By Scott MacClelland
COURAGE & CONNECTION
THE MOST IMPORTANT annual highlight of my last 25 years has been the Cabrillo Festival, conductor Marin Alsop and her spectacular festival orchestra. And just as the name has evolved over that quarter century—from the nickname CabMuFest back in the day to the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music—so has Alsop’s vision. Today, dead composers of even the greatest accomplishments and impact, need not apply. On the prior weekend, when Christopher Rouse was a composer-in-residence, Alsop mentioned her one all-Rouse program at Cabrillo. When she proposed it to the composer his original reaction, Alsop recounted at that time, was: “Are you sure?”
The third of Alsop’s orchestra concerts at Santa Cruz Civic, last Friday, was titled “Courage & Connection.” It included a five-minute musical puzzle called Scherzo Cypto by festival orchestra oboist Alexander Miller, a San Antonio Symphony 75th anniversary commission that was premiered there in 2014. This is an intentional puzzle that contains a hidden solution, as Miller explained in his program note and spoken remarks. An admitted puzzle freak (crosswords, Sudoku, etc.) he chose to conceal the name of an instrument within whirling patterns of an orchestra-wide, pulsing bundle of energy. He added that the clue would be at its most transparent at the end in a brass “chorale.” Before she played it, Alsop confessed that she did not figure it out, though several of the orchestra players revealed with raised hands that they had. Spoiler Alert: the answer was V I O L A tapped out in Morse code.
Then up stepped concertmaster Justin Bruns as soloist in the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s fiercely challenging Violin Concerto, which won its composer the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. (It was written for and recorded by Hilary Hahn.) It’s a fabulous work in the late 20th century grand romantic tradition, and fully 36 minutes in performance. Higdon titled the first movement “1726,” which is the street address number of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. That explains, she said, why it has so many sixths and seconds (intervals) in the moving solo line, which, she added, makes it very unsympathetic to the instrument. It opens with solo violin harmonics and delicate metal percussion then motors up with winds and brass. Full orchestral spasms alternated with quiet episodes that highlighted individual members of the orchestra in tandem with the soloist. Bruns tossed off the long fiendishly leaping solo cadenza as if ‘no problem.’ The strings of the orchestra then rose up in rich resonance.
Cor anglais and cello opened the Chaconni second movement, imparting a chamber music character that drew in solos on flute, clarinet, trumpet and viola before the orchestra swelled to a sonorous climax. In the closing moments, back down to intimate cor anglais and cello, a haunting melody arose on the violin. In the bristling finale, Fly Forward, tiny violin bits were immediately echoed by selected orchestral instruments. I kept hearing references to Samuel Barber’s great violin concerto (composed 1939-‘41), both melodic and virtuosic. In a chat with Higdon at the interval, she confirmed Barber’s ghost, adding that the Barber, another major presence at the Curtis Institute, was itself a very difficult piece to perform.
Mason Bates—pictured with Alsop and Higdon—was on hand to join the orchestra with his ‘electronica’ in The B-Sides, composed in 2009. The title references what, back in the days of vinyl, was the often more creative if not hit-worthy other side of 45rpm discs. Here were 24 minutes and five movements, very different from each other, of sheer entertainment. The “dusky” Broom of the System, named after a David Foster Wallace short story, described circuit-board maintenance as metaphorical chimney-sweeping. Electronics and percussion launched it. Sandpaper blocks and, on two occasions an actual broom, cleaned things up with clockwork precision. Aerosol Melody (Hanalei), without electronica whispered a “gentle bending melody” that repeatedly evaporated at cadence points until it stretched out on a Hawaiian beach in slumber. The jazz-inflected Temescal Noir, also purely acoustic, pays call on that district of North Oakland and adds typewriter and oil drum—and again the broom?—for an industrial feel. It elides directly into the final Warehouse Medicine, a gritty celebration of Detroit as birthplace of techno with roaring brass and orchestral conflict.
The central movement, Gemini in the Solar Wind, a kind of radio drama, recalled the first American spacewalk, by Ed White, with spooky electronics and actual snippets of communication from space to flight-control in Houston. “I called NASA,” Bates said, “and they called me back.” The piece got a giggle when the capsule ordered White to return, repeatedly since the astronaut was apparently having too much fun.
