Performing-arts organizations were already climbing a steep hill in their efforts to broaden their audiences when the pandemic made it steeper. Now as we’re finally starting to gather again for live music, one classical-music presenter, Emerald City Music, now in its seventh season, is renewing its efforts to attract new listeners by providing what artistic director Kristin Lee calls a “Friday date-night vibe,” setting up an atmosphere in which “musicians can engage as much with the audience as with each other.”
To entice novice concertgoers, ECM isn’t falling back on the tried-and-true, under the assumption that a new listener is an unadventurous, easily frightened-off listener. Instead, they’re betting that the tried-and-true could be precisely one of the barriers to sparking interest that classical-music organizations need to overcome. Their March 25 concert (as well as a March 26 concert in Olympia) will be devoted entirely to one composer, and a challenging one at that: American avant-gardist George Crumb (1929-2022).
It’s a surprising choice for two reasons: His music is startling to conservative ears, yet bears little resemblance to the brashly rhythmic post-minimalist language now favored by many younger, trendier composers. In the 1960s and ’70s, Crumb was an oft-discussed figure, his compositions in the forefront of musical experimentalism for his explorations in unorthodox ways of drawing sounds from traditional instruments. (Those out of sympathy with his far-flung sound world — like traditionalist composer Ned Rorem, who once referred to Crumb’s music as “six effects in search of a mind” — objected to what they heard as gimmickry.) But though he had continued to compose, he’d been keeping a lower profile in recent decades.
But if Crumb wasn’t steadily in the spotlight, his music retained a core of fans, especially for the work that will be the centerpiece of ECM’s concert, 1970’s “Black Angels” for amplified string quartet. Prominent among his advocates has always been violinist David Harrington, inspired by “Black Angels” to found the Kronos Quartet (right here in Seattle in 1973), which soon thereafter became America’s premier new-music ensemble.
Lee is also a fervent admirer. Also a violinist, she discovered Crumb’s music as a member of NYC’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, getting to work with the composer when she was asked to play at his 90th-birthday concert. “It was life-changing,” she says. “He was this legendary figure you see in textbooks,” but his undimmed vitality at 90 deeply impressed her as a musical mind devoted to “constant pursuit, constant curiosity, constant adventure.” (Footage from that birthday concert is featured in a brief documentary film, “Vox Hominis” by Zac Nicholson, which will be screened at ECM’s concert.)
I envy anyone new to “Black Angels.” The 20-minute piece retains its power on every encounter, but its sheer dazzling newness, from its unprecedentedly aggressive opening through all its how-do-they-do-that sonic magic, is guaranteed to melt the minds of first-time listeners. The players are asked to do much more than your average string quartet: chant and shout in various languages, take up maracas and gongs, play water-tuned glasses, and trill on their strings with thimble-capped fingers to produce a weirdly melodious clicking. Most unusual is the ethereal whispery effect made when the musicians are asked to bow not below but above their left hands. (Imagine a guitarist reaching across with their right hand to pick the strings up near the tuning pegs.)
On hand to play “Black Angels” is the JACK Quartet, adding the work to their repertory this season. “People are so overwhelmed by the sounds,” says violinist Austin Wulliman, observing that, for him, Crumb’s work has “a profound sadness that is also very humanistic; it’s a piece about the human condition.” This refers to one way in which ECM’s presentation of “Black Angels” has proven unexpectedly timely: It was composed as a reaction to the Vietnam War, to the daily horrors of war that filled the newspapers of 1970 just as they do the newspapers of 2022. Art responding to the brutality of war, as “Black Angels” does grippingly, will probably never not be timely.
And of course the second thing ECM could not have foreseen when they planned this concert is that it would become a memorial — Crumb died on Feb. 6. His work will benefit from ECM’s singular approach to music: presenting it in an intimate venue that will intensify its lapel-grabbing connection to the listener and appreciating that the novel, the iconoclastic, even the shocking can be a draw.
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