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POETIC, BUT NOT REALLY POE-ETIC

POETIC, BUT NOT REALLY POE-ETIC

ROHNERT PARK, CA—To catch important musical works, it can take an hour’s drive out of an arts capital to reach them. Credit the Santa Rosa Symphony and amalgamated choruses for bringing out that very eloquent but little-known choral symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “The Bells,” given in the concerts of Dec. 3-5 here. The composer called it his number one achievement.

Coming from his palette in 1913, the 35-minute piece contains some of Rachmaninoff’s most skillful musical effects. If you only know the big three piano-cum-orchestra opuses, then, my friend, you don’t yet know Rachmaninoff the deft orchestrator, the master of rich romantic textures who could also produce consummate articulation in a diaphanous orchestra.

Like the composer’s life itself, “Bells” combines both Russian and American strains, using poetry of E.A. Poe. The piece is poetic, but not really Poe-etic. It’s a very free adaptation of Poe into Russian, then set to music, and now translated back into English in an even freer adaptation (Is that Mr. Poe himself we see, turning over in his grave?).

Its four movements present distinct themes, doled out to individual vocal soloists: childhood, wedding days, sheer horror (my favorite) and deathly doom-in-tomb. The finale contained the most memorable singing by far on opening night, with veteran operatic basso Philip Skinner and his fiery, booming voice in total command, as if prepping for Verdi’s “Requiem.”

Cuing his forces throughout, the wiry French Music director Bruno Ferrandis had clearly worked hard readying this rarity, and his orchestra did the rest. Though the audience reaction was tepid-to-polite, perhaps because the last movement is the most subtle and somber, the interpretation was exquisite, one of the best at the SRS.

Bells play little role in the music itself. Childhood is marked by silvery flute effects and a humming chorus, plus high (angelic?) female voices. The wedding section turns both sensual and tender, white the “horror” segment bristles with turbulence and dissonance. The chaos reflects souls in distress, as the chorus turns chromatic, and harp arpeggios emphasized the instability of the infernal scene.

Effective and attractive instrumental solos peppered the program, coming from SRS principal players Roy Zajac, Elizabeth Prior, Adelle-Akiko Kearns and Jesse Barrett.

While unusual, a choral symphony is not a new concept, used as format by Berlioz (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) and others.

Also featured was Elgar’s best and most played work, the “Enigma” Variations, that very durable mystery opus, with each variation bearing a friend’s initials. There were multiple mysteries which Elgar was not forthcoming to reveal. Why enigma? Who was the secret lady friend taking an unmistakable sea voyage in the variation marked simply “****”? What is the hidden principal theme which is never played (as he confessed), which no one can identify? (When asked if he’d reveal that theme, he always growled “Never!” leading some to believe that he quoted part of the song “Rule Brittania.”)

For more information, visit the Santa Rose Symphony event page.

BERLINERS GO VIENNESE IN SAN FRANCISCO

BERLINERS GO VIENNESE IN SAN FRANCISCO

Both sides of the Berlin maestro Simon Rattle were evident and resplendent in the tour concert given on Thanksgiving eve: The formalist/modernist in the Second Vienna School, and the sensual interpreter of Brahms’ Second Symphony—two realms of music many miles apart, though all heavily weighted to Austria. The impact was quite overwhelming, with wild audience huzzahs at each conclusion.

Half the program went over to Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, a thicket of often rebellious, impenetrable music that rewrote almost everything you learned in the Theory of Harmony class. This is music of rebellion. This trio of ground-breakers with works from 1909-1915 reflected the growing instability within the old order of the European political establishment. Schoenberg was the eldest, tearing away from Mahler and R. Strauss, in foment with his shards of sound, and rarely a theme of more than four notes, sometimes with three separate elements fighting for visibility simultaneously, and only glints of tonality. His large orchestra and heavy percussion suggest a restless giant in “Five Pieces for Orchestra.” The most memorable segment is the gentle, genteel “Colors,” where a chord is held, but with different instruments coming and going.

