Chamber Cartel: George Crumb

This evening’s concert by Chamber Cartel was at the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta next to Candler Park. It is a neat little space that loves to eat sound. Worn pine floors, decorative panels in the ceiling, and beadboard half-walls greedily gobble up any passing tone like a child…um…greedily gobbling…things. That’s not to say that you can’t have a nice, intimate chamber concert there, but it’s best to program with the limitations of the venue in mind. Another problem facing this concert was the unfortunate presence of a child who was not ready to be a good audience member and who tended to be noisiest during the quietest parts of the works. With that said, Chamber Cartel did manage to produce a very engaging, if not quite excellent, concert of works by George Crumb there.

The concert opened with Crumb’s “Idyll for the Misbegotten” for amplified flute and three percussionists. The positioning of the musicians for this piece has the flautist with a principal percussionist on a large bass drum at the front of the audience and two percussionists, one on each side, flanking the rear of the audience. The piece itself evokes a sense of not belonging — being a misfit in a rather unpleasant way. The program notes state that Crumb was inspired by the manner in which humankind has found itself increasingly alienated from the natural world and I think that he manages to express this very well with the work. Although there was nothing wrong with the performance of this piece, per se, the sound was just a bit wrong and I found myself being disengaged from the piece every now and then. The amplified flute sounded a bit raw, more likely due to some combination of the mic, sound system, and/or the dampening effect of the venue than due to Sherer’s command of her instrument. As the rear percussionists came in, they felt a bit more out there and out of sync than I would have wanted due to the fact that the sounds produced by their various instruments didn’t really ring out and mix together in the room the way that they might in a different venue. I’d say that the essence of the piece survived the shortcomings of the production well enough, but I’d hope that anyone who was introduced to Crumb through this piece would try to find the opportunity to hear it again under better conditions.

The second piece fared the venue even worse. “Dream Sequence” is scored for piano, cello, percussion, and glass harmonica. The glass harmonica is supposed to be off stage and quiet to the point that you can barely hear it. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to have been a good place to put it aside from behind a screen on the raised stage behind the other musicians. From this vantage point, the stemware overpowered the rest of the ensemble, essentially creating a completely different piece of music. This didn’t ruin it, per se — I actually enjoyed the performance — but I really don’t think that we can say that Crumb’s intentions were realized. You could still make out the other instruments, to be sure, and the bowed cymbals and piano — prepared with paper over some of the midrange strings to produce an interesting buzzing sound — did evoke a sense of dreaminess, just not quite the dream that Crumb composed. The sound of the cello, though, came across very weakly. A lot of that was because of its positioning: the ensemble was positioned to the left of the audience and the cellist was in the standard position in relation to the flautist and the pianist. This resulted in the f-holes pointing directly at the sound gobbling wall instead of the two thirds of the audience that was not sitting on the far left. I think that this problem could have been alleviated somewhat by having the cellist and flautist swap positions. When an ensemble performs in alternative venues a lot, it’s good for the artistic director to channel Stokowski in the way that he gave a lot of thought to musician positioning and his willingness to play around with it until he found how to produce the best sound under various circumstances.

The final piece of the evening, “Vox Balaenae,” was also the strongest of this concert. This piece is scored for piano, cello, and flute to be played by musicians in half-masks under blue lights. The piece, and its performance, lived up to the name by evoking whale song deep within the ocean. I’ve never been fond of the timbre of human voices speaking or singing into flutes, and this pieces opens with quite a bit of that, but once I got past this, it was really enjoyable. Again, the sound of the cello was a bit lost, but an audience member could get a good idea of what the piece should sound like and very easily get lost in it.

Even if this wasn’t the best concert that Herron and his gang have put together, it really wasn’t bad. If any of these pieces were to find their way onto the ensemble’s future programs in more appropriate venues then I’d be happy to hear them play them again with the exact same performers. In an ideal world, better funding and venues would be open to the kind of eclectic and experimental classical music that Chamber Cartel plays. Even if we don’t live in that ideal world, it’s great to have ensembles like Chamber Cartel to take risks and do what they can to bring new worlds of music to our ears.

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