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George Crumb: Unplugged & Connected


The Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project

Tuesday, February 11, 2002


by Margie Romero


The Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project makes a pretty incendiary statement about its concert scheduled for The Andy Warhol Museum theater: "An unforgettable sonic experience awaits you in a surrealistic battle between God and the Black Angels - the soul's fall from grace through spiritual hell and back!"


What 20th Century composer can deliver music fantastic and incongruous enough to live up to this promise? The answer is George Crumb-- widely known in musical circles for more than three decades as an agent provocateur.


The two works by Crumb on the evening's program are Black Angels and Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello. According to Richard Page, Director of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project, Black Angels will be performed by a quartet, which includes viola, two violins and a cello. The solo cello sonata will be done by Aron Zelkowicz, a young musician who sometimes works with the Pittsburgh Symphony where his father, Isaias Zelkowicz, is

Associate Principal Viola.


This connection with the Pittsburgh Symphony extends to Page, who is a bass clarinetist with the orchestra, as well as a members of the quartet. Rarely, however, do they have the opportunity to tackle a work as out there as Crumb's.


"Normally we play acoustic instruments," Page explains. "But for Black Angels, which is a piece for electrified instruments, each string player will have a contact microphone. The microphones will run to four separate amplifiers. "For us to be hooked up like this is unnatural," he says with a laugh.


The sounds produced by the electrified instruments are also likely to be somewhat unnatural. "The compositorial language that Crumb chose is noise-related, atonal and dissonant with rare moments of sonority," Page says.


In addition to the string instruments, three of the four musicians will have water goblets on tables next to them. While it might appear the glasses are there in case of thirst, Crumb fans will know they are, in fact, part of the show. Tuned by filling each glass to a precise level to create a different pitch, the goblets will be "played" at various points in the 25-minute piece. One technique to get a frequency from a water-filled vessels is to run fingers around the rim. The musicians will also use their bows to achieve louder and longer tones. And don't be surprised when gongs, rattles and other percussion instruments suddenly appear.


"To a large extent we're out of our element with this," Page admits. On the other hand, he describes the brief cello sonata as a gorgeous work, beautifully tonal and melodic. He also promises a surprise bon-bon for the encore.


"We try to offer a diverse mix of classical, traditional, baroque and contemporary," Page says of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project. Crumb was chosen for this winter program because his work will take both the musicians and the audience into new territory. And while Page admits that some people will hate Black Angels, Crumb is a widely accepted and lauded composer who has been making records since 1967 and has written more than 50 pieces.


Some of these compositions include Ancient Voices of Children for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, amplified piano, toy piano and percussion; Gethsemane for small orchestra; and Star Child for soprano, antiphonal children's voices, male speaking choir, bell ringers and large orchestra - which actually won a Grammy Award in 2000 for Best Contemporary Composition.


Now in his 70's and retired, Crumb has had a long and successful career as both a composer and teacher. He has taught theory and analysis at Hollins College, piano and composition at the University of Colorado, was composer-in-residence at State University of New York in Buffalo, and Annenberg Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for Echoes of Time and the River, and numerous other awards including a Prince Pierre de Monaco Gold Medal, a Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, and six honorary degrees.


Page believes that performing this program, which is being called George Crumb: Unplugged & Connected, is perfect for The Andy Warhol Museum. "The Warhol has a reputation for being avant-garde, and Crumb has been on the  cutting edge for many decades," he says.


The Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project is sponsored by Howard Heinz Endowments.  The series media sponsor is WQED FM.


Off the Wall

The popular performance series, Off the Wall, at The Andy Warhol Museum begins the 2003 with events in January and February:


Menopausal Gentleman, by Peggy Shaw

Friday, January 18


First up, Shaw comes to town with the production that won her an Obie Award in 1999. Developed with Rebecca Taichman, Menopausal Gentleman had European and American tours, a successful Off-Broadway run, and very positive media attention.


In Menopausal Gentleman, Shaw describes her experiences as a lesbian going through the change of life. Although now a grandmother in her mid-50s, Shaw's usual attire of sharp pinstripe suit and tie makes her look more like a man just reaching middle age. While Shaw's sartorial choice allows her to present herself to the world in the way she's most comfortable, her clothing and attitude could not prevent the raging hormones every woman must deal with as she enters menopause. One of the traditional symptoms of "the change" is insomnia, and in her solo piece Shaw lets us in on what goes through her mind in the wee hours she endures alone.


The San Francisco Bay Guardian describes Shaw as, "A riveting performer with extraordinary comic timing." In Menopausal Gentleman she talks about dancing in the dark with flashlights up her sleeves and lip-synching to Screamin' Jay Hawkin's version of "I Put a Spell on You." She also uses a personalized rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" to discuss her own approach to living in the world.


"They say a lot of women get like men in menopause cause they grow a beard and get dried out," Shaw tells the audience. "I guess that's their definition of man: A hairy, dried-up woman." According to the Boston Globe, "You don't have to be going through the change, contemplating the change, or even physically capable of the change to appreciate what Shaw is going through on the bare stage."


This ability of Shaw's to reach an audience is long established. An actor, playwright and producer, she founded the lesbian theatre company Split Britches in 1980 with Lois Weaver and Deb Margolin. She also received Obie Awards for her performance in Dress Suits to Hire, a collaboration with Holly Hughes, and Belle Reprieve, a collaboration with the London-based theatre company BlooLips.


Shelf Life

by Big Art Group  

Friday, February 8; Saturday, February 9


A more recent addition to the performance scene is Big Art Group, founded in 1998 by Caden Manson. Made up of young actors, filmmakers, designers and visual artists from all over the United States, Big Art Group will bring its piece Shelf Life to the Warhol for two shows. A combination of video projection and performance, Big Art Group calls its work "real-time film."


Shelf Life features a quartet of young people: James, Wendy, Max and Frankie. In the story, the female Frankie becomes the object of desire of the other three characters. Emoting jealousy, rage and betrayal, the actors work in front of stationary cameras that project their actions onto a screen. Watching the screen the audience sees a movie; watching the performers the audience sees the making of the movie. The Dance Insider magazine described the troupe's approach as, "A loud, reeling example of pop culture eating itself. The work delivers the instant gratification of the contemporary and the commercial?"

Now in its third season, the Off the Wall series is a collaboration between The Andy Warhol Museum and New York's P.S. 122, a national pioneer in presenting performance art. All shows begin at 8 p.m. and are followed by meet-the-artist receptions. Tickets are $15; $10 for students. The series media sponsor is City Paper.




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