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The Uncle of Us All

I smoked my first joint to the Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper, and my second to George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. The year was 1970 or thereabouts, and I was already pushing 50; I had been slow to ripen. These two works -- the Beatles‘ urgency to inject their exuberant art into every cranny of the hearer’s head; the small, still notes of Crumb, spread like star trails through vast and uncharted space -- defined their time and still do, as Beethoven‘s ”Eroica“ and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring define theirs.

George Crumb was in town late last month for three Philharmonic events -- two concerts and a Sunday-morning Q&A with more music -- to celebrate his 70th birthday (which had actually occurred last October). His onetime pupil Steven Stucky, who is now the Philharmonic‘s new-music adviser, surely had a hand in arranging the event. The crowds -- gratifyingly, surprisingly large -- seemed to include old codgers with memories contemporary with mine, and a fair number of younger codgers as well. I say ”surprisingly“ only because Crumb hasn’t produced much new music in the last few years and might have receded somewhat into the shadows. But the Kronos Quartet had performed Black Angels -- their iconic work -- here not long ago, and Dawn Upshaw had sung Ancient Voices; and so people remembered.

He‘s a phenomenon, this beaming figure in the tattered cardigan with the easygoing West Virginia twang, looking more like a favorite uncle just in from puttering in the barn than the sophisticated innovator who names Bartok, Ligeti, the poetry of Garcia Lorca and the ”singing“ of humpback whales among his inspirations. One of his big new pieces, the 1994 Quest for guitar and small ensemble (performed at the last of the Crumb concerts), weaves fragments of ”Amazing Grace“ into a texture that is otherwise wondrously, typically Crumb: the iridescences and delightful divergences that often hover at the edge of silence. Even more recent, and on a different scale altogether, is the precious little Mundus Canis, for a junk-instruments percussionist (Crumb himself at these concerts and on disc) and solo guitar, a set of portraits of Crumb family dogs past and present (four dachshunds and a bichon frise).

No composer I can think of, not even Webern, has been as adept as Crumb in devising ways of decorating silence. The ensemble for Ancient Voices includes a toy piano and a set of tuned stones; one movement of Music for a Summer Evening starts off with a contrapuntal exercise for two dime-store slide whistles. He has no qualms, however, about visiting the other end of the spectrum. One truly mighty piece, Star Child, enlists a huge orchestra requiring four conductors, with the strings seated away from the others for antiphonal effects, a speaking men’s chorus, a singing children‘s chorus and a soprano soloist, all delivering a ferocious trope that blends the ”Dies Irae“ chant into a retelling of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The four players of Black Angels -- amplified string quartet plus a battery of gadgets to bang on -- whip up an even greater racket, in tune with the sense of this 1970 work as an abrasive personal condemnation of the Vietnam War.

In the 40 years since formulating his stylistic decisions, Crumb’s musical language has remained remarkably consistent; he does not, in his words, ”see the need some composers have to redefine oneself with every new piece.“ Even so, there were no blatant repeats on the Philharmonic programs, with pianists Vicki Ray and Lorna Eder on hand to create an enchanted Summer Evening, and visiting guitaristproducer David Starobin for Quest and the doggy pieces. (His company, Bridge Records, has just released those two works plus Star Child.) The Philharmonic‘s Barry Socher led three colleagues in a Black Angels properly terrifying. Neither Ancient Voices nor any of Crumb’s other vocal works were included, but the miraculous Nonesuch version of the former work (plus Summer Evening) remains: music I regard as essential -- an evaluation I would also extend to its composer.

Somewhere between expectation and actuality, some marzipan apparently got sprinkled over Anne-Sophie Mutter‘s Royce Hall recital program, and ended up with sweetness but not the expected light. Mutter, a violinist of sovereign skill and taste, has earned high praise from critics in New York and elsewhere on her current American tour for service to contemporary music. She has, indeed, inspired a number of important composers to create for her over the years, with results as close at hand as your nearest record store. Her Royce program two weeks ago was to include one of these, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Metamorphosen. It did not, however; the sunny-tempered but depressingly bland D-major Sonata of Prokofiev, simmered down from the flute-and-piano original, took its place, prettily played but so what? Before that had come an even worse case of simmering-down, the Suite Italienne that violinist Samuel Dushkin had fashioned for his own, not-quite-first-rate talents out of Stravinsky‘s Pulcinella. Arvo Part’s ubiquitous Fratres began things, its mysterious surface barely touched in the excessive gleam from Mutter and her colleague, the usually trustworthy Lambert Orkis. That left Shostakovich‘s Second Trio to provide the evening’s substance, with Orkis and the promising young cellist Daniel Muller-Schott, but with Mutter performing standing up and thus betraying the chamber-music balance musically, visually and psychologically.

Downtown at the Colburn School‘s Zipper Concert Hall -- and have I told you what a fine small room this has turned out to be? -- there was music-making last week more modest than the above, and in many ways more rewarding: the first of three programs by the violinist Margaret Batjer and the pianist Jeffrey Kahane, surveying Beethoven’s 10 violin-piano sonatas. (The others: March 15, 30.) Even by itself this first program constituted a survey: the very young Beethoven in his Opus 12, grinding out music bouncy but predictable; the master fully arrived in the Opus 47 ”Kreutzer,“ dazzling -- perhaps even terrorizing -- players and listeners with music of wild turns and mood changes. There was no high-salaried virtuosity here, but a sense of dedication to the music‘s own kinds of adventure. Kahane leads the L.A. Chamber Orchestra; Batjer is the current concertmaster. Together -- as well as separately, on other occasions -- they spell out some of the reasons this crack little orchestra is in such splendid shape.

Obiter Dictum: Rigoletto also happened, not once but twice; more next week. If you must have advance word on the L.A. Opera’s version, it‘s this: Go, but take along something to read.


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