CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston-born composer George Crumb has forged an inimitable personal style over his long career. His music is fragmentary and lean, subtly shaded but highly colorful.He established himself as one of the dominant forces in the music world with a slew of significant works in the 1960s and 1970s. His "Ancient Voices of Children," inspired by the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, had both critical acclaim and tremendous popular success. His "Voice of the Whale," a trio for flute, cello and piano, is arguably one of the greatest compositions of the 20th century.In the last 10 years he has turned to American themes, creating a series of settings of folk songs called "American Songbooks." Sunday afternoon, Orchestra 2001 brought his "Voices from the Heartland (American Songbook VII)" (2010) to the University of Charleston in a scintillating concert for the Charleston Chamber Music Society.The piece featured soprano Ann Crumb, the composer's daughter, and baritone Patrick Mason along with pianist Marcantonio Barone and percussionists William Kerrigan, David Nelson, Brenda Weckerly and Greg Giannascoli. James Freeman conducted.
The nine pieces opened with the revivalist hymn, "Softly and Tenderly." Ann Crumb's singing slipped gracefully between song and whispers braced by a spooky backdrop of gongs, vibraphone, chimes and piano with a bit of musical saw."Ghost Dance (Pawnee Tribal Chant)" had hammered rhythms from bass drums, tom-toms, and marimba. Mason sang with strength and rhythmic bite."Lord Let Me Fly" was scherzo-like with its driving rhythms and interplay of vibraphones, xylophone, marimba and piano. The singers often echoed phrases, sung words to spoken.Crumb has often spoken of the echoing acoustic of the Kanawha River Valley and how that has inspired his music. The interlude, "The Kanawha River at Dusk," reflected that with Ann Crumb's whispered, wordless vocals and the quiet rustlings of percussion instruments (including a bass drum played by rubbing it with the thumb).
"Glory to the New-Born King (A Christmas Spiritual)" supported Ann Crumb's soprano voice with swirling orchestrations: piano and tabla drums crossing with xylophone and vibraphone with a dash of Tibetan prayer stones.The sixth piece, "The War of the Sexes," is a setting of two songs running at the same time -- "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens" for soprano and "On Top of Old Smoky" for baritone. Each is in its own key and the keys are a half-step apart (on piano play a black-note key and the adjacent white-note key at the same time). The refreshing result, a contrapuntal texture, is something that the composer almost never uses."Beulah Land" braced Ann Crumb's singing with atmospheric autoharp-like strums inside the piano. "Old Blue" let Mason weave the light-hearted melody through shifting percussion sounds before the song turned Old-Yeller at the end (the dog dies).The finale, "Song of the Earth," had striking motifs, taut construction and gorgeous sounds including chime bars and cowbells lowered into a bucket of water to bend their pitches.Freeman conducted with efficiency and the ensemble played brilliantly.The concert began with Ann Crumb and pianist Barone performing the composer's "Sun and Shadow (Spanish Songbook II)" (2009), five songs on poems of Garcia Lorca. George Crumb setting whole poems of Garcia Lorca comes as a surprise to those used to the fragments that inspired his early music. Ann Crumb sang with simple directness and warmth (and humor in the buzzing "Fly"). Barone played the richly varied piano part with great insight, abundant color and understated virtuosity.