The Music of George Crumb

January 15, UBC Recital Hall

This performance was in honour of George Crumb's belated 70th birthday, which was back in October. The man himself was there. Crumb is the last surviving Great American Composer; no one of his stature is left on this side of the Atlantic. His work is part of the canon cited by avant-garde leaders and mainstream classical music lovers alike.

What sets his music apart from that of other well-known American composers is its immediacy: no political or academic point of departure jumps out at the listener. Most New World composers, such as the New York School surrounding Cage, have a more cosmopolitan-sounding output. Crumb trained in Berlin in 1954-55 and his interests are certainly global, but the result aches of his native West Virginia. Only Ives did as much to consolidate an American sound.

Crumb's sound is delicate and affects the body long before the listener is aware of any beat. The music's rhythm is a sort of implied, unheard current. There is a calm alertness that comes with it.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten started off the show, featuring program notes that included Chinese poets, French saints, and other factions of influence. Crumb's staggering plurality is only matched by his easygoing manner; he speaks and writes music with simple surfaces, concealing a vast pool of resources.

Written in 1985 for four players, Idyll was a good example of the master's peculiar craft, with the flute and percussion provided brief utterances which would typically be answered in an instrumental dialogue. Instead, the calls themselves became a current, which the audience felt when the music's motion ceased. The composer-sitting nearby-was happy.

Following this was his more recent Quest, conducted by James Freeman. The performance was bumpier than the last piece because the players were under-rehearsed, but it was still great. Quest poked gentle fun at the rigors of avant-garde music from the 1950s, specifically Boulez' Le marteau sans maître, while quoting Amazing Grace.

No matter how many references Crumb takes on he only ever sounds like himself. Hats off to Salvador Ferreras, whose percussion playing was the glue of both performances. For the second half of the concert Robert Silverman performed Crumb's first volume of Makrokosmos for solo piano. This 1972 collection of 12 pieces reflected the signs of the zodiac.

Again, the program notes were bursting with fascinating associations, including the last 150 years of piano music, Rilke, Pascal, and the nature of enigma. Silverman took some of the tempos a bit slower than this critic would have liked, but the articulation was always meticulous and heartfelt. Crumb enjoyed his playing. The crowd got their money's worth. Those who were not in attendance can look forward to an upcoming airing of this concert on CBC Radio 2. --John Keillor