Composer Karim Al-Zand, Cristian Măcelaru and Jonathan Lemalu
By Scott MacClelland
ANOTHER LARGE CROWD turned out for Saturday’s Cabrillo Festival finale, Tributes, Part Two, an orchestral program of four festival-commissioned world premieres, all completed this year. The featured soloist was bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu who sang Karim Al-Zand’s The Prisoner—about which see more below.
Lemalu (pictured above) took the role of Queequeg in the world premiere productions of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, a join commission by the Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, State Opera of South Australia and Calgary Opera. The associate conductor for the 2010 premiere in Dallas was Cristian Măcelaru, Cabrillo’s new music director, who approached Heggie seeking permission to create a concert suite from the opera score. From his comments Saturday night at Civic Auditorium, Heggie confessed both delighted and skepticism, but agreed to step back and let Măcelaru do his thing.
That’s how this concert opened, with a 22-minute orchestral score that distilled scenes from the opera. To fully appreciate the result, it would have helped greatly to have seen the San Francisco production, or the DVD of that production. Yet it did capture the essence of Heggie’s masterpiece in a kind of emotional arc that was conveyed effectively and concisely. Those qualities, especially the latter, should facilitate getting Măcelaru’s sumptuous version some traction in other concert halls.
Christopher Rountree, descended from a multi-generational line of Santa Cruz County sheriffs and a young Turk whose dual career as composer and conductor is rapidly taking wing, then introduced his seven-minute Overture to La Haine (Hate), a work inspired by “these dark times” and the 1995 film of that title by Mathieu Kasssovitz. “How can we, makers of fleeting temporal artworks, ever hope to respond accurately or effectively in the face of political evil, zealously baseless morality, damaging grandstanding and simple beyond-blind bigotry?” A very good question that will be recalled in Al-Zand’s The Prisoner. But the piece didn’t seethe with rage as I was led to expect. Instead, it quite charmed with its often-amusing parade of unprecedented sounds and effects. We’ve heard scratchy strings and bowed metal percussion before, but drumsticks on pillows…? Styrofoam blocks played with violin bows…? The most conventional orchestral effects were blaring brass chords and what the winds were typically asked to do. More impressive was Rountree’s thoroughgoing use of the Cabrillo orchestra’s full range of resources.
Gabriella Smith made a return to Cabrillo as a composer-in-residence with her Field Guide, a fascinating nine-minute excursion that uses the orchestra to recall the many times in her youth spent out of doors, recording the sounds of nature in all manner of different habitats and at all hours of the day and night. Like the Rountree, the most conventional use of instruments came from the brass and winds. Otherwise, this was a tour-de-force of using instruments most unconventionally, with sudden outbursts that went ‘bump’ in the night. Strings became percussion, initially with pencils tapping instead of bows bowing. Winds closed keys without blowing air and brass blew air without mouthpieces. If someone can find an orchestra like Cabrillo’s, the Rountree and the Smith together make a fabulous pair of sonic adventures and delight. (The Rountree was a co-commission with composer John Adams’ Pacific Harmony Foundation. The Smith was a 70th birthday dedication to Adams, who was present in the audience.)
The Prisoner grew out of Măcelaru’s invitation to Al-Zand to write anything about which he felt passionate. That turned out to be a series of letters written by Adnan Latif, a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp, from right after the notorious place opened, until he was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his cell in 2012. Latif, a Yemeni who had traveled to Pakistan to find treatment for an injury was caught in a post-9/11 dragnet there by bounty hunters, was never charged with any crime, was routinely tortured, physically and psychologically and was force-fed during hunger strikes with other inmates. His letters, selected by Al-Zand, range from despair to rage to poetic musings, all bracketed in resignation and a hope for death, “Do whatever you wish to do, the issue is over.”
It was Lemalu’s task to convey those words in music, along with tracts from Psalm 69, Epigrams on Death by Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri, Longing and The Death of Saladin by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, and Death by Rainer Maria Rilke, all in dramatic narrative style. Al-Zand put his orchestral score to the service of the words, often for atmosphere, sometimes with angry outbursts. Despite its intensity and energy, the composer’s deft skill with orchestral resources and the quality of execution by Lemalu and Măcelaru’s orchestra, the 30-minute piece left little for the mind to take home. At its quiet ending, an oboe, harp, solo violin and delicate bells suggested that the prisoner, Latif, was finally released from his grievously tormented life at America’s disgraceful, extra-judicial hell-hole in Cuba.
Festival photos by rr jones