San Diego Story
Ken Herman
August 4, 2019

Sunday afternoon’s SummerFest concert at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center featured George Crumb’s rarely performed 1971 “Vox Balaenae” (“Voice of the Whale”) for amplified flute, cello and piano, and Maurice Ravel’s “Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé,” an equally obscure cycle of esoteric poetry for soprano and large chamber ensemble.

For Crumb’s austerely beautiful 30-minute aquatic tone poem “Vox Balaenae,” the composer adapted actual whale songs for the flutist and cellist to elaborate, creating mysterious serpentine themes accompanied by explosive piano clusters or eerily dampened glissandos plucked from the piano’s interior. SumerFest followed all of Crumb’s performance instructions: a darkened room restricted to only blue light over the performers; face masks for the performers, and projections of large sea animals slowly swimming in murky water projected on a screen behind the musicians. Such trendy 1970’s-era special effects might cause reflexive eye-rolling from some readers, but I will attest that the staging helped focus Crumb’s highly abstract structures.

San Diego Symphony Principal Flute Rose Lombardo adroitly took the lead in this piece; she was also required to simultaneously sing and play the flute much of the time to more closely simulate the whale sounds. Alisa Weilerstein handled the complex cello part with expected finesse, and she occasionally struck a few small bright bells when not bowing. Conrad Tao nimbly executed both the keyboard flashes and the interior manipulation of the piano’s strings.