In “Six Pieces for Orchestra,” Webern’s orchestra is both transparent and aphoristic in its articulation. There are the sonic wonders of celesta, bells, tamtam that have you wanting to listen with three ears. The processional pace of the work ends in a rousing finale with brass and drums.

Finally we have the Berg “Three Pieces for Orchestra,” an opus both emotional and intense. I liked the restless and effusive “Reigen” segment () coming in big swells, reaching climaxes, then receding. And it ended with the passionate March. With the instability of those allegedly “devilish” tritone intervals. A century ago, these selections set dozens of people running to the exits; when heard Nov. 23, I saw none of that, just a great ovation at the end.

In an unusual linkage, Rattle tied them all together, as if they were one 14-movement opus 51 minutes in length. Fine. But I’d opt rather for a 30-sec. break after each composition, so that listeners could tell unmistakably what was Berg, what was Schoenberg.

The Berliners have evolved since the heyday of the late Herbert von Karajan. Where, in that era, the musicians resisted mightily allowing a second woman into the orchestra (the super-clarinetist Sabine Meyer), this time I counted 13 women in the ensemble. Male or female, this is one of the truly great orchestras in the world, and their every tour concert is one to treasure.

They finished up with a nuanced, mellow, and sensual reading of Brahms’ Second. Ah, that robust octet of string basses! The velvety horns, the sumptuous celli, the dancing nature of the Allegretto, the immense shaping of dynamics, and the dizzying intoxication of the exciting finale. Rattle shapes this symphony exquisitely, even in little hesitations. The crowd at Davies Hall might still be cheering, and perhaps opening up cracks in walls and ceiling.

For more information, visit the SF Symphony event page.

SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

On Halloween (Oct. 31) the Los Angeles Philharmonic knocked the socks off almost every one at Davies Hall with Tchaikovsky’s familiar Symphony No. 4, playing it like a true virtuoso orchestra and sounding like a European ensemble. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel’s melding with this group is total. And, in today’s era of strict tempos, he stretches tempi in heart-warming ritards and rubatos that were commonplace till about a century ago. He has pillowy-soft descents from brassy heights into wind-and-string valleys. The music sweeps along inexorably, carrying you along like a rushing river current. The slow movement featured a melting solo from oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk, whom Dudamel later singled out for a solo bow.

My sole reservation about the interpretation is the sinewy brass-and-timpani assertiveness—welcome for the opening “Fate” theme,” yet overpowering later on. It reminded me of the memorable quote from composer-conductor Richard Strauss: “Never look encouragingly at the brass section.” (He also wrote tongue-in-cheek, Before the first downbeat, already the brass is too loud!) This stirring symphony is memorable for its finale, which sounds like yet another triumphal court scene added to a ballet like “Sleeping Beauty”—you can almost see the ballerina whirling onto the stage. And of course there’s the quoted beloved Russian tune every schoolkid there knows, “The Little Birch Tree.” Pure mother Russia!!

Andrew Norman’s demanding “Play” (2013) was as much a test of the orchestra as for the audience. The essence of the 40-minute opus was novel: The sound of the four percussionists acted like a switch, turning the rest of the orchestra on and off. This had the strings play at furious speed, with the brass punctuating at irregular times. You can imagine the percussionists’ delight at running the show from the often overlooked back rows, sounding out (with slapsticks, yet) to wake any patron dozing off. It’s a power trip, plain and simple, making implicit assertions about dictatorships and totalitarian leadership. Along the way the brass weighs in with potent gravity, and the trumpets form a sky-high sonic canopy over the proceedings. This switching is a somewhat limited concept for a work of such dimensions.

In his three sections (“levels”), composer Norman, 37, eventually takes a much more effective tack in a lengthy ultra-soft segment of aching beauty with a relaxed theme played out, each note performed by a different player. Dudamel conducted meticulously, achieving great articulation in the languid sections. (For those unhappy about writers’ frequent remarks on female performers’ appearances, some turnabout male-directed commentary: Dudamel has cut his mountainous explosion of hair that had marked his earlier appearances in the U.S.) For all his great gifts at producing near-silent orchestral magic, conductor Gustavo Dudamel also has a profound love for brass and timpani—loud, at times deafening-oppressive.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument. This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture. MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument.

