Cabrillo Fest at San Juan, August 11, 2013

Shadows of Stravinsky?

By Scott MacClelland

In case you doubted it, the level of instrumental virtuosity has taken a giant step up, witness flutist Adam Walker’s premiere of Kevin Puts’ Flute Concerto (2013) on the Cabrillo Festival’s opening night program, and clarinetist Emil Jonason’s speed-of-light emil_relaxing_hiresskitter through Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto (2002) on the Festival’s closing program Sunday at Mission San Juan. But it’s not so much mere virtuosity—the word ‘mere’ hardly fits these two spectacular players—as the musical substance it is wrapped in.  

Cabrillo’s history of raising the orchestral bar has long since become the expected norm. But in just the last few seasons, the level of solo virtuosity has overtaken the orchestra’s sensational abilities. The history of music, especially in the Western classical line, not only accounts for the on-going growth of the art, but of its technologies as well. (Just consider the difference over less than 300 years between Bach’s harpsichord and the modern nine-foot concert Steinway.) Today’s composers also have the opportunity to work directly with the artists tapped to premiere their works.

Lindberg wrote his concerto for Finnish virtuoso Kari Krikku. (You can find his recording on YouTube.) Yet it is hard to imagine how anyone could have mastered the Lindberg score better than Jonason. The dazzling speed in dense blizzards of notes was breath stopping, the range of tones from the instrument’s bottom to its hyperphonics in the stratosphere, its multiphonics (the woodwind equivalent of Tuva throat-singing) and graceful lyricism seemed, at times, almost schizophrenic.

That latter lyricism is not commonly found in Lindberg’s musical vocabulary. But it showed that the feisty maestro actually has a tender side. The solo clarinet opens the work with a bucolic melody—obviously an homage to the clarinet solo that opens the First Symphony of Sibelius—that provides the entire, single-movement concerto with its organizing theme. Five conjoined sections include thumping Stravinsky rhythms, à la Sacre du Printemps, sparkling chimes, echoes of a rarely heard clarinet rhapsody by Debussy, and no shortage of shootouts between soloist and orchestra. In Jonason’s hands the solo cadenza approaching the finale went beyond the power of infinitives to describe. Yet in no way did the apparent conflict between the soloist and the orchestral score diminish either. Somehow, Lindberg found a way to match his own authoritative musical personality with its alter ego in the solo clarinet. (Jonason returned sustained applause with a five-minute solo encore, Swedish in its seasonings and no less spectacular in its virtuosity.)

Musical substance likewise bookended the concerto, George Walker’s ten-minute Sinfonia No. 4 Strands to open and Anna Clyne’s 22-minute Night Ferrygeorge-walker to close. (Like the Lindberg, both pieces echoed Stravinsky’s Sacre.) His age notwithstanding, the 91-year-old Pulitzer-winning Walker displayed his characteristic organic style and tight concentration of means here. It’s a good thing his program note mentioned the inclusion of the two spirituals, There is a balm in Gilead and Roll, Jordan Roll, since he disguised them so well within the orchestral fabric. Yet, the textures were only moderately dense, and not always even that. Understating it as “a concise work,” Walker applied a deft touch that offers valuable lessons to today’s much-younger composers.

One of them is Anna Clyne, an unassuming young woman who goes public with easy smiles and one of several signature hats, only to blister her audiences with deeply expressive, cannily constructed works that offer both the “intensity and coherence” cited by Robert Hughes in his last Charlie Rose interview. (See our Music Reviews page from Clynelast week.) Though not explicitly said in Clyne’s program note, Night Ferry might as well depict an English Channel crossing in the dark during a raging storm. With the orchestra stuffed into its usual place at the front of the mission church, two bass drums (and some ancillary metal percussion) were positioned about one third of the way back in the nave, outboard of the audience, to add a spatial dimension to the tempest. From time to time, the severe weather subsided and made way for pizzicato passages of marching arpeggios, from angst to “enchanted worlds.” Various backstories (poetry, paintings and collages by the composer herself, and a diagnosis that Franz Schubert suffered from cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar disorder) underlie the programmatic narrative. In the end, however, the music has to stand free from all that, and it does. Ultimately, and except for citing individual members of the Chicago Symphony who influenced her music, Clyne’s program notes turned out to be superfluous. And, surprise, surprise, Night Ferry ended quietly, a rarity of its own when Cabrillo takes over Mission San Juan.

Clyne’s three successes at Cabrillo have won her a major orchestral commission, now scheduled for its world premiere in 2016.

(The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 88.9 FM on August 23, 8pm)