By Scott MacClelland
POST-MINIMALIST MUSIC, most of it represented at the first two full Cabrillo Festival orchestra concerts of works by living composers, embraces a now-familiar sound world, a palette of similar colors. In concerts on Friday and Saturday night at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, prising the distinctive features between eight different composers demanded nuances, more often than not, the obvious. Of course, there were striking exceptions.
The opening Friday program—under the banner “Aural Histories,”—Huang Ruo’s cinematic [Chinese] Folk Songs for Orchestra (2012), Zosha Di Castri’s Dear Life (2015), inspired by the autobiographical writings of Alice Munro, and the Macedonian folk dances of Pande Shahov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (2018, a festival commission), fulfilled that promise. The final Grana for Orchestra (2003) by Romanian composer Dan Dediu was the outlier and, to my estimation, the best of the bunch.
Huang Ruo’s four settings—they were far more than simply arrangements—of 2012 began with probably the best known outside of China, the “Flower Drum Song” from Feng Yang, replete with lots of metal percussion, pentatonic melody and vocalizing within the orchestra. The others, “Love Song” from Kang Ding, “Girl” from Da Ban City (which honors the Uyghur of Xinjiang) and “Boatman Song” from the Yellow River, grew in subtle shades and tones, but all with recognizable folkloric origins. In one quieter moment, percussionist Galen Lemmon whirled a deep-throated bullroarer in circles above his head. (Percussionist Ward Spangler told me later that there’s always the danger of it hitting other instruments or even people.) For the last of them, and from his seat in the audience, Huang Ruo stood and sang the song all the way through, before giving the piece back to conductor Cristian Măcelaru and the large Cabrillo Orchestra. His singing, without the benefit of amplification, filled the auditorium with power and authority; it made the hair on my neck stand up.
Shahov’s 20-minute concerto, featuring soloist Simon Trpčeski, proved the most classical in its formal discipline and harmonies. Yet it favored the dance and folk melodies with a light touch. Much of the piano writing doubled the two hands at the octave, creating that distinctive sonority.
Alice Munro’s Dear Life is a collection of largely autobiographical short stories that combine “fact, fiction and feeling,” Ruth Scurr wrote in The Telegraph. Di Castri’s score uses the orchestra in unconventional ways. String players bowing silently or screeching, flute players shrilly barking, a high-hat cymbal being bowed, gave the music an eerie affect; it was a ghost story in sound. A recorded narration selected lines from Munro’s tales. At one point, where the story references the author’s relationship with her strict mother, the maternal injunction “the wages of sin is death” was followed by a chorale intoned on the winds. Soprano Mary Mackenzie joined the orchestra with extensive vocalizing, and in one brief moment singing what was probably some of the narrative text, though her part didn’t really seem essential.
Grana is Spanish for deep red. Dediu’s mostly technical program note adds that it can also mean “life and death, hope and despair.” (In a spoken comment, he called it “amphibian” in its contrasts.) This was the most adventuresome and virtuosic piece on the program, and likely the biggest challenge for the audience. At once, it’s mystical (delicate percussion with pizzicato strings) , comedic (wha-wha muted trombone, busy-body chatter, subterranean growling and bits of pointillistic frolic), lushly romantic and, from a compositional perspective, a fearless game for the orchestra. Among several cameo solos, the principal violin and the principal clarinet get the most action. Though 15 years of age and premiered in Berlin, this was its US premiere. In the last of four continuous movements, a mighty march gave in to an inexorable tread of doom only to accelerate into parody that built to a fortissimo climax—then a tiny moment of silence and a gigantic orchestral thud. Craving to hear it again, I just found it in two satisfactory back-to-back tracks published in 2011 on YouTube, though I must add they are at the same high level as the Cabrillo performance.
The Saturday program, “After Dixieland,” opened with a marvelous adventure by Vivian Fung titled Dust Devils, composed in 2011 and revised in 2014. When asked what he looked for in a piece of art, the late critic Robert Hughes said, “Intensity and coherency.” In a brief 10 minutes, this piece was perhaps more coherent than intense, but only slightly since its intensity was told in a whirlwind of sparkling colors, transparency and compositional mastery. Fung also shows a thoroughgoing grasp of instrumental potentials. (Some of the orchestral effects reminded me of Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, in the best possible way.)
Cabrillo 2018 honors two American master composers who turned 80 this year: William Bolcom and John Corigliano—in both cases with concertos composed 34 years ago. Bolcom’s Violin Concerto in D was introduced with entertaining storytelling by the composer with Russian-born soloist Philippe Quint (above with Bolcom and Măcelaru.) Bolcom made two points: Joe Venuti. He also heaped praise on Măcelaru’s proclaimed favorite musician, the late Sergiu Luca who, he said, was that rare classical violinist who took to jazz immediately. The tone of the first two movements of the concerto was fairly sober if not serious, though in the first Quint took obvious pleasure in that old Paganini trick, ricochet bowing with pizzicato, and there were gorgeous melodies to be heard. But the final movement is where all the exuberant fun burst out, jazzy, snazzy, with muted trumpet and a 1960s-style pop love song tune.
Following the intermission, Măcelaru announced his own unprinted program note, declaring, to audience applause, that “all of us are immigrants,” going from somewhere to hopefully somewhere better. With a finger plainly on the pulse of these times he invoked a festival composer-in-residence from 2017, Karim Al-Zand, a Canadian native, who wrote a piece for strings and marimba, described as ‘elegy for the displaced’ without saying its name, and asked the audience not applaud it but implicitly respect it. Composed in 2016 in a state of personal anxiety over those from Africa and the Levant who have lost everything for the hope of a better life in Europe, and the hundreds who have died trying, Karim Al-Zand titled it Luctus Profugis, meaning ‘Grief for the Displaced,’ citing Virgil’s tale of Aeneas and the survivors of the Trojan War making their way to a new life in what would become Italy.
Kristin Kuster’s Rain On It (2012) continued the “After Dixieland” theme with what could easily be called another Short Ride on a Fast Machine, at eight minutes slightly longer than the John Adams chestnut. You want perpetual motion? This morsel is another drive-by; blink and you’ll miss it. You want entertainment for symphonic orchestra? It’s just that, as were her remarks before the orchestra delivered. And she offered loving kudos to Bill Bolcom, her ‘teacher’ at the University of Michigan. (Her piece did as implied: rain on it, pitter patter.)
So did Gabriela Lena Frank whose 30-minute Walkabout: Concerto for Orchestra concluded the Saturday concert. It’s a programmatic work inspired by her mother’s Peruvian heritage. In it, Frank seeks to reconcile a multitude of opposites, racial, historic, ethnic, social—in short the identity confusions and conflicts of her time and ours. She says the first movement, Soliloquio Serrano, features the principal string players in “an introspective yet lyrical ‘mountain soliloquy’.” Percussion, harp and piano joined the strings of the orchestra. The animated second movement was titled after the slingshots the Inca used against their enemies in the 16th century. The lyrical ‘prayer’ third movement again gave prominence to the strings and rose up in an intense climactic arc. The final Tarqueada made the most folkloric impression with high flutes and metal percussion. Lasting nearly half an hour, Walkabout made a colorful impression although the promised imagery was not always clearly defined. Sometimes fanciful titles and written descriptions guide a listener’s expectations into a potential field of misunderstanding or confusion. Claude Debussy was guilty of the same.
These concepts do not always accord. But when they do masterpieces of timeless dimensions can result. As Cabrillo Festival founder Lou Harrison contextualized the idea, “Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create.”
All photos by r.r. jones