Notes from the underground

Sometimes it feels as though every week is a new adventure in this column. I’m like a street hustler with nothing to sell but with lots of gimmicks to get people to buy, or maybe like Bill Veeck, the one-time owner of the Chicago White Sox who introduced ballpark giveaways and exploding scoreboards, and who notoriously sent midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate (he drew a walk and was thereafter barred from baseball). In any event, I’m not reviewing a CD this week, deciding instead to cover the Group for Twentieth Century Music Concert. So there.

Before I begin, I feel that I must report an episode of vandalism that has occurred in the music building. Someone apparently was so enamored of Richard Giarusso’s ’99 lovely visage in the advertisement for the upcoming Berkshire Symphony Orchestra concert that they tore down the part of the poster which contained his photograph. If you have any information which could help discover who is responsible for this tragedy, please let me know as soon as possible. Any act which harms Richard (especially before his performance) will be met with brutal, unsophisticated retaliation.

This weekend’s Group for Twentieth Century Music Concert raised a number of questions that had nothing to do with the music itself. The entire ensemble, with the exception of percussionist Scott Stacey, was comprised of faculty from Skidmore College. In what sense, then, was this a “Williams College Group for Twentieth Century Music” concert? Equally puzzling was the programming of Alban Berg’s “Seven Early Songs,” written in a style which only vaguely departed from German Romanticism. Finally, why was the concert so short? Including setup time, the program lasted only an hour, which means that they didn’t even top the super-short Independent Music Project shows.

Those questions aside, the group did an admirable job of presenting George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children,” one of his most famous works and a true masterpiece. A setting of poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca, “Ancient Voices of Children” uses extended techniques, a wide variety of instruments (crowding the Brooks-Rogers stage) and a combination of unrelated musical styles to evoke a mystical and haunting world.

Once one has heard this work, it is difficult to imagine Garcia Lorca’s poetry without Crumb’s setting. The soprano carries the piece, singing the bulk of the text, though a boy soprano (sung here by an eighth-grade girl) sings at times and the entire ensemble contributes shouts and whispers. The soprano is asked to create an amazing variety of sounds even beyond the extended vocal demands of the text setting.

The piece opens with a giant vocalise sung by the soprano into the piano. This sets up, after the piece has all but concluded, the most striking moment in the composition, where the child singer comes in from offstage and participates in a duet with her “mother,” following the words “and I will go very far / farther than those hills / farther than the seas / close to the stars / to ask Christ the Lord / to give me back / my ancient soul of a child.”

It was extremely exciting to hear “Ancient Voices of Children” live; much of the work deals with extremely nuanced timbral effects that are somewhat lost in a recording. On the other hand, Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall was not the right space for this performance. The hall barely had enough room for all of the instruments, and they were therefore spaced quite awkwardly around the stage. The audience was also too close to the stage, resulting in a lack of blend among the instruments. As Andrea Mazzariello ’00 puts it, there was a sense of individual instruments playing around you, rather than a unified sound. Such an effect is desirable to a certain extent, but this performance overstepped that line.

I mentioned that the soprano carries Crumb’s piece, and though Anne Turner did a decent job, it would have been nice to see a more theatrical performance. Turner seemed more at home in the Crumb, however, than she did in the Berg songs, where her tone was too consistent and uninteresting throughout the seven songs. These pieces are not good enough to warrant a performance in such a short concert (where they are magnified in importance), but Turner’s interpretation nevertheless left something to be desired.

All in all, this concert was enjoyable but disappointing. It’s rare to hear a live performance of “Ancient Voices of Children,” and though a more lively performance would have been nice, the players did an admirable job of capturing the unique sound-world that Crumb creates. The Berg was interesting to hear, if only because it gives us confidence that a great composer can start off his or her career by writing bland, backwards-looking music. Which is what I’m going to go do right now….

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