New York-based Nunc was founded by star violinist Miranda Cuckson.
Classical concerts don't often honor living composers, but the UW-Madison School of Music will pay tribute to George Crumb, a cutting-edge composer who is still writing music at age 85.
On March 20-23, guest artists, faculty members and students will present a series of concerts featuring Crumb's compositions to celebrate his significant contributions. Works by Laura Schwendinger, Sebastian Currier, Augusta Read Thomas and many other composers influenced by Crumb will be part of the festivities, in addition to master classes.
Susan Cook, professor of musicology and director of the School of Music, says Crumb's music expanded the very notion of the concert: "He was enormously important from the 1970s on for providing a musical alternative that offered distinctive sound colors, set the surrealist poetry of [Federico García] Lorca to music and provided audiences with accessible programmatic and evocative titles."
Laura Schwendinger, professor of composition and faculty sponsor for the festival, says she can't imagine contemporary American music without Crumb. "His music is beautiful, evocative, cutting edge, with a mesmerizing sound world," she says.
Creating new sound worlds is hard work, and in a phone interview from his home in Pennsylvania, Crumb told Isthmus that composing hasn't gotten any easier. "But when musicians enjoy performing my music, it makes the pain and agony worthwhile," he says.
The festival begins with a concert from the Chicago-based new music group, Lakeshore Rush, performing Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale). Flutist Erin Murphy and clarinetist Laura McLaughlin, both UW-Madison alums, co-founded the group in 2014. In Vox Balaenae the flutist sings while she plays, the pianist plays the strings as well as the keys, and the cellist plays glissandos to replicate the sounds of sea life.
"When the New York ensemble commissioned the piece, they sent me an underwater recording of a humpback whale and asked if I could do something with it," says Crumb. "I didn't use the recording in the composition, but it was a starting point. I found the sounds through instrumental choices and extensions."
In accordance with Crumb's performance notes, the players will also wear masks. Murphy says the notes indicate that: "Each of the three players should wear a black half-mask throughout the performance of the work. The masks, by effacing a sense of human projection, will symbolize the powerful impersonal forces of nature."
The UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, under the artistic direction of Schwendinger, will present a concert featuring the Pro Arte Quartet's Parry Karp in Crumb's Sonata for Solo Cello (1955), and saxophonist Steve Carmichael in Quest, a larger work from 1994.
The New York-based Nunc was founded by star violinist Miranda Cuckson, hailed by The New York Times as "prodigiously talented." Nunc will perform Eleven Echoes of Autumn, which Crumb says helped define his style. "It was a breakthrough piece for me," he says."It's hard to perform, but when it works, it's very nice."
Another critically acclaimed group, Due East, will perform all four books of Crumb's Madrigals, settings of texts by the Spanish poet and playwright García Lorca. For this multimedia presentation, video will display García Lorca's Spanish text with English translations.
In addition to his groundbreaking music, Crumb is also known for creating beautifully handwritten scores."He is meticulous in his writing and gives copious directions," says Gregory Beyer, a member of Due East. "He takes good care of his performers."
Crumb says he won't be traveling to Wisconsin to attend the concerts, but offers best wishes to the performers: "I'm delighted that they're playing my music."
UW-Madison School of Music George Crumb Festival
Friday, March 20, 8 pm, Music Hall
UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, featuring cellist Parry Karp, with percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion
Saturday, March 21, 7:30 pm, Music Hall
Nunc, featuring Miranda Cuckson
Sunday, March 22, 7:30 pm, Mills Hall
Monday, March 23, 8 pm, Morphy Hall
All events are open to the public, several are free. Tickets available at Wisconsin Union Box Office and at the door. More information at music.wisc.edu/george-crumb.