This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture.

MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

For more information, visit the SF Symphony event page.

 

A DYNAMO OF A CELLIST

A DYNAMO OF A CELLIST

Alisa Weilerstein Shares Stage with Heras-Casado

Stemming from a distinguished musical family, Alisa Weilerstein seems determined to be the dynamo of the younger performing generation. Last week back east she squeezed two recitals into one, playing all six unaccompanied Bach suites for cello in one intensive three-hour swoop, a feat that could leave both audience and performer in a sweat-drenched tingle.

With the San Francisco Symphony in a more subdued mode, she played the Schumann cello Concerto in A Minor on Oct. 22. This too is demanding though briefer, with the cello soloist playing almost nonstop. It’s one of Schumann’s unusually reflective and introspective pieces, bent less on fireworks than romantic lyricism. Its soulfulness is hard to resist.

When Weilerstein, 34, plays, it’s not just music, it’s music-theater. I’d pay for a close-up video of her many facial expressions, precisely matching each musical phrase she is playing, whether jocular, emotional, haughty or thought-provoking. How refreshing, in this formal situation, to see her lick her fingers before placing them securely on the strings! She mastered the many hurdles of the 23-minute opus, even those massive high-low jumps of a couple of octaves in the opening. The nimble fingers and precise intonation did the rest, assuring a standing ovation by the Davies Hall fans.

The fast-rising Spanish guest conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, etched a strong personality in leading another romantic   work, the Dvorak Symphony No. 7, which is an even   bolder, larger-scale statement by a composer showing some influences of Brahms’ orchestrations. But the thematic content was quite original. With the dashing Heras-Casado, it’s all about skillful dynamics in many shades, and enough warmth to heat up an ocean. This was not about a hearing, it was about an experience. The conductor is the master of the pillowy pianissimos   as much as precise, gorgeous (and splashy) climaxes. In the finale he led us into dark caves and then neatly brought us out into blazing sunshine. Given the superior play by the orchestra and its salient soloists, it was hard not to be swept along with the inexorable current.

The many-shaded dynamics also illuminated the 18 th -century Mozart Symphony No. 29, where the string basses happily showed not tubbiness but rather deft tones and nimble runs. The witty 18-year-old Mozart showed surprising touches in what you could call his first fully mature symphony, with an unorthodox minuet, and a finale that suggests, deceptively, that a copyist left out a couple of lines. Not the case!

These San Francisco Symphony concerts given at Davies Symphony Hall, S.F. For info: (415) 864-6000, or go  online. Broadcasts on KDFC-FM (90.3 and others) at 8 p.m. on the second Tuesday following.

©D. Rane Danubian 2016
#
D. Rane Danubian has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

STRAVINSKY REVISITED IN BERKELEY

STRAVINSKY REVISITED IN BERKELEY

BERKELEY—Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his Philharmonia Orchestra from London to Zellerbach Hall to do a two-program tribute to Stravinsky, recalling the 1968 opening ceremonies of the same site.

The 2,000-seat hall is a major site, filling a big yawning void at the University of California for nearly half a century.

The Londoners are supreme performers. As one colleague noted after “The Rite of Spring,” the muted horns played so softly, so subtly, it was as if they were offstage. Overall however, the tradition-breaking “Rite” came off exuberantly, ebulliently, with a wild streak on the bass drum and paired timpani prominently heard in the back row of players. This piece which revolutionized the course of music in 1913 and set off the biggest concert-hall riot at the premiere, is one of 4-5 different personae that the versatile Stravinsky adopted during his long composing career. He was such a commanding force in musical invention that I think he is forgiven for borrowing, unacknowledged, at least five of the “Rite” themes from an old Lithuanian folk-song book assembled and issued by Antanas Juska, a Lithuanian priest and folklorist. Stravinsky was ever the precise rhythmic master coming out of the ballet, rather than a source of abundant memorable themes.

