Resounding Crumbs; Ruggles on CD

by Sedgwick Clark

We hear entirely too little of George Crumb’s music in New York. On 4/19 Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra stepped into the breach with crackerjack performances of the American composer’s early Variazioni (1959, but not premiered until 1965) and Star-Child (1977), played with power and sonority, especially by Crumb’s beloved array of exotic percussion. In between came Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II), Crumb’s 1968 Pulitzer Prize winner and a Botstein favorite.

The first piece—a partly 12-tone work that reveals his student infatuation with Berg’s Lyric Suite and Violin Concerto and Bartók’s MUSPAC, among others, along with clear evidence of the Crumb to come—deserves frequent hearing, as does the more fancifully astronomical Star-Child. The sheer size and virtuosity of the latter’s forces obviously mitigates against performance, but Botstein and the expanded ASO—“including soprano, solo trombone, children’s choir, a male speaking choir that also plays hand-bells, organ, and enlarged sections that include six horns, seven trumpets, and eight percussionists,” writes annotator Robert Carl—were up to Crumb’s demands in the resounding acoustic of Carnegie.

Echoes of Time and the River was more problematic. Crumb requires members of the orchestra to march across the stage and down into the parquet aisles in a precisely executed processional, all the while chanting and, at the end, whistling. In the program booklet, Botstein recalls his undergrad days as assistant conductor and concertmaster of the University of Chicago orchestra in 1967 and observing a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony premiere of the piece in which the players refused to do the processionals. When Seiji Ozawa led the Boston Symphony in Echoes at Carnegie in February 1976, the players looked mortified. I don’t recall how the BSO audience reacted, but the ASO’s audience laughed. Perhaps some preparatory words from the podium before the downbeat might have helped, but the players lacked any semblance of ritualistic evocativeness in either pace or expression (the women stomped resoundingly across the stage in hard heels). Perhaps a screening of the Shangri-la scenes of Lost Horizon might have provided behavioral insight. But at least the “Procession Coordinator” should have insisted on rubber-soled shoes. As for the musical performance, Echoes required a more sensitive hand than Botstein’s presentational manner.

Shaham in New Jersey

Gil Shaham playing the Berg Violin Concerto and a thoughtful program capped off by one of my favorite Prokofiev symphonies, the Third, enticed me to Newark’s NJPAC on 4/27. New Jersey Symphony’s music director, Jacques Lacombe, puts together interesting repertoire, and the orchestra is a fine one. They will be playing works by Varèse, Weill, and Busoni next week, 5/9, at Carnegie’s Spring for Music. Don’t miss it.

Shaham’s performance of the Berg concerto, unlike those of most virtuoso violinists, actually honored the composer’s muted dynamic scheme. This is a very quiet piece—almost chamber music—and Lacombe was with him all the way. At times one wished for a larger body of strings (playing quietly, of course) to support the pianissimos, but the orchestra’s level of artistry was evident throughout. Shaham also played the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s Kaddish for Violin and Orchestra, a lovely, affecting expansion for strings and harp of a sextet he composed after his father’s death in 1977. It deserves wide performance.

Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (1929) uses themes from his opera The Fiery Angel. It’s loud, dissonant, aggressive, and the New Jersey performance was too well behaved and underpowered for the optimum effect I’ve heard in concert from Philadelphia/Muti and Chailly with the New York Philharmonic and Concertgebouw. Still, there were many beauties to enjoy in the quiet second movement and serpentine third.

All of Ruggles on CD at Last!

Hard on the heels of Michael Tilson Thomas’s American Mavericks tour with the San Francisco Symphony, MTT’s long unavailable recording of the complete works of Carl Ruggles is on CD at last. American music devotees have the new-music organization Other Minds ( to thank for stepping in gloriously where Sony Classical had feared to tread.

I remember Columbia’s mid-seventies press conference to announce its new recording contract with Tilson Thomas. With irrepressible enthusiasm, he announced that his initial projects would be complete cycles of Ruggles and the French composer Pérotin (12th c.-13th c.), whose music has influenced minimalism. Nothing came of the latter, but the Ruggles project was recorded between 1975 and 1978 and released in 1980 to rave reviews. The orchestral works were played by the Buffalo Philharmonic, of which MTT was music director (1971-79) and getting impressive results in concert and on record. Such artists as soprano Judith Blegen, trumpeter Gerard Schwarz, Speculum Musicae, the Gregg Smith Singers, and pianist John Kirkpatrick, a friend and champion of both Ruggles and Ives, were enlisted for the chamber works. It was a class act and is unlikely to be duplicated.

Other Minds has prepared a model reissue. Most importantly, the master source material of original producer Steven Epstein’s recordings frees us at last from listening to the abominably pressed CBS LPs. The handsomely designed CD booklet, adorned with Thomas Hart Benton’s portrait of Ruggles composing at the piano, reprints the LP notes by Tilson Thomas and Kirkpatrick and adds a 1946 essay about Ruggles by Lou Harrison.

No one interested in American music should hesitate to buy this CD set.

Looking forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

5/3 Metropolitan Opera, 6 p.m. Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Fabio Luisi (cond.). Katarina Dalayman, soprano; Wendy Bryn Harmer, soprano; Karen Cargill, mezzo; Jay Hunter Morris, tenor; Iain Paterson, bass-baritone; Eric Owens, bass-baritone; Hans-Peter König, bass.

5/7 Carnegie Hall, 7:30. “Spring for Music.” Houston Symphony/Hans Graf. Shostakovich: Anti-Formalist Rayok; Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”).

5/9 Carnegie Hall, 7:30. “Spring for Music.” New Jersey Symphony/Jacques Lacombe; Hila Plitmann, soprano; Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Varèse: Nocturnal. Weill: Symphony No. 1 (“Berliner Symphony”). Busoni: Piano Concerto.

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