MEMORY & MEANING
Each of the four orchestral programs began with a short video of various musicians and composers talking on camera about Alsop and her influence on them, both personal and professional. This last one divulged a secret even to Alsop. In it, principal clarinet Bharat Chandra revealed that the members of the orchestra had approached Kevin Puts to write another parting gift—a second commission by the musicians—to magnify their admiration and love for their departing music director, to be played without a conductor. Puts also appeared in the video describing the five-minute piece, Last August, with parts for all the musicians in the orchestra, as a “musical hug.” She was invited by ED Ellen Primack to sit with the audience for what must have been the first time ever. The piece was, as Puts said, bittersweet, loving and, ultimately, triumphant. Back on the podium, Alsop asked rhetorically, “What can I say?” Plainly, she was moved; her usually smooth remarks were jumbled and she looked to be blinking back tears. Then she got down to the business for which she has become world famous.
Explaining that she wanted to open a window on her new ‘home’ in South America—she is music director of the São Paulo Symphony, her contract recently extended through 2019—Alsop introduced the West Coast premiere of Kabbalah (2004) by senior Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre. His program note described two parts, “light and energy,” explaining that the word cabal is Hebrew meaning “that which is received.” He added, “I constructed (it) in two levels: one “rigorously mathematical” and the other “totally free form of intuition.” In nine minutes, it was rhythmically intense, pushing and pulling at the same time. A ‘primitive’ element appeared in the form of a Xingu Indian song.
After a lengthy and complicated set-up, the second piece on Saturday’s program, Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Oceana, was a bust. Alsop was never able to ignite the San Jose-based Choral Project of some 40-plus singers as the composer intended. While their parts are raw with propulsive ritual energy the choir was too timid to bite in. The featured ‘vocalist,’ mezzo/alto Alicia Olatuja, had Golijov’s vocal qualities in mind but, lacking the horsepower of his original choice, was rescued by amplification. (Also amplified, young boy soprano Lucas Fedronic—eight or nine—held his own.) But for lack of adequate vetting of the chorus, Alsop was handcuffed and rushed an exciting 25 minute adventure into only 20 minutes of ‘let’s get this over with.’ She knew she was in trouble when she called for the strings to double the choir for their final a cappella passage. But the piece itself—I’m guessing Alsop had penciled it in for Cabrillo some time ago—entices the imagination. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival in its “Cantatas of the Americas” series, it was premiered there in 1996 and recorded by the Atlanta Symphony in 2007. It calls for two acoustic guitars, harp, flutes, ‘native’ percussion and strings. (You can already see the balance challenges for both concert and recordings.)
Since Alsop needed to end her Cabrillo tenure in triumph, she couldn’t have made a better pick: John Corigliano’s First Symphony (1988), “Rage and Remembrance,” a grief-saturated cry of pain over the loss of friends, colleagues and loved ones to AIDS. Composed at the height of the epidemic, it seethes with intensity, from rage—the most persistent emotion—to grieving, nostalgia, Shostakovian sarcasm and unrelieved sorrow. I don’t think the piece has a personal equal; not in Mahler, not in Shostakovich—both extremely personal composers of symphonies. But I couldn’t have known that from the Leonard Slatkin recording with the National Symphony, a pale document compared to what Alsop and her orchestra did here. She realized Corigliano’s pain with an empathy that only the very few who lead from an orchestral podium feel. (It’s an extremely short list.)
As tempted as I am to detail the piece further, much less its spectacular performance, I would only observe the offstage piano playing by Emily Wong of the quiet—I hope the recording to be broad- and webcast on KALW.org (August 29, 9pm) captured—of Isaac Albeniz’s Tango, the recurring bit of nostalgia that proves to be the most haunting theme of all.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT
KEVIN PUTS is one of my favorite composers. I love his instrumental music (See last week’s comments about his The City in our Music Reviews HERE) and his operas—and he knows that I do. His mastery is awesome, often breathtaking, as is his confidence. He is as great a contemporary living American classical composer as Rouse, Adams, Glass, Higdon, and the very few others in the top tier. But I question his ambition. If he would be a leader among American master composers for the future, to set an example that other young talents could aspire to, Puts will have to pull away from his comfort zone and return to taking artistic risks that expose him to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Photos by r.r. jones