Given the visceral nature of “The Rite,” its furious fusillades, the primitive society depicted in the ballet, and the human sacrifice at the end, is it any wonder that the elegant Parisians were infuriated by the opus?

Salonen, the handsome dashing Finn who had given up the plum job of directing the L.A. Philharmonic to devote more of his life to composing, is a top-line conductor, leading all the complex metric changes of Stravinsky unerringly and instantaneously, even if you can never really judge whether the beat comes on the upswing or downswing of the baton. (Fear not, his musicians can.) He and his players roused the crowd Oct. 8 to wild enthusiasm, and they remained audibly energized even as they filed out of the hall into the night.

For those few of us lucky enough to be around at the 1968 hall’s opening, on Oct. 9 the Londoners recreated that very repertory, with the composer then sitting down front (His delicate health and age, in his late 80s, prevented his conducting that night.) The great diversity of the composer was emphasized with the “Symphony of Psalms”—No violins or violas! Deliberately misplaced syllable accents! Revived Latin rarities! Two pianos!—-and his “Oedipus Rex” opera-oratorio, also in Latin, with narration.

I’ve heard the latter work with four different ensembles, and this was the most dramatic and compelling performance of all. The exceptional spinto tenor Nicholas Phan played the title role with a ringing voice and a touching persona, embodying the tragic end of this king who blinds himself on discovering himself married to his mother. Another American artist, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, played Oedipus’ spouse-mother Jocasta with secure hall-ringing sound and inner fire.

The concerts also contained the jaunty, aphoristic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, less than 10 minutes long, and his late ballet “Agon” (1953-57) marking his entry into the ultra-complex sonic world of 12-tone composition.

For more information, visit the Philharmonia Orchestra of London events page.

A FLOOD OF INSPIRED STRAVINSKY

A FLOOD OF INSPIRED STRAVINSKY

As London’s Philharmonia Plays Berkeley

BERKELEY—Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his Philharmonia Orchestra from London to Zellerbach Hall to do a two-program tribute to Stravinsky, recalling the 1968 opening ceremonies of the same site.

The 2,525-seat hall is a major site, filling a big yawning void at the University of California for nearly half a century.

The Londoners are supreme performers. As one colleague noted after “The Rite of Spring,” the muted horns played so softly, so subtly, it was as if they were offstage. Overall however, the tradition-breaking “Rite” came off exuberantly, ebulliently, with a wild streak on the bass drum and paired timpani prominently heard in the back row of players. This piece which revolutionized the course of music in 1913 and set off the biggest concert-hall riot at the premiere, is one of 4-5 different personae that the versatile Stravinsky adopted during his long composing career. He was such a commanding force in musical invention that I think he is forgiven for borrowing, unacknowledged, at least five of the “Rite” themes from an old Lithuanian folk-song book assembled and issued by Antanas Juska, a Lithuanian priest and folklorist. Stravinsky was ever the precise rhythmic master coming out of the ballet, rather than a source of abundant memorable themes.

Given the visceral nature of “The Rite,” its furious fusillades, the primitive society depicted in the ballet, and the human sacrifice at the end, is it any wonder that the elegant Parisians were infuriated by the opus?

Salonen, the handsome dashing Finn who had given up the plum job of directing the L.A. Philharmonic to devote more of his life to composing, is a top-line conductor, leading all the complex metric changes of Stravinsky unerringly and instantaneously, even if you can never really judge whether the beat comes on the upswing or downswing of the baton. (Fear not, his musicians can.) He and his players roused the crowd Oct. 8 to wild enthusiasm, and they remained audibly energized even as they filed out of the hall into the night.

For those few of us lucky enough to be around at the 1968 hall’s opening, on Oct. 9 the Londoners recreated that very repertory, with the composer then sitting down front (His delicate health and age, in his late 80s, prevented his conducting that night.) The great diversity of the composer was emphasized with the “Symphony of Psalms”—No violins or violas! Deliberately misplaced syllable accents! Revived Latin rarities! Two pianos!—-and his “Oedipus Rex” opera-oratorio, also in Latin, with narration.

