Cabrillo Festival, Part 1

By Scott MacClelland

AT THE FRIDAY START of the 2015 Cabrillo Festival music director Marin Alsop called her Cabrillo band of musicians, “The greatest orchestra in the world for contemporary music.” I heard no dissent and I trust her perspective.

Yet I was surprised at how retro several pieces on the Friday and Saturday programs were. A few years ago, a longtime Santa Cruz friend and former festival board member complained to me that the music Alsop chose, new as it was at that time, had lost its urgent cutting edge in favor of ‘easy listening.’ Last weekend I heard what for me was a disproportionate amount of good old tonal, emotionally expressive music, and a lot of rediscovered pop stylings from the ‘70s rearranged from what used to be jazz/pop/crossover, now set for full symphonic orchestra.

I was left with a puzzling question: is Alsop’s taste changing, or has the festival started to adjust itself according to audience responses? If the latter, I’m prepared to be distressed; the internationally acclaimed Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is my annual intellectual/emotional recharge.

Meanwhile—and as if new music weren’t its own aphrodisiac for lovers of the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz—the introduction of a new instrument, the aluphone, cemented the deal Friday night at Civic Auditorium. As conductor Marin Alsop acutely observed, the sharply conical aluminum bells looked like they came from a Madonna costume of some years back. Cabrillo Currie

The aluphone (right, in the rehearsal photo by rr jones) is supposed to be a hybrid of bells and marimba depending on the hardness of the mallets used to play it. In this event, it did exhibit timbres distinct from either yet could be both. Arrayed directly in front of the audience, there was no chance it would disappear in the forest of other percussion—marimbas, cowbells, woodblocks, drums, xylophones, Jamaican steel drum—masterfully navigated by soloist Colin Currie in this US premiere of James MacMillan’s Second Percussion Concerto. (The piece was premiered last November in Utrecht, Netherlands.) Funds to pay for it came from eight orchestras, including Cabrillo, and support institutions. The single movement lasting 25 minutes included the rest of the orchestra’s percussion section and players—timpani, bass drum, thunder sheet, Asian gongs—taking a role equal to the full orchestra. Currie darted back and forth, swapping out mallets and sticks, to keep in balance with the roiling orchestral fabric.

This maelstrom occupied the first third of the piece until an outburst finally gave Currie respite as a quiet central interlude unfolded. Some full stops then welcomed in a bassoon solo with eerie strings in support. Brass fanfares interrupted, cowbells ruminated, and a lush string passage filled the room. Currie’s Jamaican steel gave way to a viola solo with harp and piano. The brass signaled the rebuilding of power and energy. A siren sounded while the strings scurried. A stentorian chorale arose on the brass while Currie returned for a final display on the aluphone. While this show guaranteed a loud audience response, piecing together a portrait of the composer was a bigger challenge. So many gestures and ‘sounds like’ images flew by that the easiest way to describe MacMillan in this piece was in terms of sonic textures and colors more than substantive personal message. Its vivacious, virtuoso orchestration congested the piece with a sensual overload: AKA TMI. Alsop met the challenge with fiendish concentration but the hero was Currie.

Returning resident composer David T Little introduced his nine-minute Haunted Topography, a “meditation” on the grief of a woman whose son had been killed in the Vietnam War. (The title referenced a map that began the still grieving mother’s healing when the exact location of her son’s death was pointed out.) Pulsing rhythmic chords on marimba and piano gave the piece its constant heartbeat, softly at first, then growing in loudness as other instruments added to warmly tonal texture. A viola solo restored the intimacy of the opening only to be followed by a swelling fortissimo on the orchestra. It ended softly as it began.

