Cabrillo Festival, August 11 & 12

By Don Adkins

THE 2018 CABRILLO FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC finished this weekend with two exciting orchestral concerts at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Music director and conductor Cristian Măcelaru led the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra in nine different pieces, five on Saturday and four on Sunday. Of the nine composers being performed, seven were present and each gave a short talk before their piece was played. Each piece was given an enthusiastic and unique reception by the audience that was custom-tailored to the impact of the music, personality of the composer whom they had just heard speak, and circumstances surrounding the creation of the work. The one thing that remained constant, and this cannot be said enough, was the quality of the orchestra and its performances of all the music. Credit for this must be given equally to both the excellence of the individual players and the solid and emotional leadership provided by Măcelaru. It was a privilege and inspiration to be in the same room where all of these musical elements were brought together in such a masterful and artistic fashion.

Most musical style periods have a few general characteristics that are unique and allow the music to be categorized just by its sound. If this weekend is any indication, one of those characteristics for the first part of the 21st century is the use of static but complicated blocks of sound that give the sense of a tonal center. One detail that seems to distinguish this approach from composer to composer is how easy it is to hear the instrumentation; contrasts of subtle changes versus extreme clarity of instrumental color become one of the distinguishing factors in the particular sound of a composition and, in some cases, the style of a particular composer.

Saturday’s concert was titled Notes From a Journey. The first piece, Liguria by Andrea Tarrodi, is a short tone poem describing a walking tour between five different Italian fishing villages. Tarrodi was unable to attend the concert but provided a description of the things being depicted: big waves, cliffs, clock tower, sunbathers with umbrellas, watchtower and stars. Dense, sustained chords were mildly dissonant but provided a sense of tonality. These harmonies were often created by the intertwining of various moving lines. The changes between the different depictions were easy to follow and, in the case of the chimes for the clock tower, fairly obvious. As with all of the pieces this evening, the percussion section provided significant and unique timbres such as the bowed metal instruments near the end of Liguria.

John Corigliano (above with pianist Philip Edward Fisher and Măcelaru) introduced his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a work he wrote 50 years ago at age 30. The music is technically difficult for the pianist, orchestra and conductor. The harmonies are dissonant in the style of the 1960s with no hints of the minimalistic style that was to make its appearance in that decade. The performance was impressive and exciting. Soloist Fisher was asked to negotiate numerous virtuosic passages in a wide variety of styles which he did with confidence and ease. This was his second performance of this piece and he is scheduled later on to record it with the Atlanta Symphony. The music explores a large number of sounds and sometimes hints at the influences on Corigliano’s musical experience: rhythms from Bartók, romantic gestures of Rachmaninoff and a short passage of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the last movement. Leonard Bernstein’s song Build My House from his Peter Pan is the most obvious reference in the first movement and the faintest reference to Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti can be heard in the second movement. There was no doubt, however, that this was the work of a young composer with plenty of unique things to express. The piece concluded with a ferocious ending and a well-deserved ovation for all of the musicians.

Melt by Sean Shepherd (right) opened the second half. Shepherd explained the piece as the journey of a drop of water through the experiences of a glacier. Quiet and static harmonies are created by blocks of glassy strings contrasting with the woodwinds. The piece unfolds without the elements of melody or a regular pulsing beat taking the lead. A type of rhythmic motion is created over longer periods of time by the interaction of blocks of sound. The overall effect of this performance was one of physical description rather than emotional depiction. Shepherd is unafraid to take the time to allow things to slowly unfold, especially the repeated percussion figure that slowly brings the piece to a close.

The evening’s youngest composer, Peter S Shin, described how Hypercolor depicts sleep issues. His excitement about the performance was contagious and appeared to affect the audience reaction at the beginning of the piece, which sounds like a recreation of the electronic tape/acoustic percussion piece Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Shin later revealed that this opening was his orchestration of one of his electronic pieces. The “electronic” effects soon change into an orchestral sound as a string quartet’s G-major attempt at attaining a sleep-state is constantly interrupted by the rest of the orchestra. Many different non-traditional uses of acoustic instruments are called for such as blowing air through instruments or bowing to create unusual string sounds. The theatricality of the piece gives it a sense of physicality that is often slapstick but also, at times, a bit disturbing.