I’ve heard the latter work with four different ensembles, and this was the most dramatic and compelling performance of all. The exceptional spinto tenor Nicholas Phan played the title role with a ringing voice and a touching persona, embodying the tragic end of this king who blinds himself on discovering himself married to his mother. Another American artist, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, played Oedipus’ spouse-mother Jocasta with secure hall-ringing sound and inner fire. Stepping in smartly, with authoritarian voice, was narrator Carl Lumbly, filling in for a late cancelation.

The concerts also contained the jaunty, aphoristic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, less than 10 minutes long, and his late ballet “Agon” (1953-57) marking his entry into the ultra-complex sonic world of 12-tone composition.

The neoclassical “Psalms” had three massed choruses numbering close to 140 voices, with the women predominant. Among the singers was a visiting group from Sweden, the chorus from the university town of Lund.

Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Esa-Pekka Salonen principal conductor, Oct. 7-9, three programs of mostly Stravinsky. With choruses. Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. For info on the latter: (510) 642-9988, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

A UNIQUE, EMPTY-PODIUM TRIBUTE

A UNIQUE, EMPTY-PODIUM TRIBUTE

Again, Cabrillo Does It its Own Way

By D. Rane Danubian
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Aug. 15-22,  2016
Vol. 18, No. 85

SANTA CRUZ—The high affection of the Cabrillo orchestra members for outgoing conductor Marin Alsop resulted in a tribute probably unique since the days of Napoleon. They commissioned composer Kevin Puts to write a piece for her, to be played with an empty podium.

Puts’ “Last August,” to mark both her impact and imminent departure, was a highly lyrical five-minute opus where there was no central guidance, apart from covert peeks at the violin bow of Concertmaster Justin Bruns. The ensemble held to it perfectly at the Aug. 13 grand finale, bringing out the recurrent five-note theme that said to me, simplicity is profundity. And quite possibly (under a less specific title, say, like “Adieux”), other well-disciplined orchestras might use it too.

Ms. Alsop watched the whole affair at the Aug. 13 festival finale from a plush audience seat. She was so moved, her voice nearly broke in her verbal response.

Alsop chose to go out with a whimper not a bang, ending her 25-year podium tenure here with one of our most somber statements, John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 (1988), dwelling on the tragedies of AIDS and its victims. This is a violent, searing 25-minute work in the Sturm-und-Drang tradition of effusive romanticism.

Here I must take back my earlier contention that Alsop avoids stretching phrases emotionally, rubato style. She did it effectively in Corigliano, bringing it out as one of the most important and compelling of all American symphonies. It’s a complex piece by a composer clearly shattered by the AIDS epidemic and losses, calling for many added players (seven French horns, seven percussionists, etc.) and, figuratively, a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

In between came two works from South America. Osvaldo Goilov’s cantata “Oceana” was a 21st-century piece patterned after Bach, with poetry by Pablo Neruda, all in a Latino way. The lilting, sensual solos by singer Alicia Olatuja, who had also sung at the 2012 U.S. presidential inauguration, conjured up a palm-fringed shore of the sea, simply accompanied by guitars and flutes, no more. Olatuja’s role was partly wordless, partly Neruda-texts, partly scat singing, partly rhythms of Brazilian dance. The orchestra entered alternately with the 40 chorale singers of San Jose’s Choral Project, who seemed a bit underpowered for the expanse of the S.C. Civic Auditorium.

The dual influences of Villa-Lobos and Brazilian indigenous people were paramount in Marlos Nobre’s brief “Kabbalah,” which Alsop is conducting right about NOW with her other regular ensemble, the Sao Paolo (Brazil) Symphony. Full of booming drumming and “Rite of Spring” textures, its heavy emotional makeup, wih pronounced brass and percussion, should fit the exuberance and emotion of post-Olympic Brazil.

