By Jim Gilles
A delightful and thoroughly impressive concert Songs to the Moon, was performed Sunday, August 7 at 4:00 p.m. at the UCLA Hammer Museum by an all-UCLA music ensemble. The UCLA Hammer Museum wanted to create a musical event for its current exhibition Drawing Down the Moon, but there were only a few weeks to put together an appropriate “live” music performance in a very short space of time. Claudia Bestor, the Hammer’s director of public programs, was hesitant to make such a request on such short notice. But Neal Stulberg, director of orchestral studies at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, was intrigued. The concert was free, but online reservations were required. The corresponding exhibits for Songs to the Moon in the galleries of the Hammer Museum were open 11 am to 6 pm. .
“The moon is the one physical object that the whole world has a singular visual experience with,” said Stulberg. “You can’t look at the sun. The stars and clouds change depending on where you are. But the moon is always there.” Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of art music inspired by the moon, from Haydn to Janaçek to Beethoven to Schoenberg. “The real challenge,” Stulberg confided, “was letting go of the notion that we were going to somehow ‘illuminate’ the moon for the audience. The moon’s already there. Everyone understands how special it is. So, really, I wanted to design a program for a summer Sunday afternoon that the audience would just be able to enjoy.”
Stulberg built the program around George Crumb’s 1969 masterpiece, Night of the Four Moons. Like most of Crumb’s music, Night of the Four Moons is wildly inventive, evocative, challenging and freighted with complex emotional beauty. Scored for voice (mezzo soprano), alto flute/piccolo, percussion, banjo and electric cello. This last part of the program was performed by Meagan Martin (mezzo-soprano), Will Adams (alto flute/piccolo), Alan Berman (banjo), Christopher Cho (electric cello), Daniel La France (percussion), with Neal Stulberg as conductor. Night of the Four Moons, with lyrics by Federico García Lorca, consists of four short pieces, each with a tempo and character of its own. Rarely performed but is best experienced live where one can listen carefully to even sound and the silents in between.
The program’s featured mezzo soprano was UCLA alumna Meagan Martin (D.M.A. 2019), fresh off a European recital tour with Grammy-nominated guitarist Mak Grgić. Stulberg consulted with Martin about the selections for voice and piano that would complement Night of the Four Moons. The selections included: “La lune paresssuse” (1905) by Cécile Chaminade; “Le lever de la lune” (1855) by Camille Saint Säens; “O falce di luna calante” (1911) by Paolo Tosti from the poem by Gabriele D’Annunzio; “Vaga luna” from the opera Tre Ariette (1825) by Bellini; as well as Robert Schumann’s “Monadnacht” from “Liederkreis, Op. 39, No. 5” (1840) based on the poem by Joseph von Eichendorff.
When Neal brought me into the program,” said Martin, “he had already earmarked a number of songs that relate to the moon, and we used those as a jumping-off point to build an evocative first half of the concert. I’m particularly excited about the four gorgeous pieces by female composers that we will share, since it is paramount to continue moving towards a new normal for classical music in which creators of diverse gender identities, races, and cultural backgrounds are regularly celebrated through the programming of their work. There are so many stunning works that fall outside of the standard repertoire, and I’m thrilled that this concert prominently features some lesser-known gems.” This is perhaps why Amy Beach’s “The Old chapel by Moonlight for piano solo” was played by Neal Stulberg, before Martin sang “White Moon from Five Songs” (1929) by Ruth Crawford-Seeger with lyrics by Carl Sandburg. Closing the first half of the program was Liza Lehmann’s “O moon of my delight” from In a Persian Garden (1896) by Omar Khayyám, poet and astronomer.
Crumb’s Night of the Four Moons was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Players and written during the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in July of 1969. But the piece is hardly triumphal. Crumb himself described his feelings about the moon mission as “ambivalent,” and opens the four-movement piece with the poet Federico García Lorca’s text “The moon is dead, dead.” The first three movements create a soundscape of icy loneliness, of vast, uninhabitable spaces. The fourth movement juxtaposes a personification of the moon as seductress with the corporeal moon to which the astronauts will plant a flag.
“I can’t say for sure,” said Stulberg, “but I think Crumb might have had some misgivings about what might have been seen as the hubris of colonizing the moon.” The year 1969 was, after all, a difficult year in America and the world. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were still fresh wounds. The Vietnam War continued its slow slog, with no end in sight. Racial reckonings had produced riots in virtually every major city in America. Does one detect in the ambivalences of Crumb’s music a veiled critique of a society that might conquer space while surrendering to apathy and destruction on earth?
Crumb’s famously eclectic instrumentation hints at humanistic themes. Night of the Four Moons features Tibetan prayer stones, alto African thumb piano, and Japanese Kabuki blocks. There is a powerful feeling of universal human experience that cuts through his work, even as the last movement slowly transports the audience to the moon itself as the musicians file, one-by-one, off the stage, leaving only the cellist playing high-pitched sounds reminiscent of radio signals Crumb calls “Music Mundana.” Off stage, meanwhile, the remaining quartet play achingly beautiful fragments Crumb calls “Musica Humana.”
The exhibit Drawing Down the Moon at the UCLA Hammer Museum opened on June 19 and runs through September 2022. The moon has been bound to life and consciousness since the beginning of humankind. It has served elemental and vital functions such as providing light and measuring time, but it has also influenced the more ethereal and spiritual realms of gods, myths, and magic. This exhibition operates at the crux of a lunar spectrum, between the lure and mystery of the unattainable moon and the eternal quest to conquer the moon in its material form. Drawn primarily from institutional collections in Los Angeles, the survey leads visitors through a panoply of objects dating from antiquity to the present.