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George Crumb

Night of the Four Moons

Vox balaenae (Voice of the Whale)

Ancient Voices of Children


Claire Booth – soprano

Amy Haworth – soprano

Hilary Summers – mezzo-soprano

Nash Ensemble/ Diego Masson


Prom 66 Royal Albert Hall – 4 September 2009 (Late Night Prom)


The Late Night Proms take place at a time which is more usual for jazz or rock fans. This gives the events a kind of ‘staying out late’ alternative feel, as if normal rules of programming and formality no longer apply. These two exploited this unconventionality to the full. 


George Crumb (now in his eighties) was at his most productive in the 1960s and 1970s when in response to various events of the time he exploited new sounds and textures in traditional chamber music contexts. He made extensive use of extended techniques and at the time, little known percussion instruments. Performers of Crumb’s music are asked to be part of a collective, to take on numerous roles and give life to never before heard sound worlds. The Nash Emsemble rose to these challanges with the ease of vast experience.


Crumb has often been described as a deeply spiritual composer though his work is not linked to questions of religion but more to our realtionship with the natural world and the nature and meaning of our existence within it. He explores sparse textures with haunting melody and seeks to give the listener a fully rounded ‘experience’ – this is not music which one can interact with on the radio in the same way as live. He uses lighting, the players move around the stage and the visual execution of the extended techniques that Crumb calls for is almost as important as the sounds made.


The Royal Albert Hall proved a fitting venue for such experiences. The first piece ‘Night of the Four Moons’ was written in response to the moon landings and used text by Federico García Lorca, whom Crumb has referred to continuously during his career. Hilary Summers was haunting in this piece as she moved seamlessly among her roles as singer, narrator and percussionist. The spheres in the roof of the Royal Albert Hall were lit with an eerie blue which put one in mind of the vast universe beyond the realms of our experience. Many promenaders saw fit to lie on the floor and contemplate the heavens – certainly not the prom experience you might expect. One by one, the players leave the stage leaving a cellist alone, while the rest of the ensemble (mezzo-soprano, alto flute, banjo and vibraphone) perform the ‘Musica Humana’ (music of mankind) offstage which ‘emerges and fades like a distant radio signal’.


Vox balaenae was written in 1971 for electic flute, electric cello and amplified piano. The performers wear black masks and are bathed in blue light. The piece was written shortly after recordings of whale song became available for the first time. The three movements of the piece form a journey through time: Vocalise (...for the beginning of time), Variatons on Sea-Time and Sea- Nocturne (... for the end of time).  Again it is sparsely beautiful and thought provoking. Crumb’s music is such that it imerses you in another world which thankfully has plenty of room in it for your own thoughts and emotional responses. It is not dictatorial but contemplative. It provides no answers but gently suggests the questions. Flautist Philippa Davies was particularly impressive here.


The concert finished with Ancient Voices of Children for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, electic piano and percussion, to texts by Lorca. In the opening song we meet a little boy who was looking for his voice. This is followed by the musings of an adult who muses on the nature of childhood and the miracle of new life before the bleak truth of ‘Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes, se muere un nino’ (‘Each afternoon in Granada, a child dies each afternoon’). The final movement is a duet for soprano and boy soprano (here sung by Amy Howarth), where the adult decides to travel to ask Christ the Lord to ‘give me back my ancient sould of a child’. It is these final words that gave Crumb the creative impulse for this piece and it is indeed this movement which is most affecting. Crumb’s is a musical language of sparse simplicity – every sound is distinct and refined. We are given plenty of space to hear and understand even violent outbursts and complex virtuosic passages. Claire Booth was beautiful to watch and to hear as she moved around the stage as the score requires. She began by singing into the strings of the piano, then joining the rest of the emsemble, even at one stage addressing us through a huge megaphone, all the while wielding the giant score of the piece. She made such complexity seem straightforward and imediately accessible. Crumb suggests that this work can be staged in which case, the emsemble would be joined on stage by a dancer. However, the work is so poignantly constructed that the movements of both singers (the boy soprano begins offstage and joins the soprano singing into the piano in the last movement) somehow already offer us a visual drama which narrates the music.


