By Scott MacClelland
CRISTIAN MĂCELARU, the new music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, more spookily resembles his predecessor, Marin Alsop, than one could possibly have expected. Or hoped for. Clone comes to mind, but that makes it even spookier.
Măcelaru was selected—as they say at Cabrillo—for his standout dedication to new music and living composers, by definition the festival’s mission. Like Alsop he loves to talk, though so far lacks her witty glibness and comedic timing. But once in action on the podium, he is not only no less physical but, from an audience perspective, even more specifically articulate.
In Alsop tradition, he brought up each of the evening’s three composers for their words of introduction. Michael Gandolfi and Clarice Assad explained their Festival-commissioned world premieres, respectively Points of Departure: Cabrillo and AD INFINITUM, Assad’s percussion concerto composed for Evelyn Glennie—that tiny (five feet tall) but fearless force of nature who has performed several premieres at Cabrillo.
The Gandolfi piece is a full-orchestra revision of his original chamber orchestra piece of 1988, as specifically requested by Măcelaru. It is a cyclic work in which its four movements begin with a bit from the previous one, each bit coming closer to the end of its respective movement. Once acclimated to the idea, those components were easier to track than the peculiar constructive devices applied to each movement and implicit in their titles: Spirale, Strati, Visione and Ritorno. The slow third movement featured string glissandos and chirping winds; Ritorno brought up more percussion and some ostinato figures reminiscent of Sibelius. In a packed 20 minutes of often-vague tonality, its particular nuggets will no doubt become more recognizable with repeated hearings.
Assad, a returning composer-in-residence, took her turn raving about the opportunity at hand. She might have said more about her collaboration with Glennie who, I’m guessing, introduced her to a whole new zoo of instruments. Just as the audience was getting its head around the three batteries of drums, metal and keyboard percussion, stagehands brought out a fresh load before the composer spoke.
A percussion concerto suggests three possible approaches: a display of sheer color, architecture along classical forms, and a kind of program music. Assad’s AD INFINITUM emphasized a program organized around the cycle of life, beginning in the womb and ending in death and rebirth. Glennie moved in stealth from the wings with two tiny, almost inaudible bells in her hands. This emergent hush slowly gained volume until the explosion of birth and ‘outside world’ when Glennie poured on a blistering display in the huge drum department (see photo). Hers was virtuosity on steroids, brilliant patterns of sound that seemed to match the speed of light. For the second movement, ‘infancy/childhood,’ Glennie slipped through the orchestra to the keyboards, first playing the (metal) xylophone with soft mallets. The third percussion group of suspended chimes and bells included what sounded like squeaking bathtub rubber ducks and a toy drum made of metal. (No shortage of colors here.) The orchestra—significantly reduced in the brass and quite busy with its own show—indulged in stamping feet and vocalizing without words. (At one moment, two of the orchestra percussionists laughed out loud, to the shushing of the other musicians.) A cadenza for the soloist then led the orchestra back in. The movement ended as Glennie played a paraphrase of Brahms’ lullaby on delicate metal, an African thumb harp I believe. The finale, ‘adulthood/death & rebirth’ opened with Glennie playing marimba with hard mallets. The orchestra took an equal part and, with Măcelaru in command, showed off its quicksilver response to his direction in both phrasing and dynamics, in warmth and in coolness. For ‘rebirth’ Glennie returned to the drum set for yet another Big Show. The 28-minute performance ended as Glennie and her two tiny bells retreated back into the darkness of the wings.
A tumultuous standing ovation, long held for composer, soloist and orchestra alike, went on for at least ten minutes.
Returning composer-in-residence Aaron Jay Kernis explained that his Second Symphony was composed in his shocked reaction to the Persian Gulf War, the first such conflict the US had entered in Kernis’ adulthood—he was 31 at the time. He titled the movements Alarm, Air/Ground and Barricade. They speak his mind in an amazing display of mastery and expression. Alarm is indeed intensely alarming, explosive yet coherent. (In fact, the entire work is remarkably coherent, reminding me of so many of the great Shostakovich symphonies. Moreover, the Russian composer used similar titles in his war-themed symphonies.) The long middle movement begins in sorrow that seeks to comfort, including a violin solo, but, halfway through, it enters into a nightmare of anguish. Winds and bells try to relieve the pain until an uneasy calm recalls the opening in warm tones of strings and winds. A snare drum begins the final movement with unison strings singing an angular melody—not unlike Shostakovich—until the orchestra adds the dissonance of close harmonies to the texture, all told in long-sustained phrasing. Percussion takes the upper hand until the orchestra swells in accord into howling despair and a tremendous climax underpinned by a screaming tam-tam which ends the piece only by being allowed to slowly fade away to silence.
There is a fine recording of Kernis’ Second Symphony by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Hugh Wolff. But as has so often happened when the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra takes on works that provide a documented comparison, it becomes a whole new ballgame. Marin Alsop did that very thing over and over; now her standard has been renewed. And perhaps the greatest accolade of all is that Măcelaru’s orchestra is virtually identical to Alsop’s. “One cellist retired,” Festival associate director Jessica Frye told me.