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I’d like to apologise for a fundamental error in my review of the Crumb Total Immersion day. I mistakenly referred to the composer as George Crumb throughout. George Crumb is, of course, the famous cartoonist. The composer’s name is Robert Crumb, as correctly identified by BBC Radio 3.
It’s good to see Radio 3 diligently pursuing its remit to “inform and educate the audience about music and culture”, although when you try to follow the BBC’s own link to its Radio 3 website it in fact takes to you BBC Three, a television station dedicated to programmes like Bashing Booze Birds and Britain’s Most Embarrassing Pets.
There seems to be a webmonkey at the Beeb who gets easily confused over names.
George Crumb turned eighty in October, and so was dragged across the Atlantic for the BBC to make a fuss of him for one day of the year. Actually, he probably came willingly, as the night concluded with what must be a rare concert of his orchestral music. He seemed pretty cheerful, seated up in the stalls doing that Rat Pack style double-pointing to the performers at the end of each piece.
I wrote a bit about Crumb’s music earlier in the year after hearing the Nash Ensemble perform it at the Proms:
Crumb’s music really needs to be heard live to appreciate it, not only for the theatrical elements of its performance, or for the spatial placement of sounds (more than once the musicians had to relocate from the stage to one of the balconies to achieve an elusive, distant quality to their sound), but for the subtlety and complexity of the sounds he specifies.
The Proms gig included Claire Booth singing Ancient Voices of Children, also played here by the Guildhall ensemble, with the soprano Anna Patalong (and a real, live boy this time), in between Joanna MacGregor playing the piano works A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 and Volume 1 of Makrokosmos.
The last time I heard Makrokosmos it was part of an ill-judged mix of music and visuals by Michael Kieran Harvey. Witnessing it performed again reminded me the extent to which Crumb’s music seems to be held together almost by the sheer force of his personality, and how dependent it is on musicians to hold the greater purpose of its disparate elements in focus. MacGregor’s performance was much less theatrical (or histrionic) than Harvey’s, but found and sustained the drama in the music.
The evening gig was a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Crumb’s orchestral music – in fact the only three mature orchestral works he has written – culminating in the massive Star-Child. Pure logistical difficulties aside, it seems clear why Crumb tends to keep his music on a more intimate scale. The often episodic nature of his music can be difficult for such a large group of musicians to follow without losing momentum.
The 1967 piece Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II) is a processional of varying sounds and textures produced by small, discrete groups within the orchestra, to the extent of moving some of the percussionists and brass players on, off, and across the stage in various configurations. In effect, Crumb was attempting to work with the orchestra to his usual scale, while taking advantage of the wider pallette of available sounds. The slow choreography of the musician’s movements added a theatrical, ritualistic aspect that was only slightly more awkward in reality than it doubtless was in the imagination.
A Haunted Landscape (1984) must be more successful in combining all the distinctive facets of Crumb’s music into a seamless whole, because I always remember it as being more conventional than it really is. On the other hand, Star-Child (1977) works hard to present a semblance of cohesiveness between its seven continuous sections. The piece is often referred to as Ivesian, and amongst the many parallels you could make out were the cosmic scope of the music, and its seemingly rough-hewn structure.
The entire 35 or so minutes is suspended from a repeated “music of the spheres” played by the string section throughout, oblivious to all the other goings-on; they form a separate orchestra, with their own conductor. The remaining sections of the orchestra, plus a truckload of extra percussion, half-a-dozen brass players in the balcony, a male speaking choir armed with handbells, and two children’s choirs, require between one and three conductors between them to keep everything together, depending on the music’s complexity. Oh, and there’s a Vox Clamans In Deserto recited antiphonally between a soprano and a trombonist.
