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At 87, avant-garde Philly composer George Crumb pushes new boundaries

The edgy Philly master premiered a new piano cycle Sunday at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., based on great paintings. The piece had his characteristic alternative sound world, and the haunted landscapes that accompany it, plus good old-fashioned virtuosity.

WASHINGTON — It's a big week for music about paintings. In Philadelphia, Dirk Brossé and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia have been readying Brosse's Pictures at an Exhibition for this weekend's premiere. And at Washington's National Gallery of Art last Sunday, veteran Philadelphia composer George Crumb listened from the audience to the premiere of his Metamorphoses Book I, a cycle of piano works based on his favorite paintings.

Crumb's work crossed new boundaries. Performed for the Washington audience by keyboardist Margaret Leng Tan, Metamorphoses showed that the 87-year-old composer — long retired from the University of Pennsylvania and now living quietly in Media — still has the power to drive some listeners to premature exits. But mostly, his work had audience members too entranced to leave the East Building Auditorium when it was over. Even after extended clapping, they lingered.

Fresh from a hip replacement, Crumb didn't try to take onstage bows but waved gamely from his seat, able to get to his feet with the help of a cane. "Thank you for writing such a wonderful, wonderful piece," exclaimed pianist Tan, who had outdone herself in the performance. And if you weren't weeping by then … .

Metamorphoses (whose subtitle, Book I, suggests there are others to follow) is Crumb's first major cycle of piano works since 1973's Makrokosmos and is unusually rich in the way Crumb joins the alternative sound world of the earlier work — achieved by plucking, brushing, and palming the piano's inside strings — with traditional 19th-century virtuosity.

Written from 2015 to 2017, the cycle has 10 shortish sections, each based on an individual painting, some extremely famous, such as Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory and Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows, and others less so, such as Paul Klee's The Goldfish. The paintings were projected on the wall in back of Tan, but any audiovisual relationship was secondary to Crumb's purely musical allure.

Though Makrokosmos can be haikulike works that imply more than they say, Metamorphoses veered toward self-contained miniature epics built on the tension and resolution between unorthodox sounds (sometimes from toy piano and vocal exclamations from Tan) and the kind of repeating thematic sequences that are the cornerstone of more classically inclined composers.

Dali's melting watches inspired any number of shadow effects: Ideas seconded each other sounding more like stalking ghosts than echoes, followed by vivid contrasts and whistling vocalizations.

Gauguin's Contes Barbares, a Tahitian painting with a disturbing masked figure hovering on the side, had imposing chords that could have come from Liszt's Totentanz with vocalizations in a language I did not recognize. Chagall's Clowns at Night had Tan donning clown makeup — I hope that's optional — but also creating a distinctive world with wood blocks and a toy piano that played a true melody (not something one can expect in Crumb) whose lyricism bordered on gorgeous.

Whistler's super-misty Southampton Water had Tan gently running her hands on the piano's inside strings with its final chord seeming to resonate into eternity. Jasper Johns' Perilous Night prompted a collage of elements — unusual in this piece, since collages offer neither resolution nor tension — with the most wildly atonal writing of the entire cycle.

Most frankly descriptive was Van Gogh's Wheatfield, with a larger wash of sound hailing from Crumb's "haunted landscape" mode and sporadically aggressive interjections suggesting that the artist's crows were ancestors of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Talks are afoot to bring the program to Philadelphia, where audiences have followed Crumb particularly closely, thanks to Orchestra 2001. I do hope that Tan maintains the rest of Sunday's program, which led up to Crumb with works by John Cage and Henry Cowell that also used the piano in quiet, alternative ways, often with Asian influences that forgo any need for traditional beginnings, middles, and ends.