By Scott MacClelland
THE TOUGH THING about new music is making it memorable. This means providing enough intellectual structure—architecture—so that the listener can remember it after the fact. While I don’t know if this idea is shared by the young composers who are welcomed as guests each year at the Cabrillo Festival it does beg the question.
That measure alone should challenge both them and Marin Alsop, the ultimate arbiter of who and what get exposed according to her vision of the Cabrillo Festival. Last Saturday’s orchestra concert at Santa Cruz Civic opened with Eating Flowers by Hannah Lash, a world premiere commissioned by the festival. In her notes and spoken comments she made much use of the words color and colors, explaining that it was those qualities in the music of Debussy, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov she sought to capture. That she did in this piece that drew out a vivid palette from every section of the orchestra starting with mallets in the percussion and pizzicato on the strings. There were plenty of solos to go round as well. A wild bit that sounded like Messiaen, another composer she cited, appeared midway through the 10-minute piece. Yet for all its colors the work lacked that architectural component needed for narrative coherence.
Missy Mazzoli’s River Rouge Transfiguration by contrast contained just that element, using formal devices around which the music was organized. In it Mazzoli celebrated the city of Detroit and, more specifically, the River Rouge Ford plant in the Dearborn suburb. To the composer, the appearance of the plant made her think of a great pipe organ and she worked the orchestra to that purpose. Even as she spotlighted different sections, creating fresh combinations and adding some bits of familiar minimalism, she kept the overall narrative clear. The piece was a Detroit Symphony commission that was premiered there in 2013, now getting its first West Coast hearing.
So far this was relatively easy listening. Sean Shepherd’s Blue Blazes was supposed to be a trip to hell. And where better to begin, he said, than deep in the cellos and double basses. His rhetoric was mostly angular keeping the 8-minute piece from achieving a sense of harmonic directionality or resolution. By that alone it proved the most challenging orchestral piece of the festival so far. It too was a West Coast premiere.
So was the next piece, Nico Muhly’s Wish You Were Here, another 10-minute piece that, along with River Rouge, was for me the most successful work on the program. Muhly explained that he was inspired by the idea that comic strips he recalled from childhood had created the impression in his mind that he had been to exotic places in the world he never actually had visited. Laughingly, he summed up the piece as the combination of a cartoon world and “deep loneliness.” This was a strong dose of energy, momentum and vivid colors that rose to a sensational climax, at all times structurally clear. While this was Muhly’s first visit to the festival his name is widely known thanks to his many major compositions, including recordings and collaborations with the likes of Björk and Philip Glass, and not least his opera Two Boys, premiered by the English National Opera in 2011, then by the Metropolitan Opera two years later in a revised version that was recorded by Nonesuch Records. Glass has mentored Muhly and his influence is plain to hear. Wish You Were Here also paid homage to Colin McPhee (b. 1900), a Canadian composer/musicologist who was among the first to visit Bali and write music that imitated the Balinese gamelan. Muhly’s piece makes a “fanciful” and compelling case for that inspiration, and even punctuates with some loud ship-horns on the brass.
Both violinist Tim Fain (left) and cellist Matt Haimovitz have enduring professional relationships with Glass, who wrote a solo partita for Fain that became a centerpiece of his evening-length Portals: Multimedia Exploration of Longing in the Digital Age. (Fain performed it in Carmel in 2011, one of three appearances at Sunset Center.) The two musicians joined Alsop and the orchestra for the West Coast premiere of Double Concerto by Glass. The piece dates from 2010 and struck me as retrogressive, an often tedious recycling of the repetitive minimalistic ostinatos of the composer’s music from decades ago. At least you knew at any moment who the composer was. Perhaps the solo duets that preceded the three movements were Glass’ idea to give the piece a fresh take. And they did that in music that was completely different in character from the orchestral material. Even though the miked sound came through substandard loudspeakers located behind the podium, the audience gave the performance their enthusiastic approval.
