Conveying messages of Nazi Germany, moon landing

Posted: April 17, 2013

Having performed John Cage's supremely spare (and deeply economical) 4'33" of silence earlier this season, Orchestra 2001 was living particularly large in its contribution to the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts with a 40-member group performing Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).

The time-travel-themed PIFA landmarks for Saturday's program at Church of the Holy Trinity were the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the 1969 Apollo moon landing, commemorated by George Crumb's Night of the Four Moons. Crumb is a natural choice, given Swarthmore-based 2001's longtime association with the Media composer.

With Gorecki, what does 2001's ensemble (much of it drawn from the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia) have to offer that more traditional orchestras do not? Subtle but important things.

When Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra a dozen or so years ago, he seemed to hear it through the contrapuntal lens of Paul Hindemith (among others). Under the direction of James Freeman, Gorecki stood apart from his antecedents, more on his own terms, with clearer roots in church chant and folk song, giving the piece an otherness that cosmopolitan performances miss.

Details took on greater meaning: In the trudging, rocking rhythms of the final movement, a single note from the piano felt like a ray of hope. A key modulation suddenly turned the trudging into a less-burdened gait.

The vocally dominated movements took the color of their soprano. And in contrast to the emotional dignity of Dawn Upshaw (and the powerful understatement of conductor David Zinman) on the famous, best-selling recording of the Gorecki, Tamara Matthews was a less-filtered, more emotionally vibrant presence. If Upshaw was a voice from above that left you cleansed, Matthews was a stranded survivor. The impact of Polish genocide felt more immediate.

Night of the Four Moons dates from Crumb's Garcia Lorca period, with four moon-oriented poems, though with Asian outer garments. Western instruments (such as banjo) sound like eastern ones. Rhythms are familiar from Kabuki, scales are circumscribed amid an atmosphere of expansive spareness that, at times, had a single electric cello note held at great length while four performers exited the performing area and then played the coda from a distance. The piece's musical progression comes from recurring gestures played with different sounds.

The music's hypnotic qualities were definitely aided by the church acoustic, while the composer's daughter, mezzo-soprano Ann Crumb, gave extra luster to the unorthodox vocal techniques the piece calls for. In light of the 83-year-old composer's recent work, you had to be fascinated by the brinksmanship he demonstrated in this 1969 piece by getting so much out of few notes. His lifetime represents one of the great creative journeys of any artist in our time. And it's not over. What a privilege to witness it.


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

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