By Don Adkins
THE CABRILLO FESTIVAL of Contemporary Music presented Tributes: Part One on Saturday night to an enthusiastic audience. Four American composers were featured in pieces written as tributes to different people or cultures. Three Latin American Dances by Gabriela Frank incorporated elements of three composers, Leonard Bernstein, Alberto Ginastera and Béla Bartók as well as South American folk elements from Peru and the Amazon Basin. Concerto for Violin: Tributes by James Stephenson was written as an acknowledgement of the performers and composers who used the violin concerto as a means of artistic expression including violinist Jennifer Frautschi for whom the concerto was written. The Conjured Life by David Little was commissioned for this performance by the Cabrillo Festival to pay tribute to Lou Harrison’s centenary. Little has been inspired throughout his life by Harrison’s music and wrote this piece as a posthumous thank-you for Harrison’s unique life. Double Play by Cindy McTee begins with The Unquestioned Answer, a reimagining of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.
Three Latin American Dances featured many of the elements that make Frank one of today’s more unique and appealing composers. She considers all of her music to be informed by her Peruvian heritage and conveyed through her own musical language. She utilizes an impressive knowledge of each orchestral instrument and its capabilities while striving to make her music not only enjoyable for the listener but also fun for the orchestra.
The first dance Jungle Jaunt is a tribute to Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (which will be played by the Santa Cruz Symphony this coming season) and to the energy found in Ginastera’s music that utilize Amazonian folk music. The harmonies are easier on the ear than more dissonant contemporary music due to the strategic appearance of actual major and minor chords. The melodies are, like Peruvian folk music, easy to understand. The second dance, Highland Harawi, presented another tribute that is not mentioned in the program notes offered by the composer. The third movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is invoked in several distinctive moments in this dance: the beginning solo clave sound, slow timpani glissandi, spooky string “night music” and unison string melodies that move and sound like Bartok. There was also an extremely effective depiction of “the cry of a million echoes” which was all Frank’s. All of this supports music in the style of the harawi, a melancholic Peruvian folk style. The more energetic middle section depicts the spinning top of the Peruvian weather-deity used to create thunder, lightning and rain. You could hear the snap of the string as Illapa, the Inca weather-deity, launches his spinning top. The third movement, The Mestizo Waltz, evokes the mixed-race musical styles which draw from Indian and African slave cultures as conveyed by the instruments of white western culture. Peruvian pop-sounding melodies in thirds played by the trumpets and other brass are mixed with folk melodies that sound as if they come from Ginastera’s Inca-inspired Ollantay. Latin style percussion keeps things moving and furthers the sense of a pop-music style.
Concerto for Violin: Tributes featured violinist Jennifer Frautschi (pictured) in a piece that called for an almost relentless display of virtuosity which she navigated with confidence. The piece is divided into three movements. The use of a large orchestra often caused balance issues with the soloist. Music director Cristian Mǎcelaru kept dynamics mostly under control but sometimes the piece itself made the problems insurmountable. This was also the one piece of the night with which the orchestra had some problems staying together. The music itself was not memorable and even the solo part seemed to repeat the same, although amazingly difficult, virtuosic techniques to the point that they became less impactful as the piece moved on.
The Conjured Life was highly anticipated by an audience which included many people who personally knew Lou Harrison or were familiar with his music. What would a younger admirer of his music write that would somehow invoke the man we knew? The start of the first movement Invocation immediately conjured the Indonesian gamelan, one of Harrison’s main contributions to the blending of western musical culture with that on the other side of the Pacific. Basic low and slow-moving tonalities were frequently present throughout the three movements, giving the music stability while other more adventurous musical ideas took place. The second movement A Nest of Shadows was a bit more difficult to reconcile with the music of Harrison. It’s fairly unlovely minimalist approach sounded more like Philip Glass than Harrison. The most puzzling part, however, was the constant striking of the bass drum with an enthusiasm that was visceral. It was a glorious sound for the first few times but quickly became annoying. The third movement Aubade (for Lou Harrison) returned to subtle, almost gamelan-like patterns. At one point a simple low flute melody produced an effect like large oriental wooden flutes. By the end of the piece the bass drum assault was forgotten and forgiven by the audience.
Double Play consists of two independent pieces which are in sharp contrast to each other: the first placid but not quite as glacial as Ives’ The Unanswered Question and the second a persistent and sometimes jazzy romp. The first movement The Unquestioned Answer features the same three main elements found in Ives’ piece: slow moving chords that serve as the calm foundation; an enigmatic melody that asks the question, or, in this case, questions the answer; and loud interjections that interrupt the whole process. All of the harmonic and melodic materials have a close relationship to Ives, especially the melody which uses the same pitches both forwards and backwards. The strings and woodwinds provided a quiet, almost peaceful foundation for the melody which featured many of the excellent solo players that make up the woodwind section. The brass interruptions were bombastic and appropriately rude. This movement finished with the quiet underpinning and blended into the tick-tock of the second movement, Tempus fugit. An aggressive rhythmic pattern was soon established and the piece was off to the races. Some jazz elements were introduced, especially the timbre and distinctive licks of big band music. This movement was tied to the first by contrasting appearances of the calmer material of sustained chords and the enigmatic melodic material. There was even the appearance of a horn fragment from the last movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 although it probably was not intentional.
Along with the performances of Saturday’s music came the big question: what about the new music director? Audiences and the orchestra were used to Marin Alsop due to her 25-year tenure and Cristian Mǎcelaru is going to be judged, in part, against her example. So, what is the verdict –if just this one concert can be used as a measuring stick? The orchestra is still a great group whose sound (which the conductor effects) appeared to be confident and relaxed. Like Alsop, Mǎcelaru often appeared to be more a traffic cop than an interpreter. This is not a bad thing. When you are presenting this much contemporary music with a minimum of rehearsals, the conductor needs to be clear and precise. The orchestra’s part is to use their experience to help turn it all into meaningful music. Mǎcelaru kept everything going through the constant complexities that can trip up lesser organizations and the orchestra kept up their end of the bargain. A conductor should also be a valuable resource to the audience by clearly indicating what is important or interesting in the music. Mǎcelaru provided some of that guidance but sometimes seemed to be caught in his own world of technique and distinctive gestures.
Don Adkins is a longtime member of the music faculty at Cabrillo College, a performing musician and program annotator for the Santa Cruz Symphony.