Sunday afternoon’s festival finale suffered some fits and starts. A breezy 95-F degrees made everybody’s exposed skin shine. The Mission San Juan doors opened 20 minutes after the concert was set to begin. (Highway traffic was apparently to blame.) With a repeat later in the day, the delay forced the elimination of the scheduled intermission. A cooling cross breeze was disallowed when the ushers were told not to open a door to the mission gardens “during the concert.” The heat got to one lady in the third row who lost her lunch at the start of the fourth movement of Ana Lara’s Angeles de llama y hielo, causing a further 10-minute interruption. The orchestra setup for the final piece, James MacMillan’s Epiclesis, actually restored the cancelled intermission though most remained inside the church.
The concert began with the West Coast premiere of Impact, composed in 2013 by Charles Halka. The program note and title were too technical and vague, respectively, to inspire high expectations, but the eight-minute piece proved to be a real gem. It began in the highest most delicate part of the percussion and proceeded to descend through the entire orchestra gaining more and more instruments and volume of sound until it hit bottom with—well—an impact. Alsop worked the orchestra like a movie camera, with wide-angles, close-ups (including solos) and midrange shots. Halka displayed a keen understanding of an orchestra’s essential resources and kept the imagery in sharp focus.
The celebrated Mexican composer Ana Lara (b. 1959) made her first Cabrillo appearance with her 20-minute (under normal circumstances) “Angels of Flame and Ice.” The discrete Angel movements were Darkness, Dawn, Light and Dusk. The composer cited various examples of four-part ideas: the four elements, compass points, winds, horsemen of the apocalypse, all inspired by poems by Francisco Serrano. The seven-minute first movement remained largely within dark rumblings and surgings; I was reminded of Wagner’s Rhine waves, and of Debussy’s La mer, but with occasional percussive crashes and solos. Near the end the horns, at fortissimo, ignited a stunning climax in the orchestra. In Dawn, woodwinds warbled and sprayed. Timpani and bells sounded, before woodwind solos, then percussion and brass, bells and trombones. The shorter final two movements continued to keep the composer’s style and personality in focus. She revised the 1994 work this year in anticipation of Cabrillo.
Composed last year, Christopher Rouse’s Supplica, to my ear, was the most personal writing from Rouse I have heard to date, though the first of his works performed at Cabrillo, the Pulitzer-winning Trombone Concerto written in memory of Leonard Bernstein, comes close. Lasting 13 minutes, the piece began with cello, piano and ghostly string glissandos. Horn solo, then harps, led to an outburst on full strings then full brass. A quiet passage on strings trailed on with harps added and a trumpet solo; strings again now with intoning winds and brass. Strings in anguish, then comforting strings and harps closed the work softly. For a composer whose music has threatened to topple the mission church, this work was surprisingly restrained and often very beautiful.
Norwegian trumpet soloist Tine Thing Helseth (right) arrived with Alsop from the garden entry door (which thankfully remained open to the cross breeze) to perform MacMillan’s Epiclesis trumpet concerto of 1993 (rev. 1998) here getting its US premiere. The title of the 20-minute single movement piece means invocation, specifically as it relates to the Eucharist, one of many religious themes popular with the Roman Catholic composer. Like Rouse, MacMillan is not afraid of extreme loudness and in this case I was grateful not to be sitting in the front row. (Tremendous volleys of percussion and brass plus the mostly loud Helseth trumpet inspired festival executive Ellen Primack to offer ear plugs to patrons sitting closest to the orchestra.)
The composer’s notes described two music “substances” that undergo a transformation into one another. The piece began with percussion and the soloist playing flutter tongue, followed by marimba, muted trombones and a thunder sheet. The strings entered with a percussion outburst before a trumpet melody accompanied by winds. Another outburst on the percussion with chimes, trombones and bells. Halfway through the piece Helseth got a significant solo cadenza over a pedal point bass with chimes. The orchestra rose up then subsided in favor of more solo trumpet. An ecstatic dance ensued with two offstage trumpeters joining the soloist but alternating their instruments with piccolo trumpets, and all with plenty of flutter tonguing. A calm moment preceded a chorale rising on the orchestra. As the concerto drew to a quiet close, Helseth, with bare feet and a floor-length gown, promenaded slowly down the aisle playing a rising triad over and over until she reached the back of the church. A door was heard to slam.
The August 7 concert is scheduled for broadcast on KUSP 88.9 on Friday, August 21, 8pm; the August 8 on August 22, 8pm. The August 15 concert is set for broadcast on August 28, 8pm; the Mission concert on August 29, 8pm.