By Don Adkins
The Cabrillo Festival presented its last concert in Santa Cruz for 2014 on Saturday night to a full house at Civic Auditorium. Music Director Marin Alsop led the Festival Orchestra in a program of three pieces that were uncompromisingly contemporary. The audience’s final ovation began as a response to the last piece and turned into a tribute to this remarkable conductor and amazing orchestra. Alsop has led the festival since 1992 which prompted her opening comment that the first composer for the evening was born just one year before Alsop began her tenure in Santa Cruz.
The three pieces, Tumblebird Contrails by Gabriella Smith, Saxophone Concerto by John Adams and Fire Music by Brett Dean, did not present any surprises if you have heard other works by these composers. Both Smith and Dean are unafraid to use instruments in non-traditional ways such as blowing wind through horns, rapping on string instruments or utilizing percussion instruments in unique ways. They both tend to write blocks of sound that project a sense of energy while remaining in the same place until they slowly evolve or quickly change into another sound combination. The Adams concerto used the instruments in more traditional ways and excluded percussionists, trombones and tuba.
Tumblebird Contrails, the first piece on the program, was commissioned by John Adams and his wife Deborah O’Grady for the Cabrillo Festival. Gabriella Smith, a Bay Area native now studying at Princeton University, has won numerous awards for her compositions and written several commissions. This piece is a response to the time she spent sitting on a lonely beach at Point Reyes listening to both the sounds of the Pacific and seabirds as well as watching a pair of ravens in flight. Hypnotic patterns, slow harmonic changes and a soft brass chorale were overlaid with busy details such as violin bird twitters, slow timpani moans, woodwind wails, string sirens and even a short hoedown idea in the second violins. Because of the numerous layers of simultaneous sound, the balance achieved by Alsop and the orchestra between the different instruments was critical to hearing all of the details. This piece was extremely effective in communicating the composer’s non-musical ideas. Even without the explanation, a listener could hear and sense the meaning in the sounds.
The Adams Saxophone Concerto was an entirely different experience. Adams wrote the piece in 2013 for Tim McAllister who Adams called “the best sax player in the world.” Before Adams talked to the audience, Alsop said to Adams, much to the delight of the audience: “Tell them why you wrote so many notes. Were you paid by the note?” From the very beginning the saxophone unleashed a barrage of notes. A few pauses gave everyone a chance to breathe but the orchestra often took up the same flurry of notes so only McAllister got a chance to catch his breath.
Even the slow section of the concerto did not spend much time on slower, lyrical lines although its ending was extremely calm. There is no doubt that the main point of the piece was virtuosity. In spite of all the pyrotechnics, McAllister’s tone quality was beautiful with a well-modulated vibrato and no edgy sounds. Two French horn solos pointed out the similarity in sound between the horn and the middle range of the saxophone. Even though Adams mentioned jazz greats in his talk, there was little evidence of any jazz influence. On one hearing, the structure of the concerto, other than the general fast-slow-fast layout seemed to rely on an ever-present fusillade of notes to hold the entire piece together.
After intermission, the percussionists and low brass rejoined the orchestra for Fire Music. Australian composer Brett Dean wrote the piece following the devastating Australian bushfires in 2009. He began the composition with specific ideas relating to the fire but then used those ideas to generate music that followed its own logic. As mentioned earlier, Dean and Smith’s pieces were similar in some basic ways but Dean’s approach was much more dissonant and, as suits the topic, aggressive.
Three smaller groups, two with flute and percussion and one string quartet, were placed at different locations in the auditorium away from the large orchestra. The three flute locations provided a common dialogue thread that helped hold the piece together. Dueling thunder sheets in the balconies were one of the many effects. The string quartet provided welcome relief to the dense sounds of the full group even though their harmonies were still extremely dissonant. As if there wasn’t already enough going on, an electric guitar made a solo appearance in the middle of the piece. When everyone was playing, it was difficult to hear the smaller groups depending on where you sat in the audience.
In the end, relative newcomer Smith seemed to be the winner in communicating her ideas most effectively in a cinematic sort of way. Adams and McAllister overwhelmed the audience with frantic energy. Dean buried everyone under layers of dissonance mixed with an overwhelming variety of sounds often glued together by stable drones and ostinatos. If you were looking for melody, this was not the concert to attend.
Tim McAllister photo by r.r. jones