Mason Bates’ 35-minute nocturnal Anthology of Fantastic Zoology served up Friday’s high point. The spectacularly imaginative orchestrations were matched by the formal clarity and transparency of the textures, always much desired but rarely pulled off as well as Bates has done here. The brand new piece was composed for the Chicago Symphony, often with individual members in mind, and premiered there in June. (This was its West Coast premiere.) The title comes from an anthology by Jorge Luis Borges, itself full of magical imagery and mystical puzzles. (Bates describes it as “a kind of psychedelic Carnival of the Animals.”) Eleven interlocking movements, “inspired by French and Russian ballet scores,” lead into the ever-deeper forest, as introduction to and interludes between Borges’ fanciful mythological creatures. “A Sprite” bounces from music stand to music stand in tiny bits that hop across the strings (including two offstage violins) and other instruments. “The A Bao A Qu” is a serpent that climbs a tower, molts (flexitone) then slides back down in the form of a perfect palindrome. Clarinets represent “Nymphs,” followed by “The Gryphon” with brass and timpani as the flying lion preparing to prey on the frightened equine strings. As midnight passes, “Sirens” introduces the two offstage players, positioned at the highest levels of Civic Auditorium and as far apart as possible. They encouraged the rest of the strings to recover their proud bearing. This was the lushly romantic heart of the piece. But a mythical island-sized creature, “The Zaratan,” comes to devour them, complete with sharply dissonant tone clusters, the only real departure from a pervading tonal consonance. The final “Madrugada” brings back all the strange creatures in a thicket of sizzles and pops like a fireworks show that explodes out of control. Alsop’s orchestra was spectacular!

Saturday’s program opened with Quanta by Sebastian Currier, a first-time resident composer here. Spread over 13 minutes, it played two bars followed by one bar of silence, each two-bar phrase impressionistically reflecting the composer’s curiosity over those pictorial Chinese language calligraphic characters that had no real meaning for him even though he was given a grand tour by the Chinese government in the hope that it would find its way into his music. Of course it did, but Currier’s musical vocabulary is essentially American, with the occasional orientalism added somewhat self-consciously. In its US premiere, this set of miniatures gave the orchestra surprising flashes of color and imagination. Sometimes the two bars sounded short and sometimes longer, easier to hear than to track.Sheng_(Chinese_mouth_organ)

In its West Coast premiere, The Color Yellow, a concerto for sheng (right) and chamber orchestra by Huang Ruo, was for me the high point of the program. To the composer yellow is “the color of skin,” yellow earth, Yellow River, Yellow Mountains. (He called the concerto a musical “theater piece.”) Wu Wei, a virtuoso of the sheng (pronounced shung), an ancient mouth organ of bamboo reeds that can play everything from a solo melody to full-blown (pun intended, sorry) chords, rocked and swayed to his virtually non-stop part. The orchestral fabric was exceptionally exotic, including a rain stick and a kind of bullroarer in the percussion, conch shells in the trombone department and bowing below the bridge on the cellos. The composer figured out how to reconcile the Chinese tuning of the solo instrument with Western scales, and did so with an adroit hand. A huge solo cadenza claimed the center section of the 20-minute concerto, to be followed by a solo piano and an abrupt climax on the orchestra. As it ended, many of the orchestra players audibly blew just air. (I spoke with percussion principal Galen Lemmon afterward explaining that while I could see the small Asian bells array I could not hear it. He said, “I couldn’t hear it either.”)

Jonathan Newman gave a terse description of his four-minute Blow It Up, Start Again, composed in 2011: “Exploding, anarchistic dessert.” Alsop added, “Perfect for Santa Cruz.” Like the following Chroma, by Joby Talbot, the idiom was popular music, a big orchestra version of some pop/jazz crossover band arrangements from the ‘70s and ‘80s, deliciously driven, chaotically disguised formal clarity.

In seven short pieces, Chroma was originally composed for choreographer Wayne McGregor’s award-winning ballet of the same name. Alternately light and dark, the 24-minute concert suite is now gaining notice. Each of the movements carries a title. Formally, the piece is dominated by repetitious ostinato patterns and regular cadences, favorite devices of the Baroque and Classical eras. Much of it also depends on a steady rhythmic pulse. The idiom is drawn on popular American music stylings, but craftily constructed. Early on, the double basses were bowed below the bridge. The piano figured extensively and there were many instrumental solos, chirping winds and strings, low brass followed by high brass in some sections. Strings alternated between bowing and pizzicato. The percussion flexed muscles but were relatively restrained. As a concert piece, it was more seductive than challenging. The audience gave it a standing ovation.