Para América Mágica, Symphony Space, NY

The concert at Symphony Space on Thursday – tough, smart, enterprising, uncompromising and occasionally exasperating – celebrated the ageing of the avant-garde. The programme was dedicated to music by George Crumb (born 1929) and Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), two progressive intellectuals whose time has come, and maybe gone.

In a day when modern music tends to be dominated by minimalist slush or neo-romantic mush, Crumb and Ginastera still sound stubbornly, fascinatingly, rewardingly
forbidding. No artificial sweetening allowed, or wanted.

It is worth noting, no doubt, that the audience for yesterday’s firebrands seems to be shrinking. The grey-haired crowd at the Upper West Side auditorium hardly filled the 756 available seats. But the attentive senior citizens whooped and hollered just like the kids at Nixon in China. It was nice, also a bit surreal.

The festivities began with Crumb’s Night Music I (1963), a tingly-splashy essay in otherworldly imagery predicated on texts of Lorca. Lucy Shelton, prima donna assoluta of bel-canto Sprechgesang, was the dauntless high-wire soloist, appreciatively seconded by Cory Bracken and Frederick Trumpy, percussionists, and the redoubtable Ursula Oppens plucking keyboards. This was followed by Crumb’s beguiling if gimmicky Voice of the Whale (1971), an abstract, meticulously crafted, roughly amplified ode to humpback pointillism. Meghan Shanley (flute), Caitlin Bailey (cello) and Ivan Tan (piano) played it sensitively. They also looked silly wearing the half-masks prescribed by the composer to suggest “nature dehumanised”.

After the interval, David Leisner romped with masterly glee through the wild-gaucho convolutions of Ginastera’s Guitar Sonata (1981). Finally, Shelton and a clutch of rhythmically delirious timpanists led by James Baker took the stage for Ginastera’s rarely performed Cantata para América Mágica (1960).

A mad jumble of pre-Columbian poetry, serial exploration, primitive bravado and expressionist expansion, it asks the soprano soloist to deliver savage coloratura, piercing battle-cries, stratospheric flights and subterranean gasps, all in the name of passionate drama.

Although Shelton could not make the impossible sound easy,
she did make it sound possible. That was enough.

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