The final piece Abstractions was introduced by composer Anna Clyne (right with Măcelaru) who described the five different artworks depicted by the music. Each movement of this suite presents just one type of sound and emotion. Contrast is created by the start of the next movement. The first movement features one major chord which is sustained throughout and colored with additional dissonances and a single melodic idea to create a gentle, delicate image. Rapid, intertwining lines create a sense of constant energy in the second movement. The result is a sound reminiscent of a movie score by Danny Elfman such as Beetlejuice. The third movement contrasts step-wise lines in the woodwinds with sustained tones in the low strings. Gentle melodic embellishments are randomly added. The fourth movement starts like the second movement but with brass melody over string lines. A set of variations follow as this same material is reorchestrated a couple of times. The last movement features a single rapid string line with sustained winds. The music sounds similar to Philip Glass’ score for the movie Koyaanisqatsi.

It would be difficult to pick one favorite piece out of this concert or to identify one that did not live up to the others. For someone who loves both orchestral and contemporary music, this concert was a validation that the Cabrillo Festival is a treasure that any place would hold with pride. The audience walked out of the auditorium to be greeted by tables of champagne, sparkling cider and cake. Those who had tickets for the final concert on Sunday went home in anticipation of another great evening yet to come.

SUNDAY’S CONCERT was titled Of Other Worlds. The opening piece In Terra was introduced by the composer Pierre Jalbert (left with Măcelaru) as a work representing rock layers embedded in the earth which undergo both slow and violent changes. The work is made up of different layers of sound which sometimes change in a logical, progressive fashion and sometimes in a sudden, more violent way. Everything is kept moving by a strong sense of rhythmic direction and new instrument combinations are heard with a clarity that is not found in most of the other works from Saturday and Sunday. The overall effect is that the music is an object of beauty rather than emotion. This piece turned out to be my favorite of the evening.

Nico Muhly’s Impossible Things stands out mainly because of its orchestration: solo tenor, solo violin and string orchestra. Tenor Nicholas Phan has a wonderful light tenor voice and great diction. Violinist Justin Bruns, also Festival orchestra concertmaster, is a marvelously expressive player. The string orchestra is a great ensemble and conductor Cristian Măcelaru brought this all together in a memorable performance. Unfortunately, the composer did not provide a piece worthy of this potential. The poetry by CP Cavafy is not well-served by the music as the emotional range is kept inside fairly narrow confines in spite of the meaning of the text. The tenor is asked to sing almost constantly in the middle of his range and is given a part that is an unfortunate cross between recitative and melody. The solo violin part did not seem to have any consistent relationship with the voice, the words or the structure of the music. The strings are also given a limited number of things to do that seems to be reticent to any extremes in change except in the last movement. What could have been the highlight of the weekend turned out to be the most disappointing.

Composer Missy Mazzoli (right) introduced Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) after intermission. This is her third piece to be performed at the Cabrillo Festival. She admitted, unnecessarily, that the success of this attempt to describe the shape of the solar system is difficult to judge. We are only glad that she made the attempt at an impossible task. Sustained banks of sound are embellished with short figurations and slides in the different instruments. Hints of the medieval hurdy-gurdy are heard through the use of “toy” instruments such as the harmonicas enthusiastically played by the bassoonists and other colorful plastic instruments partially hidden from my sightlines sitting at the orchestra level. This enjoyable piece is marred by a few sections that seem to ramble. Some people considered this to be the best piece of the evening.

The final work of the Cabrillo Festival was The Garden of Cosmic Speculation – Part I. The composer, Michael Gandolfi (left with Măcelaru), began his talk with praise for the orchestra on behalf of all the composers who attended the event. He then talked about the actual garden in Scotland that inspired this music; the architect, now his friend, who designed the place and the fact that the garden is still being worked on, leading him to continue to compose pieces for this work. The result is that he wrote two more movements this year bringing the total to twenty. The work is to be performed in any number and combination of movements as chosen by the director. Tonight’s performance used five of the movements. The music often features aggressive or jaunty rhythms based on a steady pulse often supplied by claves. A wide variety of styles with a contemporary twist appear including jazz, tense movie scores and popular music. The movements chosen by Măcelaru resulted in Part I both beginning and ending with peaceful recording of bird sounds.

The largest ovation of the weekend occurred at the very end of the concert. After Gandolfi had received his well-earned applause, attention turned to the orchestra and Măcelaru. The audience exploded in a loud, long and well-deserved demonstration.

Photos by rr jones