Cabrillo 2017 finale

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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 20785726_10154707562112882_4270372660110918923_oits 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

Cabrillo “Con Brio”

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Cristian Măcelaru and composer Cindy McTee (photo by rr jones)

By Roger Emanuels

CON BRIO was the title of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music concert on Friday, August 11, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. A common musical term, con brio can be translated as “with ebullience,” which is an apt characterization of the entire concert program, delivered with an abundance of brio by Cristian Măcelaru and the Festival Orchestra.

Now approaching age 80, William Bolcom is a true icon of American music, having created a large catalog of works in many genres, including operas, symphonies, chamber music, piano, and musical theater. His Twelve New Etudes for piano received a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. He describes his Symphony No. 9 as “my final statement in the symphonic form.” Whether influenced by the popular superstition—that there is a curse on attempting to compose a tenth symphony, or not—he seems to have said all he needs to at this point in his life. Having composed his Eighth Symphony in extra-large proportions, the challenge of the Ninth was to encapsulate many ideas in a concise manner. In fact, the work is in only one movement, under fifteen minutes in length. It was first performed in 2012 and received its West Coast Premiere at this concert.

Cristi and the orchestra created a magical mood at the opening in the ascending and descending lines beginning in the lowest instruments. This beguiling introduction led into the main body of the work, agitated and forward-moving. This symphony in miniature, and in Bolcom’s terse description, the piece follows a fast-slow-fast design. He has also said that his Ninth Symphony “is a somber piece,” and that he was feeling despair at the time of composing it. But we know that the composer has a sense of humor, which was obvious in the playful E-flat clarinet outbursts, played by John Schertle, suddenly erupting as if Barrymocking the surrounding music. Another major element was the haunting trumpet lines played by Andrew Gignac. The magic again descends while an epilog brings this colorful work to a close, as if vanishing into the ether.

Composer Gerald Barry (right) was on hand to hear the U.S. Premiere of his Piano Concerto of 2012, with pianist Jason Hardink as soloist. One of Ireland’s leading composers, Barry has composed operas, chamber music and solo piano music. New Music Scotland claims that he is “probably classical music’s most unashamed prankster,” thanks to the unpredictability of his music. That characteristic—of the unpredicted—is what gives the concerto a degree of charm, though it was often difficult to follow where the music was going. Hardink was convincing in his bold playing of the complex work. The extremely rapid forearm clusters were played precisely, bordering on the melodic. But consisting primarily of short and disconnected notes, the music lacks continuity. The heavy scoring of triple winds and brass gave the virtuoso players of the Cabrillo orchestra great opportunities to shine but also delivered too much information all at once.

The composition that suggested the title of the concert is Con Brio, composed by German clarinetist/conductor Jörg Widman. It’s a single-movement work completed in 2008 to precede a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at a Beethoven festival. The double winds and brass are what Beethoven would have used, with only timpani and no additional percussion. There are references to the Seventh, but no real quotes. It’s a cleverly constructed piece that exudes brio throughout. The piece explores sounds seldom used in a symphony orchestra; the wind and brass players slapped and rattled keys and made whistling wind sounds through mouthpieces, and the string players tapped their strings with the wood of their bows and made other unusual sounds. This added a playful and humorous element as unrestrained chuckles emerged from the audience.

Closing the program was Symphony No. 1, Ballet for Orchestra, by Cindy McTee, whose Double Play was featured on the first week of concerts. The subtitle of this 2008 work is a reference to the composer’s interest in music as movement. Her symphony is cast in the classical four-movement form. A perky three-note motive is the basis of the first and much of the fourth movements. Cristi kept all forces in a crisp and clear balance, interrupted by virtuoso passages for contrabassoon played by Steve Vacchi. The slow second movement, for strings only, is the longest of the four. Here, McTee creates a warm and peaceful environment of intimacy that draws in the listener. The short Waltz follows, with fleeting references to Ravel’s ravishing La Valse. The finale is another active movement, with an ending identical to that of the first movement, including another contrabassoon cadenza by Steve Vacchi.

The orchestra sounded marvelous, and appears clearly comfortable with Cristi. The question up front for many people, audience and orchestra alike, is how the transition to a new music director is going? For this listener and observer, there doesn’t seem to have been even a ripple in the process. As a former member of the Festival Orchestra, it would have been a pleasure to play under Cristi Măcelaru. The Festival is in for a good future.

The musicians of the Festival Orchestra travel from near and distant homes to play in Santa Cruz each summer. Some even came early this year to perform in a special recital for Festival donors prior to the orchestra schedule. Music director Cristi Măcelaru is a violinist, and, following welcoming remarks, played three Etudes by Astor Piazzolla for unaccompanied violin. For the occasion, principal bassist Edward Botsford offered Rhapsody by François Rabbath, a haunting work that employs double-stops—playing two notes at once—virtually during the entire piece. (Botsford had studied with the composer who dedicated the work to him.) Pianist Emily Wong, who has performed with the Festival Orchestra for several decades, offered a three-movement solo work by a Taiwanese composer. Concertmaster Justin Bruns led an ensemble for violin, viola, cello, oboe and piano by Michael Gandolfi, one of the Festival’s composers-in-residence. This was a tasty intro to Măcelaru’s future at Cabrillo.