AFTERMATHS—The 53-year-old festival has a search underway for Alsop’s successor—hard shoes to fill, whether high-heeled, dress, or sandaled….May had marked the passing of Maestro Gustav Meier, 76, who had headed the Cabrillo young conductors’ workshop for 14 years. He had been conducting teacher of Alsop, along with Leonard Bernstein…. A born and bred New Yorker, Alsop continues to lead the Baltimore Symphony in addition to guesting with orchestras in Europe. The only symphony conductor who has ever received a MacArthur (“genius”) Award, she is henceforth Cabrillo’s conductor leaureate—which implies occasional future Santa Cruz engagements.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Marin Alsop, music diredctor, through Aug. 13. Also delayed broadcasts on KAZU-FM. For info:  go online.

©D. Rane Danubian 2016
#
D. Rane Danubian has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

ORCHESTRAL PUZZLES, SCI-FI VENTURES

ORCHESTRAL PUZZLES, SCI-FI VENTURES

Cabrillo Festival Mantra: Never Look Back

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Aug. 14-21, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 84

SANTA CRUZ—-Astute programming brought off the Cabrillo Festival concert featuring a knuckle-busting violin concerto, a sci-fi-oriented score, and a scherzo with a puzzle.

Take note of Bay Area composer Mason Bates, 39, who marches to a very different drummer from the rest. His “B-Sides,” inspired by terminology of recordings, combines orchestra, computer sounds, and odd-ball sound intrusions like sandpaper, oil drum and typewriter. What was audible, and got chuckles at the Aug. 12 concert, was a musician downstage sweeping with a broom, according to rhythms in the score. The modest composer has no pretensions, mixing in everday sonics with glorious spacey forays, disorienting glissandi and sound textures suggesting some roots in the “2001” movie or that Richard Strauss tone poem. The five-part suite encapsulated also the euphoria of space, where the first space-walker Ed White was heard, taped, reluctant to reenter the space capsule despite Mission Control’s pleas.

What makes Music Director Marin Alsop’s imminent departure especially  unfortunate is how much more effective this “B-Sides” go-round was than a previous hearing in San Francisco Symphony. Alsop brought out the other-worldly aspects effectively, and make both the lowly broom and its sweeper visible and audible—low art alongside high art, recalling early digressions of Cage, Antheil, ,Satie and Harrison. And she reseats musicians every time for optimum sonic/visual effect.

The Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, 54, provided supreme challenges in a soloist’s technique. Close to 10,000 fiery notes are squeezed into a 36-minute span, as heard Aug. 12 with soloist Justin Bruns, the orchestra’s concertmaster. It’s an oversize piece in several dimensions—Olympics-inspired speed, 36 minutes long, and such technical difficulties that they even had me perspiring. Higdon’s style is post-Bartok, incorporating big gestures along with the delicacy of solo-violin harmonics, ruminative dialogues and gypsy dynamics. She tosses in quite a few chords with seconds intervals—like the opening of “Chopsticks”—and adds a Chaconne with beguiling woodwind ensembles. Her orchestra is often more a chamber ensemble, offering spirited dialogues between soloist and ensemble.

I doubt that soloist Justin Bruns, summering here away from the Atlanta Symphony, was on speed at the time, but I’d have been tempted. The furious fiddling, first intended for Hilary Hahn no less, is daunting, herpas as densely written as anything in the concerto repertoire. As Higdon notes about her Olympic inspiration, “It’s about a race.” for most of us, it’s more like the nightmare where we’re about to hit the finish tape and never get there, regardless of how hard we try. Bruns was of course sensational.

