SANTA CRUZ SPRINGS TO LIFE

SANTA CRUZ SPRINGS TO LIFE

With Cabrillo’s Contemporary Orchestral Sounds

SANTA CRUZ, CA—The final weekend of the Cabrillo Festival is inevitably invigorating, with one new orchestral piece almost atop the other, sometimes with the ink barely dry.

This is Music Director Marin Alsop’s baby, now in her 24th season on the summer podium here. Here she and the devotees can feast on contem porary sounds, created by figures either well-known (like Philip Glass) or otherwise.

The esprit de corps in her festival orchestra is remarkable, tackling totally unfamiliar West-Coast-premiere music with relish on Aug. 15, allowing new young talent to emerge. The personnel are geographically diverse; the 17 principal players hail from 13 different states.

There’s now a staggering quantity of young symphonic composers around the U.S., I believe unprecedented in world history. They are like dedicated Olympic decathlon athletes, having mastered the many parameters of their craft and brought them all into harmony. What I don’t see however is that distinctive, champion-level uniqueness, setting them apart from the others, making an individualistic statement, along the lines of, say, Kernis, Saariaho, Heggie and the like.

Not yet, anyway. But they’ve reached the lower rungs of the ladder, they have interacted closely with veteran conductors (like Alsop), and there is still time—aye, there’s the rub.

Alsop termed this night’s sampler to be “like a tapas restaurant,” savoring each selection, presumably hoping for max contrasts.

The oldest of this group is the agile Nevadan Sean Shepherd, 36, also featured in a world premiere just the week before in Santa Fe (NM). Shepherd’s “Blue Blazes” starts soft with low notes (i.e., Hell), and adds maracas and woodwind figures, winding its way uphill. It enters a gentle (perhaps earthly) spot, with allusions to blues, plus soft-touch percussion and a woodwind chorale, with admirable terseness.

Nico Muhly’s “Wish You Were Here” went the easy jazzy route to accessibility, with syncopation on muted brass and trumpet staccatos. He made passing reference to minimalism, which nowadays is plenty already. There’s an animated pulse entering in as the piece becomes varied, restless and ever more chaotic. It’s engrossing enough to want to hear again. Cartoons-devotee Muhly explained his opus’ origins as “cartoonish energy and deep loneliness.”

Today a rarity, works celebrating America’s industrial might were in vogue a century ago, at a time when fuming smokestacks were welcome. Missy Mazzoli took up this challenge with “River Rouge Transfiguration” celebrating “Detroit as a pipe organ,” in her words. That’s presumably Old Detroit, thriving. As for the pipe-organ allusion, yes, there were swell-diminish alternations, some pedal-points, and the pleins-jeux (all stops out) marking the restless beehive of a factory city. Mazzoli added enough busy work to hold one’s interest. But somehow it struck me, sadly, as her 2013 River Rouge trying very hard to be 1953.

Tongue in cheek, Hannah Lash called her “Eating Flowers” in its first performance “an organic piece.” She offered fast-flying mallet figures set off against slow string themes and, in a miscalculation, the cellos were swallowed up under the orchestral sound. The best idea was the quirky contrast of a piccolo solo overlaid over a bassoon chorale—an ear-tweaking combo new in my experience.

The star cellist Matt Haimowitz paired with violinist Tim Fain in Glass’ Double Concerto. With his predictable chord progressions, the music of Glass, 78, is instantly recognizable. This can lead to saturation, yes, but it has advantages: His stylistic turf is given wide leeway by others to avoid copycatting. In addition, it draws instant standing ovations from audiences.

But of course: Familiarity breeds consent.

The Fain-Haimowitz work was more duet than concerto; the orchestra players might be docked for vacation time in mid-performance. But these duets in round, triadic arpeggios, were lovely, probably even better suited for a movie score than for the original ballet version.

Alsop led the demanding repertory with her accustomed professional control, annotating briefly and disarmingly alongside the visibly nervous composers. Her orchestra under Concertmaster Justin Bruns was effective, and once again the five percussionists were among Cabrillo’s leading lights.

A misspelling corrected on this review on 8/27/15.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Marin Alsop music director, playing Aug. 1-16 in Santa Cruz (CA) County. For info: (831) 426-6966, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
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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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