Quiet percussion at the Library of Congress

April 29, 2011

It was hard to even see the Library of Congress’s Steinway among the welter of gongs, bells, blocks, cymbals and other hittable objects on its stage Thursday. But this was not to be an evening of bone-rattling noise or even foot-stomping, rhythmic excitement. George Crumb, whose music filled the first half of the concert, is a molder of entrancingly beautiful and delicate sounds that seem to float timelessly in space. And Tan Dun’s “Elegy: Snow in June” for cello and percussion, passionate and mercurial as it is, ended the evening almost as an apotheosis.

Crumb’s compositions span 65 years of inventive exploration and have featured delicious and mysterious sounds drawn from standard instruments used in all sorts of nonstandard ways, from the amplified pop of a flutist’s fingers closing down on a finger hole to the amplified vibrations of a piano’s strings set in motion by a singer crooning into the raised piano lid. His work in this decade, however, has been devoted almost entirely to six “American Songbooks,” settings of Appalachian and African American folk songs and hymns for baritone, amplified piano and percussion. It was a selection from these collections that baritone Thomas Hampson and members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center brought to an appreciative Library of Congress audience.

The songs are familiar ones — “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jerico,” “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” and several others; Hampson, in splendid voice, found just the right balance between art song and caricature. But what the instruments supplied was not so much an accompaniment as a soundscape — sometimes merely an aura and other times a vivid effect, but always hovering in its own rhythmic and tonal universe. The piano’s amplification made it possible to hear the jangling of whatever was rattling around in its innards, and the choreography of the four percussionists as they moved among their array of instruments was another intriguing dimension of the performance.

Dun’s “Elegy,” based on a traditional Chinese tale of a woman executed for a crime she did not commit, is built as a large arch, beginning with quiet cello portamento slides, developing in intensity and activity, and, finally, as the innocent soul ascends, coming to a quiet resolution. It calls on an enormous repertoire of technical resources, and cellist Andres Diaz handled them with apparent ease, tuning up his sliding chords beautifully and jousting with his percussion protagonists in a finely gauged ensemble. And it was the ensemble playing that distinguished every aspect of the evening’s performance by pianist Gilbert Kalish and percussionists Haruka Fujii, David Cossin, Ayano Kataoka and Jeffrey Milarsky.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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