The puzzle that night was a unique piece, obliquely related to Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” Composer Alexander Miller is a puzzle fanatic; his “Scherzo Crypto” contained a distant reference to a musical instrument which very few people can guess, unless they know Morse code signaling very well. Somewhere toward the end, a brass tattoo thusly spells out V-I-O-L-A. Clever, unique—a composer with something of Alan Turing within him.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Marin Alsop music director, through Aug. 13. Delayed broadcasts on KAZU-FM. For info: go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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ALSOP LOVE-IN AT CABRILLO

ALSOP LOVE-IN AT CABRILLO

New Works by Adams et Al Resonate in Santa Cruz

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Aug. 6-13, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 83

SANTA CRUZ—Though her departure was still a week away, Cabrillo’s Music Director Marin Alsop was given a farewell-love-in treatment in the concerts of Aug. 6. Rarely has a conductor been held in such high esteem by audience and players alike; to judge by the accolades and affection, her 25 years at the helm of the Cabrillo Music Festival here were not nearly enough.

As usual the orchestral concert was all contemporary, with the composers present to introduce their pieces, some of them household names. And the music was tonal, consonant, and quite digestible, characteristic of Alsop’s longterm tastes. She’s a whirlwind in conveying  rhythmic complexity. If she has a flaw—and I’m searching, searching here—it’s a reluctance to let music flow langorously in rubato, beyond the confinement of strict meter.

Most remarkable of all was a John Adams premiere commisssioned by the festival musicians themselves—perhaps a first in music history. Adams’ wet-ink score “Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance” will be part of his new  Gold-Rush opera “Girls of the Golden West” coming to the S.F. Opera in fall of 2017—a sneak preview, if you will.  It’s an irreverent, jazzy scherzo based on  historical performances, with a wild solo by clarinetist John Schertle. Adams, himself a clarinetist,  was so captivated, he dashed over right after. He grabbed the astonished Schertle, grabbing also the clarinet and holding it high aloft in trumph, as though it were the king of all instruments.

At 27 minutes, Adams’ “Absolute Jest” for orchestra and string quartet could be the world’s longest Scherzo as it deconstructs Beethoven. Tiny fragments out of the “Grosse Fuge,” mostly, are pushed through a hall of mirrors, but in such little shards that most would not notice the Beethoven tie. It offers frantic rhythms (as if tailor-made for Alsop), syncopation, and derisive trills on woodwinds and horns. It is less a flight of fancy than an uninhibited romp.

Young Michael Kropf’s world premiere “Spinning Music” showed a natural composing talent in a well-crafted, rapid-fire exercise cramming into just six minutes. One could imagine dancers pirouetting through it. While San Franciscan Kropf, 25, was nervous talking to the crowd, he showed no uneasiness in his composition.

Kevin Puts’ “The City” was a curious bit of musical split personality, with film. The first half  looked like a promotional  industrial film out of the 1930s, showing the industrial and construictive might of booming America, while the second half focused on citizenry torn by police shootings, apparently in his home bailiwick of Baltimore. Puts’ music over the 24 minutes was restless, striving for the monumental, heightening the drama with acceleration, but a bit too glib for my taste.

The Festival orchestra, importing musicians from dozens of states,  is a very good one. The couple of out-of-tune blemishes merely showed the players to be human; they are certainly not green or frail.

MUSIC NOTES—As even the veteran composer Puts, 44, conceded at a panel earlier in the day, “There’s a tremendous feeling of insecurity” at a premiere. Echoed Adams, “The first encounter with a piece (live) is a very jagged, difficult experience.” And Kropf adds, “The first hearing is terrifying.” All this because what’s written on paper does not specify many aspects of the interpretation, leaving the rest to the conductor. “Conductors bring out things (you’re not aware of). People realize something that we didn’t know was there,” per Adams, who seemed to welcome such insights.

When conducting, Adams admitted he had changed tempos of a work, responding to hall acoustics (“In a dry hall, it can just die.”) Avoiding direct rehearsal clashes with a conductor doing his opus, Adams as composer has been known to tell the latter, with utmost tact, “Er…I think I wrote my tempo wrong (in the score). Maybe, do it half that fast?”

