Thirty-odd years ago the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium was the venue for premieres of two of George Crumb's now-famous works: "Ancient Voices of Children" and "Voice of the Whale." Friday night the 75-year-old composer, one of the fathers of American classical music, returned to the Coolidge stage with an ensemble for a program of works that spanned his entire career.
From the first notes of "Three Early Songs," written when Crumb was a teenager in 1947, soprano Tony Arnold's phenomenal talent was apparent. Arnold delivered Crumb's setting of sentimental texts by Robert Southey and Sara Teasdale with a clear tone, clean diction and an understated earthy quality. The piano accompaniment by Robert Shannon was simple, at least compared with Crumb's later works. There was none of his atonal, angular signature style; instead these works harked back to Rachmaninoff and Debussy.
Arnold proved her effective dynamic range with a deft decrescendo, ending with her lips moving in silence in the 1979 work "Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises for Soprano and Amplified Piano." Her dramatic flair fit Crumb's compositional style well, her facial expressions reflecting the nuances of Walt Whitman's somber text.
In typical Crumb fashion, the piano part for "Apparition" requires its performer to practically play a game of Twister on the keyboard. With ballerina grace, Shannon held his right foot on the pedal, placed his left hand on the keys, and stretched his right arm under the piano lid to stroke the strings within.
In "A Little Midnight Music" for solo piano, Shannon took the audience on a playful romp, playing the instrument inside and out, reaching into the piano case and plucking the strings with his fingers, strumming them, hitting them with a soft mallet or open palm, playing the piano keys with his other hand. Written in 2002, this was the most recent work on the program, and the most delightful, since it embodied a familiar melody, Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight," in nine different ruminations. Only page turns of the enormous score detracted from the performance's magic.
Crumb's pets inspired "Mundis Canis" ("A Dog's World"), a suite of miniatures describing the personality of a beloved family pet, written in 1998 for guitarist David Starobin. As a duet for guitar and percussion, the structure was fairly simple and cliched, with Starobin and Crumb employing unusual techniques to imitate each other's sounds. As the composer played the percussion part, it was fascinating to watch him strike a suspended cymbal while lowering it into a large tub of water, and even more fascinating to hear the result.
Since Crumb's retirement from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997, his creative juices have continued to flow freely, with several recent pieces and a large-scale composition in the works. And the entire catalogue of his compositions is being released in a series of recordings on the Bridge label.