Cabrillo Festival “Secret Songs”

Photo by rr jones.

By Scott MacClelland

WHIMSY got a goodly measure at the Cabrillo Festival’s “Secret Songs” concert last Saturday in Santa Cruz when Cristi Măcelaru conducted the orchestra in Hannah Lash’s God Music Bug Music and Vivian Fung’s Earworms.

Măcelaru welcomed the return to Cabrillo of Lash whose previous appearance was in 2015 while Marin Alsop was the festival’s music director and conductor. God Music Bug Music, in two movements lasting 13 minutes in performance, used a “cell” of five notes, blaring with brassy exuberance in the “God” portion, circumspect in the “Bug” section where it ultimately swarms canonically through the entire orchestra. Both movements ended big and dramatically. Fung’s Dust Devils got its world premiere at last year’s festival. Her toddler son provided the inspiration for Earworms, thanks to his insistent demand to sing The Wheels on the Bus over and over. Instead of trying to escape the “annoying” song she chose to incorporate it into what could be called a musical quiz because she sneaked into this colorful 11-minute piece quotes from any number of pieces that became earworms for her on their own. (Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question and Maurice Ravel’s La valse were only two of many more.) Both the Lash and Fung pieces displayed glitzy compositional technique with tongue-in-cheek flair.

The program’s festival commission and World Premiere, Psalm Without Words by first-time composer-in-residence Preben Antonsen, came with a lengthy program note that described the piece in seven specific sections. Without knowing in advance how long it would be in performance, the program note set up an expectation that proved more confusing than illuminating. The one clue that oriented the ear was the fifth section, “The Soul-Forge,” which the note said was “based on the rhythm of nail-driving at a construction site” and “chiseling” that called for sharply struck metal percussion. The following “Forlornness at the First Earth’s Vanishing” lowered the volume while the strings and harp drew out an arching and haunting melody. The long program note actually described a short nine-minute single movement piece that alone deserves to be repeated at a future festival.

The program took its title from Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, of 2013, here getting its West Coast Premiere. Its subtitle is Symphony for 13 Micro Films, Harp Solo and Orchestra. Since the composer was not present, Măcelaru proved an anecdote: the piece was to be a 25-minute harp concerto commissioned for a premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra. When the score arrived, it turned out to be 45 minutes long. As assistant conductor there, Măcelaru was assigned the task of trying to convince Tan Dun to shorten it. He in turn convinced Măcelaru that no changes would be made.

Tan Dun’s stature among contemporary composers and the program note made clear why. This work was an enormous undertaking, an attempt to preserve and revive Nu Shu, a singing (not speaking) language created by and for otherwise repressed women in Hunan, “a secret sacred text exclusively passed down from mother to daughter, one generation after another.” The note further explained, “During several research trips in 2012, Tan Dun and his research team collected over 200 hours of audiovisual documentation that now serve to preserve this 13th-century language, today on the verge of extinction.” (A sidebar in the program guide provided additional background.)

The projected micro films documented the actual process, showing a mother teaching her daughter the songs by rote. The composer chose the harp for “its beautiful feminine sounds” and its shape which resembles a Nu Shu character being painted on a fan. Thirteen discrete movements, to complement the 13 short films collected in the field, attracted the composer to show off his extremely wide-ranging imagination and mastery of the musical resources available. Some of the movements were dominated by song, others animated by dance. And, yes, there was whimsy here too.

Tan Dun, a native of Hunan, has become an international musician, as comfortable in musical mediums of both Oriental and Occidental inflections. This piece naturally took its bent from its context but did not dwell on Chinese pentatonic scales, even while suggestions of the Yellow River Concerto, a collaborative effort by Chinese composer/arrangers that premiered in 1969, emerged from time to time. Water played a major part of both film and music; two percussionists were called upon to scoop up and drizzle water from large acrylic bowls. Films included a young woman rowing a boat on a river. “Is it a river or a body of tears? The answer is hidden in the water,” the notes say. For the final movement, “Living in the Dream,” the notes read, “Despite the hardships encountered by the Nu Shu village women, their songs and lives are filled with a sense of romanticism. Each day when mothers, daughters and sisters gather to sing, write and sew in Nu Shu, a happy time is shared and woven into a secret dreamlike reality.” The entire orchestra, including the two percussionists now slapping the water, and the soloist came together in music of festive dancing while the film showed the Hunan women doing laundry at the river.

Under Cristi Măcelaru, the Cabrillo Festival is zig-zagging toward fresh new directions and adventures. I used to hear complaints that much of the music ‘sounds the same.’ Not so in the festivals of 2018 and 2019.