The elements of George Crumb's "American Songbook" series have arrived in such quick succession in recent years that a return to them at Orchestra 2001's Crumb@85 celebration Sunday at the Curtis Institute's Gould Hall revealed few shocks but a more cultivated sense of poetic meaning.
The sixth songbook, Voices From the Morning of the Earth (2007), occupied the program with performers who have long lived with this music: his daughter Ann Crumb, baritone Randall Scarlata, Marcantonio Barone on piano, and a five-member ensemble playing something like 150 percussion instruments - under the direction of retiring founder James Freeman.
As in past collections, Crumb recontextualized songs that have achieved folk-music status, but this time he reached further in all directions - into African American patois with "O Peter, Go Ring-a dem Bells" and, more toward the present, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" - all heard with highly personal layers of Japanese and gamelan-influenced sound. Melodies sometimes anchored the centrifugal forces of sound around them, or could seem like ship wreckage amid ocean waves.
I didn't connect with everything; the aforementioned "O Peter" and "Goodbye Old Paint" didn't compute, though the rest made penetrating impressions. Most radically, "When the Saints Go Marching In" arrived in a brutal sound environment, suggesting saints fighting their way out of hell.
The fact that the songs tend to have a nightmarish cast was explained by the ever-genial composer, in a preconcert lecture, as something partly arising from the natural tendencies of his musical language. "My Lord, What a Beautiful Morning," for one, seized upon the apocalyptic implications of the line "When the stars begin to fall."
Some of the more Asian-accented pieces made the simple lyrics seem like haiku, such as "Weep, All Ye Little Rains." The repeated lines of "Blowin' in the Wind" acquired an incantatory quality. Gamelan influences in "Put My Little Shoes Away" offered a dreamy quality conveying the resignation of the dying child portrayed in the song. Some songs had operatic contours: The two singers in Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" seemed to trade worlds, one of them chanting from the great beyond, until the end, when both whisper a ghostly "When will they ever learn?"
Performances were exemplary: Ann Crumb (whose career is mainly in musical theater) projected great detail through a closely positioned microphone, while Scarlata gave more of an art-song performance with a more distantly placed microphone. Instrumentalists revealed the composer's incredibly precise ear for sound. As large as the percussion battery was, every sound (and there were lots of them) felt like an imperative part of the piece.