Orchestra 2001 performs stunning Crumb, mysterious Tan

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Orchestra 2001’s concert last night, consisting of local premieres of works by Tan Dun and George Crumb, was entitled “Boom!” “Creak!” may have been more appropriate. Or, best of all, no onomatopoeia at all, because the sheer variety of sounds defied any single definition.

The highlight of the concert was the Philadelphia premiere of Crumb’s “The Winds of Destiny,” a collection of American folk song settings and the fourth and final installment of Crumb’s “American Songbook” series (all of which were premiered by Orchestra 2001). The songs themselves were sung with straightforward, beautiful simplicity by soprano Barbara Ann Martin, while a percussion quartet and amplified piano surrounded the songs with Crumb’s trademark wild palette of sound.

Sometimes the instruments illustrated the songs, as in the vivid chimes of “Go Tell it On the Mountain”; sometimes they gave them sinister new overtones. The most memorable example of this was the clashing and cataclysmic booms of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which implode into a wrecked soundscape with an ironic coda. In the quieter numbers, such as “Shenandoah”, the ensemble provided a shimmering, ever-shifting backdrop.

During intermission, the audience was treated to a short but highly entertaining conversation with Crumb, the evening’s conductor, pianist Margaret Leng Tan, and James Freeman (the orchestra’s artistic director). On Crumb’s penchant for strange sounds, Freeman said “Every time we hear a strange sound on the street, we say ‘Don’t let George hear it! He’ll write for it!'” The inspiration for the opening of “The Winds of Destiny”, an Australian thunderstick, was revealed. Crumb first heard the instrument watching the classic movie of Australia, “Crocodile Dundee”.

Chinese composer Tan Dun’s more austere compositional style was the focus of the program’s first half. Though the ensemble for both pieces included more traditional instruments, Tan demanded highly unconventional techniques, such as pitchless squeaking from the woodwinds and vocal yelps from all the musicians. The first piece, Concerto for Pizzicato Piano and Ten Instruments, was written in memory of the iconoclastic composer John Cage and is centered around the notes C, A, G, and E. The performance featured the virtuosic Margaret Leng Tan. Though she occasionally used the piano’s keys, most of the piece was performed by reaching inside the piano’s body and plucking or strumming its strings. Unfortunately, the musician’s strange seating configuration (many of the string players were facing away from the audience) robbed the piece’s climaxes of some of their power.

The second piece, “Circle with Four Trios, Conductor and Audience” also featured a strange seating plan. The trios were scattered throughout the concert hall, and the audience was invited to vocalize at some moments. Stylistically, this piece was even more austere than the first. Tan’s style generally favors utterly original instrumental textures and doodles over large-scale continuity and melody, though the pieces’ outlines may become clearer after more hearings. The audience participation element kept the concertgoers alert for their cue, but the actual action also broke the “fourth wall” in a highly unusual way that may have distracted from pure listening.

The concert, attended by a larger than usual number of Swarthmore students, was warmly received. Orchestra 2001’s next concert here will be on November 13, and will feature four world or premieres by well known composers Jennifer Higdon, Kaija Saariaho, and Aaron Jay Kernis.

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