Conductor Cristi Măcelaru, Megan Levad, Jamie Barton & Kristin Kuster (photo by rr jones)
By Scott MacClelland
FOR HIS CONTINUALLY REVIVED COMEDIC BALLET, the late, great choreographer Michael Smuin created the title Tutto Eccetto Il Lavandino—(Everything but the Kitchen Sink). And so it could be said for the work that opened the 2019 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Nina C Young’s Agnosco Veteris (2015). For fifteen minutes, every nook and cranny of the large orchestra had a moment in the spotlight. Alas, the sum was incoherent, full of sound and fury but… A couple of thematic ideas posed briefly but ultimately went unanswered. This was a missed opportunity for a young composer—one of three women represented Friday evening at Civic Auditorium—to engrave her ideas into memory.
It proved another example of what goes wrong with new music—or music of any time and place actually: insufficient structure for the intellect to grasp hold of after performance. The piece made for a colorful, even glitzy show, but left no memorable impression. The obscure title, a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, that Dante Alighieri copied in his Divine Comedy, lost all meaning in its musical meanderings.
Fortunately, this was not the case for the three remaining works presented. Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte (2014) for strings embraced the architecture that creates memories in the mind of the listener. Likewise Melody Eötvös’ The Saqqara Bird (2016) and When There Are Nine (2019), for mezzo-soprano, vocal ensemble and orchestra, Kristin Kuster’s wickedly entertaining partnership with librettist Megan Levad (2019) that celebrates of the life national impact of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (The program’s title, “Notorious,” cited the Justice’s nickname, Notorious R.B.G., a word play on the assassinated rapper Notorious B.I.G., another native of Brooklyn.)
Shaw’s piece for strings should serve as an object lesson for composers of new ‘classical’ music. Her use of call-and-response is a simple technique, actually rooted in folk music traditions, whose repeating patterns pave the way for the music’s directionality and recollection. Initially, the ‘call’ was a short gesture that quickly faded before it appeared again in another section of the ensemble; it became a conversation between sections. Shaw, who for no explained reason was not present, then applied her fertile imagination and accomplished skills as a violinist to decorate the 10-minute work with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar techniques, including harmonics, nearly inaudible bowing, pizzicato, a small chamber ensemble and a final solo cello cadenza. But it is her imagination and compositional skill that brings all these tricks into coherent focus. The performance got the first big audience approval of the evening.
The Eötvös, for full orchestra, was equally imaginative, as she explained an attempt to divine the intersection of numerous theories about the meaning of an artifact, a small wooden sculpture of a bird, found near Saqqara, Egypt, at the end of the 19th century. Her piece gained from its pulsing rhythm, another structural organizing device, though its pace both picked up and slowed down. A violin solo and a piccolo solo, echoed by the harp and xylophone, added personal elements to the orchestral fabric. Again, call-and-response clearly enhanced focus. In its later pages, the short (eight minutes) orchestration echoed the sparkle and clarity hallmarks of Igor Stravinsky.
When There Are Nine, a world premiere and festival commission lasting 45 minutes, divided Levad’s text into nine sections and between Jamie Barton, the excellent mezzo, and Roomful of Teeth, the vocal octet. It was preceded by a big-screen video of Justice Ginsburg acknowledging the event and its participants. At times the orchestra murmured a background to the words, as in the opening movement, Innumerable Drafts, that paraphrased what the Court does was inspired by Ginsburg’s assertion that law is “an art as well as a craft.” The Pedestal Is a Cage laid out how the patriarchal society devalues women, the solo and the vocal group refracting different facets of its repression. Pathmarking elaborated on the same subject citing institutional rules and regulations as they apply to the poor and the weak. La Giaconda, for mezzo and the orchestra (chugging along with minimalist techniques) and subtitled “The Happy Woman” runs from Ginsburg’s early love of opera to a fearless defense of dignity. In Riding an Elephant, Ginsburg’s words explain why she (Kiki) rode behind Justice Scalia (Nino) that “It had to do with the distribution of weight” while Levad’s words end with “One looks forward, one looked back.”
On Dissent invoked some of the landmark decisions taken by the court in the last century and a half. For Marty cites Marty Ginsburg’s declaration, “I think the most important thing I have done is to enable Ruth to do what she has done.” Its refrain is “It’s just not done,” harking back to the earlier texts, while the orchestra dances gleefully. On Dignity was adapted from testimony Ginsburg gave to the Judiciary Committee on her nomination to the Court; it pointedly deals with how the government controls and punishes. Finally, A Push-up is a Push-up is a Push-up raucously comments on Ginsburg’s personal trainer. The orchestra rounded the soloist and vocal octet toward a climactic finish.
The audience reaction ranged from sobriety to giggles and even one guffaw. That and a hearty standing ovation. The room acoustics were enhanced and the concert was recorded for broadcast on KALW 91.7 in San Francisco (on line at KALW.org) on August 18, 8pm.