Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, August 10, 2013

Magnetic power

By Don Adkins

Fortunately, for both orchestra and audience, Saturday’s Cabrillo Festival concert in Santa Cruz featured three works that all deserve repeated hearings. You would be hard-pressed to three orchestral pieces written within four years of each other that come from a wider range of compositional approaches and styles: Unstuck (2008) by Andrew Norman, Magnetar (2011) by Enrico Chapela and Symphony No. 10 (2012) by Philip Glass. Both Norman and Chapela were present and spoke for a few minutes before their piece was played. Conductor Brad Lubman, known internationally for his work with contemporary music, stood in for the injured-but-recovering Marin Alsop.

When Norman found himself stuck in the middle of a composition surrounded by fragments of ideas that would not come together, he took inspiration in Kurt Vonnegut’s “unstuck” novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Following Vonnegut’s example, the California composer took the same approach by not sticking to chronological progression. This attitude freed him to put the fragments together in a way that did not necessarily demonstrate a natural progression of ideas. His Unstuck also includes sections where the orchestra sounds like it is stuck until, like a successful Heimlich-maneuver, it burps up new directions.

The result is a piece with sections of tremendous energy that are never allowed to achieve a full gallop, interspersed with static sections that sometimes sound a bit like the music of Charles Ives. Norman is obviously comfortable writing for strings and utilizing various techniques to take full advantage of their expressive capabilities. The most significant recurrent structural element of the piece involves three cellos playing high-pitched, static chords at different significant points in the piece, including the ending. The cellos actually begin each of these sections with their bows “stuck” to the strings. Lubman conducted the details of the work but did not find too many opportunities to point out the larger structures. Unstuck was well-received by the audience and appeared to be appreciated by the orchestra as well.

Magnetar is a concerto for orchestra and electric cello. Chapela, apparently a rock-and-roll guitarist in his formative years, takes the basic concept of electromagnetism that makes electric guitars and cellos possible and expands it to the ultimate magnets that exist in the universe, neutron stars called magnetars. Chapela used information he was given by a couple of astrophysicists to describe magnetars from a composer’s point of view. Cello soloist Johannes Moser was brought into the creative process early on. Fortunately for the listener, Chapela did not let the technical aspects lead to another “science experiment” in sound. Instead, he utilizes popular elements from rock-and-roll, jazz, the Middle East and spacey-electronic-universe music to create a piece with something for every eclectic taste.

Lawrence K. Ho

The electronic sounds produced by Moser were often imitated by the orchestra or used as a springboard for other musical effects. The result was a sense that the technology was being used for musical reasons. Moser’s live-performance mastery of both the cello and the complicated electronic rig resulted in a performance which was engaging without drawing attention to the technical effects. The one major problem with the performance was the balance between solo and orchestra; the cello often covered the orchestra in the loudest sections, especially when the strings were interacting with the soloist. Nevertheless, the piece turned out to be the hit of the evening.

The second half of the program saw the U.S. Premiere of Symphony No. 10 by Philip Glass. After the fireworks of the first half, this piece offered an oasis of calm. It was also entirely predictable if you know the music of Glass. This five-movement symphony demonstrated the familiar minimalistic style that was pioneered by Glass in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Glass has distanced himself from the term minimalism and now describes his music as containing repetitive structures. This approach is familiar to anyone who listens to music written in the last 50 years and is appreciated for its sometimes soothing, almost hypnotic effect upon the listener. Symphony No. 10 is like receiving the latest book from your favorite author who uses the same cast of characters.

A good sense of proportion distinguishes the symphony’s form. Other than the fourth movement, which seems a bit too long, the musical materials are fully exploited without becoming boring. Simple ostinatos are layered upon each other in complicated rhythmic structures that do not feel forced. Melodies often outline simple scale patterns and sometimes are used as simple directional gestures. Tonal shifts occur infrequently and are used to designate major sections. While dynamic contrast in this performance was lacking, conductor Lubman stole more time for interpretive input. If you like music by Glass, this symphony is a welcome addition to the orchestral repertoire. As evidenced by the applause given at the end, there were many audience members who liked the symphony and even more who appreciated the skill and musicianship of the Cabrillo Orchestra.

Above photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho. (The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 88.9 FM on August 20, 7pm)

Posted August 12, 2013

Shadows of Stravinsky?

