Alsop faves, Adams, Puts & Rouse (All photos by r.r.jones)
By Scott MacClelland
BITTERSWEET VALEDICTORIES by definition elevate celebration. At the Cabrillo Festival last weekend, ceremony rose to match, though not eclipse, the music presented. Yet it did shorten the orchestral programs on Friday and Saturday nights to just a little over one hour of music each. I heard no one complain. On the contrary, the discrepancy—if that it could be called—was filled with love and humor, a well-known hallmark of music director Marin Alsop’s charismatic personality.
POWER & DEVOTION
Christopher Rouse was in a jovial frame of mind as his two West Coast premieres owned the first half of the Friday program, “Power & Devotion.” His short Thunderstuck of 2014 rocked with the spirit of American popular music “of my younger years.” He’s certainly the man for the job: rock & roll—sort of—for large orchestra and drum set, based on a recurring three-note motif and full of dancing energy with contrasting lyrical passages. (It references Jay Ferguson’s Thunder Island of 1978, less rock & roll than popular song with doo-wop sha-la-las.)
Of greater interest was Rouse’s Oboe Concerto of 2004, in twenty-five minutes and three movements of equal length. The composer’s mastery of orchestral resources obviously appeals to Alsop, who has brought him back to the festival many times. As the piece began, a memorable effect of soft-spoken wah-wahs on three muted trombones set a mood that would return later. The diminutive oboist, Katherine Needleman, from Alsop’s Baltimore Symphony, made the conductor look tall. (She’s not.) The outer movements gave the soloist a generous workout with plenty of make-work, executed here with easy grace. The middle movement was a nocturne of long, circumspect oboe lines and, later, a complementary alto flute solo. A strange glissando on cellos and double basses quietly rose from the ether. The flute solo and the trombone wah-wahs would be heard again as the energized final movement withdrew into quietude.
James MacMillan, an Alsop favorite, was not on hand to hear the West Coast premiere of his The Death of Oscar, a solemn meditation—a “miniature tone poem”—on the death of the son of the bardic poet Ossian. Stories “by” Ossian and about Oscar have been part of the Scottish consciousness for generations, passed along by word of mouth. They were collected and published by one James Macpherson in 1760 and have inspired romantic interpretations by artists and musicians since, not least Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave. MacMillan’s music is dark and processional in its sorrow. Trumpet fanfares honor Oscar’s triumph; his death lamented by a lonely cor anglais.
Anna Clyne was present for the world premiere of her symphonic ballet RIFT, a festival commission in which Clyne collaborated with choreographer Kitty McNamee. A long riser up front, a catwalk actually, stretched from one side of the orchestra to the other providing the six Hysterica Dancers their stage. Five of them—two men and three women—entered through the audience. In dance they enacted conflict in the modern world that fills the news on a daily basis. Their physical pushing and pulling would remain a presence throughout, but early on a further discordance entered in the form of a third ‘distressed’ male dancer.
Sorting out a new orchestral score at the same time as grasping the choreographic narrative is no small challenge to an audience; neither by itself is easy, together doubles the ante. To help, Clyne and McNamee’s notes describe three parts: Act I is a sad meditation, Dust (of destruction), which builds into chaos as it “snaps” into Act 2, Water, “an ethereal world of rituals” that is interrupted by an outburst of manic energy. Act 3, Space, harkens back to a more serene and orderly time, opposite to the chaos at the start. From this process emerges an extended melody of haunting beauty on the strings whose style is the more familiar from this composer’s past works heard at Cabrillo. Meanwhile, behind the orchestra, projected images seemed to echo the events of the three acts but, gratefully, did not intrude.
INSPIRATION & IMPACT
When the orchestra first heard of Alsop’s plan to step down after this season, their initial shock motivated a unique action. At the suggestion of principal clarinetist, Bharat Chandra, the musicians commissioned John Adams to compose a gift for their conductor. Thus, the world premiere on the Saturday program of Adams’ Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance, a zany five-minute whirlwind based on a colorful description of the 19th century Irish-born (Eliza Gilbert) dancer with a scandalous international reputation. The description appeared in 1853 in the short-lived San Francisco Whig. (It was reproduced in the festival program guide.) Adams merely followed its instructions. A muted trombone solo put a fine point on the score at the start, and John Schertle—E-flat clarinet, the designated instrument—got more than just a cameo solo. Adams called for very limited percussion, which sets the piece apart from many of the scores Alsop has introduced to Cabrillo audiences. At its conclusion, they played it again, another festival first. Adams walked through the orchestra, hugged Schertle and held his E-flat aloft.
Then came a major highlight of the festival so far, Adams’ Absolute Jest, of 2011, for string quartet and orchestra. For nearly half an hour, the piece atomized and recombined bits and mottoes from the late Beethoven string quartets, symphonies and other works. The composer explained that it was not exactly a jest, but rather “fractels” from Beethoven subjected to a “hall of mirrors” by way of a computer program. The members of the Attacca Quartet (who were amplified) and the orchestra were put through those paces in an eminently coherent texture, while the balance between the quartet—deployed in solos and duos as well as all together—and the orchestra covered a huge dynamic range. And all this driven by highly-dotted and energized Beethovenian scherzo rhythms. As it approached its conclusion, all on stage accelerated to great speed, the high winds keening their enthusiasm. (Another piece that kept haunting my imagination, and that may have done the same for Adams, is the driving dotted fortissimos from Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony.)
In introducing his Spinning Music, composer-in-residence Michael Kropf—commissioned by Adams and Deborah O’Grady through their Pacific Harmony Foundation—observed that the year Alsop came to Cabrillo was the year in which he was born. Alsop was amusingly not amused. Winds chattered, strings pizzicato’d and brass intoned to set this six-minute ‘machine’ into perpetual motion.
Lastly came Kevin Puts’ The City, a symphonic portrait of Baltimore that both composer and conductor now call home due to their professional associations with the Peabody Conservatory. This is a powerful 23-minute portrait of an industrial town that offers great diversity and no insignificant conflicts between police and its large black community. Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in April, 2015, ignited riots and violence, including torchings, and demands for justice. This atmosphere impacted the direction of Puts’ music and a documentary film by James Bartolomeo that was created, after the fact, to match it. Initially the film used a lot of historic imagery, some videos, many stills subjected to zooming in or out to give them motion. Then racial confrontation took center stage as violence ramped up. Suddenly, the film went dark and Puts’ music rose into an extended climax of brilliant musical violence. (The percussion section was divided antiphonally on two sides of the orchestra to excellent effect.) As this orchestral tour de force subsided the film returned, now depicting the aftermath clean up.
Once again, two new simultaneous events challenged the audience and, if anything, made a very different impact than the Clyne/McNamee collaboration of the night before. Current events set both into motion and creation, but from very different perspectives. Like maybe feminine and masculine? Works for me.