Music review: A George Crumb Green Umbrella


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George Crumb has long been America’s celebrated ancient voice of children of all ages. Once the voice of flower children, he set texts by Lorca in 1970 for soprano, boy soprano and the ethereal bent notes of an exotic percussion ensemble, abetted by harp, oboe and musical saw. It proved a quicker, surer, safer magical mystery tour than drugs (although they were then a common helpmate at Crumb concerts anyway).

Last month, Crumb turned 81. Times have changed, but he remains a timeless ancient voice. He has been active the last decade delicately transporting traditional American songs into his uncanny percussion realm, which includes many instruments from the world over and a couple possibly from a galactic supplier.


Tuesday night a Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella Concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall presented “Ancient Voices of Children” and “American Songbook No. 1.” The stage was a percussion playground. The sensitive acoustics of Walt Disney Concert Hall were, this time around, the delivery system for a psychedelic encounter.

Tony Arnold was the convincing, mesmerizing soprano in both song cycles. Jean-Michaël Lavoie, a young French Canadian conductor who is a 2010 Dudamel Conducting Fellow, led the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group with precision, conviction and a tactile electricity. America seems to be rediscovering Crumb, who has just about finished the seventh and final volume of his “American Song Book.” “Ancient Voices” speaks of a time when change seemed possible, when Lorca seemed an appropriate guide for a society seeking innocence through new experiences, especially when Crumb appended Lorca’s poetry to innovative sound-producing techniques.

“The River of Life,” the title of Crumb’s first volume of the “American Song Book,” is devoted to hymns, spirituals and revival tunes. The tunes are ones we know. Crumb will not let us forget our roots, in a precarious world, as a foundation for the future. These “songs of joy and sorrow,” as Crumb describes them, begin with “Shall We Gather at the River?” “Give Me That Old Time Religion” has a stuttering refrain (take that to mean what you will). The last of the nine numbers (one is an instrumental interlude) is “Deep River.”

Unlike “Ancient Voices,” in which the soprano caterwauls into the piano and projects various sorts of extended voice techniques just coming into vogue in 1970, the “American Song Book” asks for more straightforward singing. But that actually becomes a radical request when the voice is surrounded by Asian, African and American gongs, bells, rattles, wooden blocks and drums, along with a bosun’s whistle and amplified piano. This “River of Life,” moreover, employs real water (water-gong, water-crotale, water-bell and water chime).

Crumb is a meticulous composer. The instrumental interlude is notated as a musical staff drawn in a circle with eight more musical staffs protruding as “musical rays.” It’s hard to follow but easy to understand, a thing of numinous visual and aural beauty.

The performance was stunning. Arnold remained restrained. Her voice flowed ethereally in and out of the jingle-jangle percussion jungle. The sounds were always changing and always alluring. Footing for the ear, so to speak, was impossible. Each listener has the opportunity to find his or her own allusions to the music of our roots displaced.


“Ancient Voices” is more adamant and dramatic. It is, in some ways, earth music, as opposed to the water music in the first half of the program. It too has a few musical remembrances –- the oboe covers a bit of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth.”

There is also theater to “Ancient Voices.” The boy soprano is first heard offstage in dialogue with the soprano and at the end joins her on stage. Avery Roberts, a 12 year-old from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, made an assured star turn. Guido Lamell’s musical saw was pure acoustic honey. Joanne Pearce Martin commandeered the piano, gloriously playing inside and out of it. Arnold was magnificent.

Each generation needs, and thank goodness Tuesday got, its ‘Ancient Voices.’

-- Mark Swed