Marin Alsop and Mark Anthony Turnage. Photo by r.r. jones
By Scott MacClelland
A sold-out house welcomed the return of Marin Alsop—after a wrist injury sidelined her in 2013—with howling cheers at Santa Cruz Civic last Friday. She quickly shut down the noisy demonstration in order to get the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music under way with three brand new orchestral works, Sky Madrigal by Dylan Maddingly, Play by Andrew Norman and The Imposter banjo concerto by Béla Fleck. The following night Alsop introduced Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3, featuring the Time for Three string trio as ‘soloist’, the short Megalopolis by TJ Cole and the most serious work of the festival’s first of two weekends, Speranza by Britain’s Mark-Anthony Turnage.
Touched by the spirit of Appalachian bluegrass, the predictably populist crowd pleasers were Fleck’s The Imposter and Higdon’s Concerto 4-3, both in the classical three movements. Fleck’s piece followed the conventional novelty concerto of ingratiating an odd man (harmonica, bagpipe, Jew’s harp, banjo) into the classical orchestral model. It’s a formula in which familiarity runs the risk of breeding contempt. What made this one even odder was the highly sophisticated orchestration. I didn’t see the movie “How to Write a Banjo Concerto,” but I suspect Fleck had a lot of outside help arranging the music for a symphony orchestra. Calling something The Imposter rather does beg the question. That aside, the piece puts the solo instrument, a vintage 1937 model in this case, through some widely morphed changes of character. It only seems to recover its bluegrass personality in the closing movement, which contains a brief bit of Earl Scruggs, the concerto’s dedicatee. Any aficionado of the instrument would certainly have been happy with the several solo cadenzas and the piling up of energy in the finale easily won over the crowd.
Sounding clearly like the work of a single hand, Higdon’s slicker piece was laced with bluegrass throughout. The virtuosity of Time for Three was plainly something she exploited. The “option” for a cadenza between the first two movements must have anticipated a less able trio of two violins and double bass, who, in the case, were wired for amplification. Higdon let rivers of the Smokey Mountains, where she grew up, determine the pace and character of the movements, the gentler second framed by the two highly driven ones which never flagged in intensity. At 30 minutes, Higdon’s concerto was more tightly organized than Fleck’s, which came in at 35 minutes.
In the inspired Sky Madrigal, Mattingly aimed high, distilling an essence of perfection as a human quest—specifically George Mallory’s 1924 attempt to scale Everest for the first time. The 15-minute work began with a slow, muted chord progression that finally found a pulse of momentum, then ended in ecstasy. Tonally unruffled, it served up some enchantingly new sounds, for example two marimbas and two toy pianos playing together. The orchestral palette glittered and glowed, often with deep sensuality while the form remained coherent throughout.
Andrew Norman’s Play, at 40 minutes, is a decidedly mixed bag. The title was meant to represent a video game, with its starts, stops, reverses and shocks all at breakneck speed as one group of instruments “plays” another, and vice versa, and the conductor and the audience and… Indeed, the 15-minute first movement succeeded as a briar patch of helter-skelter chaos. Start, stop and pause ‘buttons’ were assigned to the percussion who sometimes got tangled into contradictory actions. The extreme complexity of the score, as brilliantly prepared by Alsop and her orchestra, almost overwhelmed the ability for this first-time listener to process it. Nevertheless, Norman did make his point in spectacular fashion. But then came two more movements lasting 25 minutes that sounded like they belonged somewhere else, gratuitous afterthoughts effectively unbalancing the whole. Sure, there were plenty of new ideas and fresh material at hand: lovely soft passages, an almost inaudible start to the second movement (cellists fingering notes without bowing, brass players blowing air through their horns, Alsop waving a baton to virtual silence), a few bits of code from the first movement and a fine use of the full orchestral resources, but all leaving a huge question mark.
The second program opened with TJ Cole’s Megalopolis, a five-minute tone poem portraying Philadelphia as first encountered by a girl who had grown up in rural America. (She went there to study with Higdon at the Curtis Institute.) The piece was imaginative and charming and featured a quiet tolling church bell in a small courtyard where the then 19-year-old took solace from the hurly burly.
In Speranza, Turnage titled its four movements with the word ‘hope’ in Arabic, German, Gaelic and Hebrew. The work overall developed a four-note dotted rhythm figure that at first sounds a haunting alarm. The lush first movement, Amal, carries flavors of Arabic music and introduces the Hungarian cimbalom which was plainly audible above the orchestra in only one quiet moment, notwithstanding the player’s determined efforts. The second movement, Hoffen, thunders with bass drum, “threatening” chords and trumpets sometimes muted. And it features a solo Armenian duduk whose melody is echoed by keening winds. Dóchas reveals Turnage as a jazz lover as it swings forward then accelerates toward its conclusion. The muted trumpet solo pays homage to Miles Davis. Tikvah, the finale, muses softly and sighs, until a solo alto saxophone appears, copied by winds before the orchestra swells fully then subsides to the whispers of solos among the violins.
Turnage’s music has been heard in previous Cabrillo Festivals, but this compelling 40-minute piece marks one of his most important to date and something of a thoughtful softening from his earlier fierceness.