NEW YORK — The first-ever photographs of a black hole captivated the world last week, but longtime followers of 89-year-old Philadelphia composer George Crumb can’t help feeling they’ve already been there and heard that. This was especially so after nearly three hours of Crumb-conceived sound played on Sunday at Alice Tully Hall by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Crumb’s 1971 Voice of the Whale felt particularly fantastical with the stage bathed in ocean-blue light and three musicians wearing masks. The piece’s intriguing sounds, refracted through high-tech amplification, seemed like something from an extremely distant world. Or one that is yet to exist.
The authoritative lineup of musicians for the concert of the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s old and new works, billed as the “George Crumb at 90” retrospective, ranged from 83-year-old pianist Gilbert Kalish (who has played important Crumb premieres) to violinist Kristin Lee, known to Philadelphia audiences from Astral Artists concerts.
And Crumb himself was there. Though he doesn’t get out of his home in Media the way he once did, he was stationed in a box overlooking the stage, visible to all and happily waving to the long standing ovation that followed the premiere of his newest piece, KRONOS-KRYPTOS for percussion quintet.
Crumb’s lack of typical orchestral works — he has written only a handful — keeps him off mainstream orchestra programs. (His longtime champion, Orchestra 2001 during its decades under James Freeman, was a collective that shape-shifted according to what any given piece needed. ) But that absence might not last forever.
“I would love to do an orchestral work,” Crumb said on Monday. “A long time ago, the New York Philharmonic commissioned a piece from me. But I wasn’t thinking orchestrally in those years, and I told them I would send back the money.
"They said, ‘If you think you might do it later, let it stand.’ So I really do owe the Philharmonic a piece. It could be a vocal work for orchestra and male and female voices, like the Mahler piece Song of the Earth. I hope I have the strength to do that.”
The Sunday concert encompassed a 70-year span of Crumb’s work, starting with a trio of songs for voice and piano that he wrote at age 18. As sung by soprano Tony Arnold with Kalish on piano, they showed his youthful promise but hardly hinted at the extraterrestrial sounds of his American Songbook III: Unto the Hills for soprano, amplified piano, and four percussionists.
That 2002 cycle transplants songs we’ve all known, from “Black Is the Color” to “All the Pretty Little Horses," into a world of explosive musical land mines. But by downplaying the drama, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performance revealed pervasive Asian influences, echoing Balinese gamelan and Kabuki percussion.
As much as this and other Crumb pieces have dazzling, post-impressionistic flourishes of color, the dark side of his music is in danger of being forgotten. Arnold lacked the on-the-edge apprehensiveness that Crumb’s daughter, Broadway actress Ann Crumb (Aspects of Love, The Goodbye Girl), brought to early performances of the piece.
Luckily, the Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) maintained all its incisive strangeness on Sunday. The flutist is asked to literally sing through the flute, and Tara Helen O’Connor gave it flashes of existential sorrow.
Cello solos by Mihai Marica were soulful but also searing. Crumb’s customary lineup of exotic instruments — plus conventional ones played in unconventional ways — reveal the composer’s singular genius only when heard beyond the surface.
That darker side is central to Crumb’s music, which often seems to evoke quietly haunted landscapes and post-apocalyptic scorched earth, in contrast to the composer’s genial exterior. “Maybe it’s something that’s just built into my brain,” he said Monday. The apocalypse itself seemed to be evoked in the new KRONOS-KRYPTOS piece, whose third movement has four bass drums going full tilt at the same time.
Added to that was exclamatory shouting from the players — similar to his 1977 piece Star Child — that felt militaristic and angry. The roar lapsed into eerie silence in the final movement, in which instrumentalists seemed to be playing their instruments but were not. Nothing could be heard.
Sound eventually emerged. An elemental groan was heard. Isolated, unrelated sounds suggested scraps of civilization still pulsating, as though not knowing the end had come.
And then? The folk song “I am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” sung from the back of the percussion battery, with huge existential implications. Then silence set in again. The quintet seemed to be playing their instruments but were not.
It’s best not to ask Crumb why he does what he does. A deeply intuitive composer, he sometimes writes in different colors of ink and normally horizontal staff lines might instead form a circle.
He is currently finishing his Metamorphoses Book II, a followup to the 2017 keyboard work inspired by masterpiece paintings. It’s tentatively planned for a premiere closer to his Oct. 24 birthday by Philadelphia pianist Marcantonio Barone in a concert at the University of Pennsylvania (where Crumb taught for more than 30 years).