The stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was bathed in blue light--undersea light--veiling slightly the three masked musicians on the stage. The instruments were flute, cello and piano, but the delicately amplified sounds Saturday night were those of eons passing, surf crashing, seagulls screaming and whales chanting the long, seamless melodies that they project mysteriously through the ocean's depths.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center was performing "Vox Balaenae" ("The Voice of the Whale") by George Crumb, a composer whose sense of show biz is helping to woo audiences back to contemporary music. Paula Robison spun out long, wild, lonely melodies on her flute, and whispered almost intelligible words into it. Samuel Sanders leaned into his piano and stroked the strings gently, producing ripples, then waves of sound that hovered in the air. Cellist David Finckel made his instrument squeak in eerie, birdlike harmonics.
The voices of whales have become part of our musical experience. Peter Schickele incorporated the recorded sound in the accompaniment to a whaling song recorded by Judy Collins; Alan Hovhaness used it as part of an orchestral composition. Crumb, in his neoimpressionistic music, goes a step further, feigning the natural sound with human players and traditional instruments used in nontraditional ways. The effect was strangely impressive in this performance.
In a slightly smaller auditorium, the evening's performances of Mozart's intensely emotional Quintet in G Minor and Beethoven's third "Razumovsky" Quartet might have been even more impressive. The Emerson Quartet (superbly aided by violist Walter Trampler in the Mozart) gave exquisitely phrased readings that would have had stronger impact in a more intimate hall. The program opened delightfully with clarinetist Gervase de Peyer's interpretation of the slight but melodious Seven Variations, Op. 33, by Weber, played (rightly) very much in the style of bel canto opera.