It is not very often that I look forward to any concert with the anticipation I have for tonight’s program at Bates College’s Olin Hall. It includes two seldom-heard masterpieces of 20th-century music written for my favorite instruments — one of them played by a man who premiered the work.

Wu Han, pianist and co-artistic director of of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, with pianist Gil Kalish and percussionists Daniel Druckman and Ayano Kataoka, will play the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) and George Crumb’s “Music for a Summer Evening,” premiered in 1974 by Kalish.

The Crumb work, a collection of five pieces, makes up the third volume of his Makrokosmos, which Crumb modeled after Bartok’s well-known piano method in six volumes, entitled Mikrokosmos. Commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation for Swarthmore College, it is scored for two amplified pianos and percussion (two players).

The movements include Nocturnal Sounds (the Awakening), Wanderer-Fantasy, the Advent (including Hymn for the Nativity of the Star-Child), Myth, and Music of the Starry Night.

Bartok’s sonata, which he orchestrated in 1940 as Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, is a seminal work that was first performed by the composer and his wife, Ditta Pasztory, in Basel, Switzerland, in 1938. There is some question as to whether he wrote the second piano part for her or simply realized, as he once stated, that the piano parts needed more volume to match the percussion.

The composer’s lifelong interest in tone color, and his treatment of the piano as a percussion instrument, are evident in the sonata, whose percussion parts include suspended cymbal, cymbal, tam-tam, three timpani, xylophone, side drum with and without snares, bass drum and triangle. As one example of the multitude of sound effects, the cymbal is struck with three different objects, including the blade of a pocket knife.

The percussion instruments are placed precisely between the two grand pianos, not just for the stereo effect but also to allow the percussionists to reach their instruments easily. The arrangement is actually drawn on the original score.

Bartok’s treatment of the piano is always exciting, but it can be hauntingly melodic as well. Both he and Crumb have an affinity for natural sounds such as birdsong, the wind in the willows, whale vocalizations, waterfalls and volcanoes, not to mention man-made folk songs and hunting calls. In the sonata there may also be echoes of Turkish music, which the composer was transcribing at the time. The finale is a light-hearted dance-like movement that begins on the xylophone.

The battery of percussion instruments required for Crumb’s “Summer Evening” music includes vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, crotales (antique cymbals), bell tree, claves, maracas, sleighbells, wood blocks and temple blocks, triangles, and several varieties of drums, tam-tams and cymbals.

He notes, “Certain rather exotic (and in some cases, quite ancient) instruments are occasionally employed for their special timbral characteristics, for example: two slide-whistles (in Wanderer-Fantasy); a metal thunder-sheet (in the Advent); African log drum, quijada del asino (jawbone of an ass), sistrum, Tibetan prayer stones, musical jug, alto recorder, and, in Myth, African thumb piano and guiro (played by the pianists).”

Strangely enough, although Bartok’s pioneering changed the role of percussion forever, Crumb’s is the only major work so far to use (approximately) the same combination of instruments as the 1937 Sonata. 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]