Although my colleagues may have different concert terrors, for me it has been the many performances we have given over three decades of George Crumb’s Black Angels which have never failed to provide a scare of one sort or another. In fact, the last minute uncertainties have become so reliable that I now feel almost safe in characterizing them as welcome and mostly benign “ghosts.”
Black Angels is a terrific theatrical work for Electric String Quartet that calls for shouting, whispering (counting) in several foreign languages, as well as playing tam tams, crotales, tuned crystal glasses. All this in addition to playing the hotly amplified instruments “upside down” in order to defeat the amplification creating an implausibly effective ghostly impression of “an ancient consort of viols” (playing Franz Schubert’s theme from Death and the Maiden.)
Some highlights from our misadventures with this 13 movement work which carries the postscript, Completed Friday, February 13, 1969 “in tempore belli” include a performance at the Bath Festival in England with the composer present. As we tried to exit the stage after the performance amid tumultuous ovations, the composer himself turned to my colleague Paul and said “what a strange piece!” We recorded that performance for BBC 2 TV and after more than 6 hours of meticulous filming, the producers edited the entire feature into what was not more than 45 seconds in which my own image faded into a wildly resonating 28 inch tam tam – quite spooky!
Our particular difficulties with the piece are more in nature of the “ghost in the machine.” One of our earlier performances in NYC was for the Bang on a Can Festival during which, at the last second, the feed from one of mics dropped out entirely so our then 2nd violinist, Kate played the entire piece un-amplified. Fortunately the overall impression (amplified to the threshold of pain, according to the composer’s instructions) was not overly compromised.
On a more recent occasion in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, we got through the tech rehearsal only to break one of the most critical F sharp glasses in the first violin set. Impossible to replace at short notice or to “tune” a spare by adding water, we had an assistant do a mad-dash emergency run out to our stash at the University to replace the shattered glass with a spare in the “wrong” octave.
There are several other amusing anecdotes but on one memorable evening in Toronto, we were playing at the Queen Elizabeth Theater, well known for its superb acoustics. We had a generous amount of rehearsal time to address any tech issues. What became something of a joke was that my colleagues and I are dependably “hands-on” when it comes to setting up but on this occasion, we were constantly rebuked by the excellent stage crew who insisted that if a tam tam needed to be moved 4 inches, or the extra piano benches situated to hold the three sets of (20 total) crystal glasses were a touch too close for swiveling between one activity to the next, THEY had to do the moving. We were roundly chastised and under strict orders not to move anything – that was their domain! During the performance however, all Hell broke loose when after the first half’s Mozart and Schubert, the audience were in place and we too, but the house lights went down, the stage lights refused to come up. We were sitting in the dark! It took several minutes to realize that there was an electrical circuitry issue that could not be resolved. Thus that same stage crew were tasked with running cables and bringing out and setting up emergency stand lights. We sat still for a moment or two during all the mayhem but when we finally got up the chutzpah to ask if they would like us to help, you can bet the hissed response was “for God’s sake, YES!”
— Sandy Wilson