By Scott MacClelland

In case you doubted it, the level of instrumental virtuosity has taken a giant step up, witness flutist Adam Walker’s premiere of Kevin Puts’ Flute Concerto (2013) on the Cabrillo Festival’s opening night program, and clarinetist Emil Jonason’s speed-of-light skitter through Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto (2002) on the Festival’s closing program Sunday at Mission San Juan. But it’s not so much mere virtuosity—the word ‘mere’ hardly fits these two spectacular players—as the musical substance it is wrapped in.

Cabrillo’s history of raising the orchestral bar has long since become the expected norm. But in just the last few seasons, the level of solo virtuosity has overtaken the orchestra’s sensational abilities. The history of music, especially in the Western classical line, not only accounts for the on-going growth of the art, but of its technologies as well. (Just consider the difference over less than 300 years between Bach’s harpsichord and the modern nine-foot concert Steinway.) Today’s composers also have the opportunity to work directly with the artists tapped to premiere their works.

Lindberg wrote his concerto for Finnish virtuoso Kari Krikku. (You can find his recording on YouTube.) Yet it is hard to imagine how anyone could have mastered the Lindberg score better than Jonason. The dazzling speed in dense blizzards of notes was breath stopping, the range of tones from the instrument’s bottom to its hyperphonics in the stratosphere, its multiphonics (the woodwind equivalent of Tuva throat-singing) and graceful lyricism seemed, at times, almost schizophrenic.

That latter lyricism is not commonly found in Lindberg’s musical vocabulary. But it showed that the feisty maestro actually has a tender side. The solo clarinet opens the work with a bucolic melody—obviously an homage to the clarinet solo that opens the First Symphony of Sibelius—that provides the entire, single-movement concerto with its organizing theme. Five conjoined sections include thumping Stravinsky rhythms, à la Sacre du Printemps, sparkling chimes, echoes of a rarely heard clarinet rhapsody by Debussy, and no shortage of shootouts between soloist and orchestra. In Jonason’s hands the solo cadenza approaching the finale went beyond the power of infinitives to describe. Yet in no way did the apparent conflict between the soloist and the orchestral score diminish either. Somehow, Lindberg found a way to match his own authoritative musical personality with its alter ego in the solo clarinet. (Jonason returned sustained applause with a five-minute solo encore, Swedish in its seasonings and no less spectacular in its virtuosity.)

Musical substance likewise bookended the concerto, George Walker’s ten-minute Sinfonia No. 4 Strands to open and Anna Clyne’s 22-minute Night Ferry to close. (Like the Lindberg, both pieces echoed Stravinsky’s Sacre.) His age notwithstanding, the 91-year-old Pulitzer-winning Walker displayed his characteristic organic style and tight concentration of means here. It’s a good thing his program note mentioned the inclusion of the two spirituals, There is a balm in Gilead and Roll, Jordan Roll, since he disguised them so well within the orchestral fabric. Yet, the textures were only moderately dense, and not always even that. Understating it as “a concise work,” Walker applied a deft touch that offers valuable lessons to today’s much-younger composers.

One of them is Anna Clyne, an unassuming young woman who goes public with easy smiles and one of several signature hats, only to blister her audiences with deeply expressive, cannily constructed works that offer both the “intensity and coherence” cited by Robert Hughes in his last Charlie Rose interview. (See our Music Reviews page from last week.) Though not explicitly said in Clyne’s program note, Night Ferry might as well depict an English Channel crossing in the dark during a raging storm. With the orchestra stuffed into its usual place at the front of the mission church, two bass drums (and some ancillary metal percussion) were positioned about one third of the way back in the nave, outboard of the audience, to add a spatial dimension to the tempest. From time to time, the severe weather subsided and made way for pizzicato passages of marching arpeggios, from angst to “enchanted worlds.” Various backstories (poetry, paintings and collages by the composer herself, and a diagnosis that Franz Schubert suffered from cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar disorder) underlie the programmatic narrative. In the end, however, the music has to stand free from all that, and it does. Ultimately, and except for citing individual members of the Chicago Symphony who influenced her music, Clyne’s program notes turned out to be superfluous. And, surprise, surprise, Night Ferry ended quietly, a rarity of its own when Cabrillo takes over Mission San Juan.

Clyne’s three successes at Cabrillo have won her a major orchestral commission, now scheduled for its world premiere in 2016.

(The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 88.9 FM on August 23, 8pm)

Posted August 12, 2013