones; it would be hard to imagine a more natural and compelling performance.
The main draw of the program, though, was “Voices.” The final installment of a huge American Songbook project Crumb has been writing for the past decade, it resets traditional hymns, Native American chants, spirituals and folk songs for amplified soprano and baritone (the very fine Patrick Mason), accompanied by piano and a vast arsenal of percussion instruments. The stage was groaning with them, in fact: drums and gongs of every description, chimes, bells, tablas, even bits of rock, combined in wildly imaginative variations (a siren accompanies the 19th-century hymn “Softly and Tenderly,” to give just one example). Nine very distinctive songs made up the work, from a wild “Lord, Let Me Fly” to a Pawnee ghost dance that sounded almost apocalyptic. A fine, fascinating addition to American music.
While it was a rare pleasure to hear so much Crumb in one sitting, some of the most thought-provoking music of the evening came from the lesser-known composer Chaya Czernowin, whose “Lakes” received its world premiere. The second section of a triptych titled “Slow Summer Stay,” it’s a spare and quietly beguiling meditation on stillness, weaving sustained tones, delicate filigrees of sound, deft silences and sudden bursts of ferocity into a gossamer tissue. It wasn’t descriptive, exactly — certainly not “La Mer” writ small — but there was a great sense of naturalness and purity about it, as if it were unfolding far from human ears. And as it shifted delicately from sound into silence and back again, it seemed to blur the edges between nothingness and “something-ness” — and find some elusive unity between the two.
Brookes is a freelance writer.