By Scott MacClelland
Carolyn Kuan’s body language and conducting style present a spooky reminder of Marin Alsop, her mentor at the Cabrillo Festival. The right-hand stick work and left-hand cueing and phrasing show virtually the same intense concentration on the details at hand, moment by instant, as well as a similar awareness of the big picture and the room as a whole. If the conductor is the lens through which the performance is projected, Kuan’s work at Santa Cruz Civic on the Festival’s opening night was often breathtaking in its crystalline imagery. You could almost see the music as it sounded.
For its West Coast premiere, this was of crucial significance in Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 3 (2011). Easily the most important work of the Festival’s first weekend, it brings the staying-power potential of greatness. The composer’s introduction to Cabrillo took place in 1994 when Marin Alsop conducted his Pulitzer-winning trombone concerto. At Mission San Juan the piece brought the audience to its feet as one person. Rouse has returned several times since, with new orchestral works as challenging and thrilling as ever, with his fearless fortissimos and brilliant mastery of orchestral resources that never lapses into the vernacular or indulges electronics and other contemporary ephemera.
This ‘new wine in old bottles’ took as its model Prokofiev’s “iron and steel” Second Symphony, with a “ferocious” first movement followed by a set of variations on a melancholy theme first heard on cor anglais. Immediately, the first variation was noisy and spectacular, the second as lush and unguardedly romantic as anything I’ve yet heard from Rouse. Whirling woodwind goblins led to a final protracted crescendo. For all his bad-boy pretensions, Prokofiev remained a classicist lifelong; his second symphony took its model from Beethoven’s last piano sonata, though with entirely different character. While Rouse included some of Prokofiev’s rhetorical bits, he made them his own. This work is as good as, maybe better than, the Prokofiev, and, at 30 minutes, several minutes shorter.
The big hit of the program was Kevin Puts’ flute concerto, a Festival commission completed earlier this year. The performance featured the brilliant young (25 years old) principal flute of the London Symphony, Adam Walker, a sensation all by himself. Puts’ craftsmanship has long been well-known; he brings a sensitive touch to mining resources of his imagination and those of predecessor composers. Here he attained an even higher level of personal (as opposed to imitative) integrity. His own creative voice has not glowed so beguilingly and with such ease. Yet the Mozart-loving piece was no walkover. Virtuosic demands on the flute included solo cadenzas, which Walker delivered with breathtaking élan. The slow (middle) movement paraphrased the same movement in Mozart’s much-loved Piano Concerto in C (K467) and, toward its end, briefly quoted the Mozart literally. The finale, including mallets (keyboard percussion) took syncopation to a new level. As if to prime the well of public ovation, Puts in the closing minutes has the orchestra musicians replace their instruments with a stunning display of hand-clapping their syncopated rhythms. The trick worked in spades.
The program opened as Derek Bermel conducted his own Dust Dances, four short connected bits inspired by a visit to Ghana in 1993. It was his way of translating into orchestral colors the gyil music he heard there, ‘marimba’ dances with hardwood strips amplified by resonating gourds fitted with spider webs to get a buzzing effect. Polyrhythms and pentatonic scales completed the substance of this musical charm.