The Australian National Academy of Music continues to be an exciting home for concerts of rarely heard works as both students and audiences are challenged to explore one composer in depth in a four-concert festival like this one. Not only do we get to hear the finest young Australian musicians as they develop their careers in music, concerts are finely directed, curated and technically produced, many staff and students are there in the audience supporting performers and being most welcoming to the public, and performances always come with perfectly detailed and educational program notes.
ANAM Artistic Director Paavali Jumppanen introduced each concert, sharing his enthusiasm for George Crumb’s music. He curated four programs of colourful and most influential works by this exciting and eccentric composer, who “effected a gentle revolution of sorts in the classical sphere and opened a door to the avant-garde for a public who would never have gone there”.
Over three days, four programs presented an important, influential work by Crumb, with selections by composers who studied under him, were important to him, or who shared his quest for innovation. The first program – “Dreaming a Sound” – opened with Quiet Art by Jennifer Higdon, a student of Crumb, followed by pieces by Golijov and Fagurland, and closing with Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. The second evening – “Eternal Secrets” – offered a grand program including Varèse’s Octandre, Virgil Thompson’s Sonata da Chiesa, Schubert’s String Quartet No 14 (Death and the Maiden), and Crumb’s epic electric string quartet, Black Angels, subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”.
Two concerts on Saturday afternoon brought a very keen audience to the Rosina Auditorium, where the sight of two concert grand pianos and a larger than usual bank of percussion signalled excitement. Program 3 – “A Playful Afternoon” – opened with Play 111 (1908) by Finnish composer Jaakko Kuusisto, an energetic work at times exploring instrumental fun with glissandos and scurrying movement contrasting with misty, mysterious sustained textures. Highly structured themes developed into brief syncopated rhythmic gymnastics, agitated interjections were all tight and passionately played before dissolving into freely rising non-pitched rising glissandos. Wennakoski’s work Suka (2009) took inspiration from Finland’s epic poem Kalevala, presenting colorful stratas in dark depths of sound on bassoon and bass clarinet, with unpredictable speckled shapes and exciting jumps, slides, and imitative mechanical sounds from woodwind and horn. Vocal effects, hissing, whispered and spoken words in the Finnish language added a unique and altered instrumental language.
Cellist Joshua Jones gave an impressive illustration of Crumb’s early work Sonata for Solo Cello (1955) bringing a vibrant and expressive tone to the dramatic and assertive statements that punctuated broad sections of strummed strings and free dance-like rhythms. Stravinsky’s Ragtime (1918) calls for 11 instruments including wind, horn, strings and percussion, and the rarely seen cimbalom, a modified type of Hungarian dulcimer. This was a chance to add more spunk and quirkiness to the rapid rhythmic changes and spiky punctuations in Crumb’s inventive design, but was performed with straight ahead flow and some modest smoothness around the edges. The performers did enjoy “moving to the music”. Crumb’s awareness of the superb harmonies and fine melody of Round Midnight by the great pianist Thelonius Monk influenced the programming of a reflective and spacious setting for the piano, double bass, and trumpet trio. Monk’s theme was gently broken and re-imagined, piano improvisation and silvery high clusters and pedalled overtones added tonal nuances, and Nicholas Corkeron’s trumpet completed an imaginative setting of a classic jazz ballad.
Completing this concert with musical nods to Gershwin, Debussy, R. Strauss and Monk was Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (2001), with a two piano setting (Ronan Apcar and Matthew Garvie) that ended in a gentle pianissimo.
Concert 4 – “Music For a Summer Evening” – brought us the works, reflecting Crumb’s thoughts on the cosmos, the environment, the rhythms of nature and the timeless elements from the music of other cultures. Copland’s Quiet City (1939) for chamber orchestra first brought us seductive strings with intimate solos from cor anglais and a lonely trumpet in a fluid and mesmerising haunting work, well-liked by this audience. Australia’s Ross Edwards’ five-movement work Laikan showed unusual scoring, each movement orchestrated differently, and instruments never playing all at once. Evocative wind and percussion sounds added earthy and raw environmental vitality, xylophone and flute paired in happy syncopation, with the opening solo piano movement creating fragmentary challenging patterns and low evocative fading shades. Jan Bach’s work Laudes (1971) for brass quintet gave us elements of cracking fanfares, tuba solos, galloping contrapuntal action, solemn hymnal chords and a scherzo where muted brass scurried and circled delightfully.
Crumb’s Music For a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos 111) (1974) with grand pianos, prepared with paper in the strings, use of slide whistles blowing air into piano keys, and a treasure chest of Oriental and orchestral percussion for four players was a most vibrant cosmic Crumb conclusion. Known for his visual representations, also on display was a chart of Crumb’s graphic music notation, a spiral galaxy, signed by the composer, truly bringing his spirit into ANAM’s festival.
Julie McErlain reviewed Concerts 3 and 4 of “The Innovative Spirit of George Crumb”, presented as part of the ANAM Chamber Music Festival by the Australian National Academy of Music at the Rosina Auditorium, Abbotsford Convent on November 23 – 25, 2023.