Crumb's music holds its edge at Trinity Center

Posted: January 30, 2012

At age 82, composer George Crumb can consider himself complimented when listeners walk out during a new piece.

Though departures were few during Orchestra 2001's world premiere of Songs From the Heartland at the Trinity Center for Urban Life on Saturday, they still reminded you of how much Crumb's individuality can still seem extraterrestrial to those who don't expect to hear familiar and exotic instruments playing in unorthodox ways.

Like its six predecessors, Heartland transforms folk songs, hymns, and chants not with typical re-harmonization, but by transplanting the tunes - sung, spoken, and whispered by Ann Crumb and Patrick Mason - into an alien sound environment. Often, the extremity of the juxtaposition unleashes levels of meaning long ago lost as the tunes transcended their function and became historic artifacts.

This new collection shows the composer deploying 100 or so percussion instruments, with large forces often used like chamber music in a series of episodes crafted with exquisite precision.

The opening song, "Softly and Tenderly," put the melody in a sort of gravity-free harmonic netherworld that reminded you how much any Christ-like arrival would thrust the world into startling new ground.

Only occasionally did Crumb specifically illustrate the words, such as the distant church-bell effects in "Beulah Land." Most often, tunes felt like islands of man-made organization amid the chaos of the natural world - with the composer declining to judge which side he preferred.

Crumb's inclusion of Native American chants was more poetic than faithful - in contrast to his contemporary, David Amram, who enshrined Native American music in pieces such as Trail of Beauty, written for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Crumb probes for inner meanings, sometimes writing his own melodies to incredibly vivid Navajo words. The end of this Heartland collection had quiet sirens and rattles suggesting an undertone of cicadas that felt earthy and otherworldly.

The rest of the program was no less significant (if less newsy). Pierre Boulez's 1997 Anthemes 2 had the fearless Gloria Justen playing an incredibly intricate violin part - sometimes suggesting explosive, atonal Bach - while her sounds were electronically manipulated and spectacularly ricocheted in surround-sound speakers.

Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen's 2003 Letter From Cathy, a rich musicalization of a letter the composer received from singer Cathy Berberian, showed Ann Crumb (the composer's daughter) in richer voice than I've ever heard. Orchestra 2001's director, James Freeman, indeed assembled a great concert.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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