It was difficult not to hear the better part of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society’s 3rd May concert as prelude. Not just because it was a well-crafted program, following an implicit logic from Debussy to Stravinsky through Charles Ives and ending in George Crumb’s somber Ancient Voices of Children. The program, of course, had been set long before Crumb’s death in February, but the sentiment was in the air. Wu Han, co-artistic director of the concert series, noted Crumb’s absence from the audience in her comments before the concert and the evening was documented for posterity. 

Ian David Rosenbaum, Ayano Kataoka and Daniel Druckman
© Cherylynn Tsushima

But even if seen as a prelude, what a prelude it was. The program began with the exceptional soprano Tony Arnold singing three Debussy songs, ably accompanied by pianist Juho Pohjonen. The ease with which she moved through glissando and into vibrato seemed superhuman and the unbridled joy she brought to Fantoches (from the first book of Fêtes Galantes) on top of that was fairly astounding. 

Pohjonen was then joined at the piano by Gloria Chien for the four-hand reduction of The Rite of Spring, an arrangement played in its debut performance (for a group of fortunate friends) by Debussy and Stravinsky. Pohjonen and Chien gave it a spirited reading, swarming at times like insects at dusk with a wonderful blur between their hands. The slow introduction to Part Two was almost unbearable after the controlled fury that had just blown by. The escalation into The Glorification of the Chosen One brought anxious apprehension worthy of a suspense movie. In many ways, in in the right hands, the piano version can seem bigger than the full orchestra. 

Perhaps in part due to context, the four Ives songs felt out of place. Arnold brought laughs with Ann Street and she and Gilbert Kalish found resonance in The Housatonic at Stockbridge, but the short set felt a bit much like show tunes in such company. 

Gilbert Kalish and Tony Arnold
© Cherylynn Tsushima

Ancient Voices of Children was presented under dimmed lights, with a small cluster of instruments on stage. Written in response to the Vietnam War, the piece is as much of a nightmare as Crumb’s more famous war lament, Black Angels, but here for the loss of children and so all the more wrenching. Arnold sang alone at the outset, bent over the piano case. The strength of her voice was on display for these 30 minutes in a very different way, and stunningly so. The suggestion of Vietnamese lute on harp (played beautifully by Bridget Kibbey) and the sliding of metal across piano set the scene as Arnold (later singing through a cardboard megaphone) and 13-year-old soprano Joshua Randall – singing offstage until the end, as per the score – created an uneasy fantasia. 

The piece is, at times, so quiet that it’s hard to comprehend on record, and was made only so much easier on the stage. Disembodied voices (did the musicians also sing?) and mysterious sounds lent to the general haze of disorientation the work evokes. The bewilderment was kept to the audience, however. Crumb’s composition has counts that would surely befit a conductor, but the ensemble executed it with precision based solely on one another’s cues (often coming from Kalish, who also played the 1970 premiere). Just as the evening could not have been planned in anticipation of Crumb’s passing, so could it not have been conceived in expectation of the bloodshed in Ukraine. And like Crumb’s, the voices of lost children were heard in the room.