The evening finished to rapturous applause. Only Ancient Voices of Children has been heard at the proms before (a 1976 late prom in Camden’s Roundhouse).  Music like this is no longer "contemporary" (most of tonight’s works are around 40 years old) but offers us a bridge between classical and newest music. The Nash Ensemble proved that this stunningly beautiful music can sit comfortably alongside the more accepted classics.




Silk Road Suite

The Taranta Project

Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain

Ambush from Ten Sides


Giovani Sollima, Angel Lam, The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma


Prom 75 Royal Albert Hall – 11 September 2009 (Late Night Prom)


Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble offered an altogether different kind of musical evening for the last of this year’s Late Night Proms. The Silk Road Ensemble was formed to celebrate the connections between different peoples of the world both at work and at play. It aims to explore and fuse the music of different cultures proving indubitably that music transcends nationalities and brings people together. And bring people together it certainly did. This concert was extremely well attended by people of many different demographics. The whole evening had a kind of party atmosphere. Ma describes the Silk Road Project as a collective of friends who come together to explore the connections between us and our interdependence – and last night we were all invited to join the celebration.


The Silk Road Ensemble is made up of about 60 musicians who perform all over the world in many different permutations. They use ethnic instruments from eastern and western cultures as well as classical string instruments. There is a heavy emphasis on percussion and indeed it was the three percussionists that gave us some of the most thrilling moments of the evening. Last night we heard fourteen of the collective’s members which also includes composers, storytellers and all sorts of facilitators.


The concert began with the Silk Road Suite – a piece which perfectly encapsulates the mission statement of the emsemble. It has five movements all composed by differend people. There was a largely imporvisational feel and the experience put one more in mind of a jazz concert where each instrument had its moment to shine. After a haunting improvisational duet for two different flutes (one Chinese, one Japanese) we were plunged into the largely rhythmically driven sound world of the Silk Road Ensemble. This is an arena where the players pulsed physically with the beat and the audience were brought to life by the primal rhythms. These rhythms could be Arabic, Chinese, Indian or Western in origin but the ensemble of many nationalities and backgrounds (from Chinese pop music to classical by way of meditative Buddists) united around these instinctive sounds.


This was followed by The Taranta Project by Giovanni Sollima, scored for classical string quartet and percussion. It draws on Sollima’s experience as a natice Sicilian influenced by rock, jazz, classical and native Mediterranean musics from his Arabic neighbours. Again the work was rhythmically charged with a movement for solo body percussionist which the audience particularly enjoyed as well as a movement for solo cello and percussion which gave the audience the Yo-Yo Ma solo they were begging for.


We then heard Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain by Angel Lam, which explores the meaning of memory; of events which only make sense in retrospect. Lam grew up in Honk Kong and LA and scores this piece for cello, violin, double bass, shkuhachi and percussion – another illustration of the global principle which defines the Silk Road Project.


The last piece, Ambush from Ten Sides, a traditional pipa (short-necked Chinese lute) piece arranged by members of the group, recalls an ancient battle of 202BC which between two dynasties for control of what is now China. This is a rousing battle cry featuring horses neighing and the cries of the players which were joined by the audience at one point proving that the unique energy of the Silk Road Ensemble allows people to express themselves in a new and profound way.


The pace of the evening was electric with Ma pushing for impossibly fast tempi which his team of virtuosos attacked with relished. This extreme energy was juxtaposed with the stark beauty of ethnically influenced melodies and drone influenced textures. Above all, the players seemed to relish their own abilities and the skill of those around them. It was a joy to watch such masters at play.

Daire Halpin


(Available on BBC iplayer until the 19th of September http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/events/Proms/b00mj6rc/