Star-Child boldly reaches for profundity with its Latin texts and massed voices and bells, and for once Crumb uses the full force of the orchestra for emphatic, dramatic power. It’s an anomaly in Crumb’s canon, the way he uses brute force and awe to move his audience here, particularly in the apocalyptic middle sections. Thankfully his musical allusions never get too overt or too literary, but the piece is really left to stand or fall on the message Crumb wishes it to convey. The performance itself couldn’t be faulted, but in experiencing it I felt like I was witnessing an attempt to make manifest a grand vision best realised in the imagination, brought to life as best as one can.
I have to admit I’m not crazy about the music of Iancu Dumitrescu, Horaţiu Rădulescu, or any of the other Romanian spectralist composers (and I’m sure someone will berate me for lumping those two names together in the same movement). It all has a general tendency towards the shrill and self-important. But a lot of people think it’s Very Important and love it very much, and who am I to doubt them? The week of Spectrum XXI concerts brought together local musicians, the Hyperion Ensemble from Romania and the Talea Ensemble from New York, all extremely capable musicians. That’s part of what makes the amateurism of the whole enterprise almost endearing.
Some of the amateurism was pardonable. The first thing you saw when approaching a Spectrum XXI concert was a bunch of musicians huddled around a rental van with Romanian plates smoking like chimneys (Ana-Maria Avram borrowed my friend’s lighter, and never gave it back). Then there was the trombonist at the final concert, taking snapshots of the audience with his digital camera after the show. And between each piece. And during the music, when he didn’t have anything to do.
Other aspects were less so: the first ten minutes of the first concert was spent messing around with the lighting. Trying to set an appropriate mood, Dumitrescu and a couple of other musicians eventually managed to turn out all the lights in the hall, before turning them all on again, one by one. The fears raised by the large number of world premieres announced in the programme were largely founded. Across the concert series it seemed that the strongest pieces were usually the oldest ones. Works like Dumitrescu’s percussion trio Multiples (VII) from 1972 displayed a unique and innovative approach to sonority, compositional method and structure. Many, but not all, of the new pieces sounded like little more than undifferentiated dabbling with a particular instrumental effect, with a focus on timbre at the expense of all other considerations.
These weaknesses were most obvious in Dumitrescu’s world premiere Sound Sculpture (II) for solo piano. Prefaced with a short talk by Avram explaining how difficult the piece is to play, it sounded uncannily like the fabled Three Discontinuous Movements by Rose Bob, as performed at its world premiere by Madame Berthe Trépat (Gold Medal, Grenoble): a long, tedious series of unconnected chords and clusters separated by elaborate pedalling gambits to filter the piano’s resonant overtones.
The notorious false starts were present and correct. The ensemble would begin, only to be halted by an aggrieved Dumitrescu a minute later, then try again. This behaviour wasn’t limited to his own music. His disrupted Avram’s world premiere of Telesma VII for percussion and electronics because he wasn’t happy with the sound mix, and wasted several minutes of everyone’s time futzing around with the faders, producing various distorted noises until he was satisfied.
The world premiere of Dumitrescu’s Infinity (II) for bass clarinet and ensemble lasted right up to the entrance of the bass clarinet itself, whereupon Dumitrescu broke off from conducting to engage clarinettist Tim Hodgkinson in a brief but vehement argument on stage, before storming out past the audience announcing that the performance was cancelled. The expression on the ring-in cellist’s face was priceless. A little while later Dumitrescu returned, then excused himself again to pace the courtyard for a few minutes more, finally coming back inside to conduct the next item on the programme.
At one point between pieces he gave an impassioned speech to the audience about the importance of creating new forms of expression, and that despite their limited funding he and his fellow musicians were forging the music of the future. This is the most pernicious aspect of Dumitrescu’s amateurism: the confusion of isolation with supremacy. Judging from the music and the attitude on display, his increasing exposure to the world has only entrenched his insularity within a growing circle of acolytes. Such insularity leaves an artist vulnerable to their greatest weaknesses, to which Dumitrescu is evidently succumbing and which he must address, unless he is content to remain nothing more than the figurehead of his own cult.