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium,  through Aug. 13. Also delayed broadcasts on KAZU-FM. For info:  go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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ALSOP’S FINALE CABRILLO SEASON

ALSOP’S FINALE CABRILLO SEASON

Arresting Works of MacMillan, Rouse, Clyne 

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Aug. 6-13, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 81

SANTA CRUZ, CA—Rarely known for its performing arts, Santa Cruz trumps them all every August with its Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, a nonpareil orchestral showpiece with music of the past decade as well as numerous important American composers in person, living and breathing (zounds!). These range from Old Guard (Christopher Rouse, 67) to Young Guard (Anna Clyne, 36).

For her 25th and final year at the helm, Music Director Marin Alsop, a very youthful 59, avoided retrospectives, charging ahead on Aug. 5 with her format of unfamiliar music by familiar names. A sold-out Civic Auditorium audience gave it the habitual rousing ovations. The fest is a unique American phenomenon, according to Jesse Rosen, head of the League of American Orchestras.

Little old Cabrillo, no less, “has set the standard for 1,200 American orchestras,” declared Rosen, unstinting in his praise. “This is the laboratory.”

The focal work was more ballet than orchestra—Clyne’s world premiere “Rift.” Her versatile 20-minute piece meanders through many timeless elements—low strings imitating medieval chant, perpetual motion and minimalist effects, upbeat percussion keyboards in unison, sharp outbursts of brass and percussion, moments of tragedy, and finally a minor-key theme in the strings sounding like an Eastern-European folk song, all of it episodic. The passionate outbursts were inspired by the real-life massacres in both Europe and America, giving way to episodes of healing and reconciliation.

The dances by six young barefooted ballet performers featuring moments of love, battle and revulsion were choreographed by Kitty McNamee.

Rouse contributed the oldest work, his Oboe Concert of 2004. Asked beforehand if this one was from his reputed “doom and gloom” style, he
retorted tongue in cheek, “No. Man does not live by dread alone!!”

What distinguishes his concerto are the subtle background orchestral touches—chirps, wood-block clacks, exquisite woodwind harmonies and mellow sounds suggesting a total, plausible, separate-world environment. You had to love his deft punctuation. A Baltimore Symphony member like Alsop herself, soloist Katherine Needleman produced not a huge sound, but a compelling one, carpeting the hall with lyrical sounds now, and then bringing sparkle with virtuosic staccato segments.

I don’t know if her oboe could charm Indian cobras. But I do know her effort charmed the crowd. Uncredited was the no-less-charming obbligato by bass flutist Lauren Sileo.

Another frequent Cabrillo collaborator is that wizard of rich sonics, James MacMillan, 57, who has made the trek here from his native Scotland more than once. MacMillan’s “The Death of Oscar” shows a strong Wagnerian influence with a pronounced Scottish accent. It’s a powerful opus inspired by the legend of the poet Ossian upon the death of his son Oscar. This threnody also featured a moving solo by English horn player Paula Engerer.

The curtain-raiser was Rouse’s syncopated “Thunderstuck,” with roots in popular music of nearly 40 years ago.

As usual, Alsop invigorated the selections, somehow getting the whole challenging program forged into shape effectively. Alsop’s repertory is
tonal, consonant, and decidedly not hair-raising. It’s a safe passage through the vast chasms and canyons of contemporary music on a path which the audiences can readily take—particularly if they have checked their biases and prejudices at the door.

MUSIC NOTES—The elderly Civic Auditorium, which was more at home for boxing and basketball than orchestras, will get a much-needed
major renovation through multiple funding sources, presumably in response to Cabrillo’s great success. Meanwhile, the festival has unfortunately discontinued its close-out concert at beautiful Mission San Juan Bautista an hour’s drive away, citing the tight space, limited seating, and very resonant acoustics, which some deemed heaven, others not so much….After this month, Cabrillo will continue on a new course with a new maestro or maestra. Will the magic be sustained? Keep tuned…. Alsop will go on with her multiple orchestras, the Sao Paolo Symphony and Baltimore Symphony—and perhaps others too, maybe even some opera. She will also be conductor laureate of this festival in years ahead.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary music in its 54th year, Marin Alsop, retiring music director, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium through Aug. 13.

With delayed radio rebroadcasts. For info: (831) 426-6966, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016

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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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