MacMillan Thwarts the Jinxes at Cabrillo

MISSION SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, CA—I was sure that San Andreas, whose great earthquake fault lay just 50 yards away, had jinxed the grand-finale concert at the Mission.

But lo, a rousing James MacMillan trumpet concerto called “Epiclesis,” powerful enough to wake the dead and maybe nudge open the Pearly Gates, saved the day. Quoting ageless Gregorian chants calling to God, the veteran Scottish composer helped the cause of concert salvation Aug. 16.

The fitting closure had super-virtuoso Tine Thing Helseth padding down the main church’s aisle, barefoot like a penitent, with her trumpet ever fainter in the distance.

Great theater—and assertive music, too.

In the body of the concerto, the Norwegian soloist Helseth was resplendent in the coloratura trumpet register above the staff, launching bright, upfront sonic tattoos in an unorthodox solo built with rhythms rather than themes.

Though much swathed in mysticism and spirituality, MacMillan has a gift for turning his ensemble into a wild, untamed beast. In another of his adroit, versatile touches, he has Helseth joined by two others, spatially quite separate, for an elevated trumpet trio.

As for the jinx elements: Freeway jams delaying instruments and personnel held up the matinee concert for 25 minutes. Subsequently, during Ana Lara’s music, a patron in the third row fainted in the 90-degree heat. Maestra Alsop alertly stopped the music. The call you always yearned to hear (once) went out: “Is there a doctor in the house?” While attendants ministered to the patient, Alsop used a score to fan the victim’s air access. Once the stricken one walked out, Alsop took the podium again and coolly resumed at the very spot where she had stopped.

The flip side: Lara might have been dismayed over the break, but there are worse things than having patrons faint on hearing your music—a concert phenomenon very rare since the days of Franz Liszt! The 56-year-old Mexican composer had contributed words without song for the orchestra, “Angels of Flame and Ice,” citing four ardent poems in Spanish by Francisco Serrano. She does her exquisite tone-painting with varied brushes, ranging from soft-deft iridescent beauty to fiery agitation resonating through the entire church. I liked her dark Wagnerian brass at the start (for “Angel of Darkness”) as well as the soprano sax solo weaving its mysteries.

Music reflecting faith is never far off in the mission church repertory, and Christopher Rouse’s “Supplica” (Supplication) fit the mold. Rouse manages to turn out very reliable, traditional music, at times recalling the sanctity of “Parsifal” as much as the rich harmonies of composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Charles Halka’s brief “Impact” hit exactly that musically, with a musical steep drop and WHOOMPH, several times over. He’s a colorful orchestrator, with some enticing sounds of the sort we encountered in the movie “Pan’s Labyrinth,” taking paths through fascinating forests. There are bell-like resonances and bowed cymbals, and more than a few glissandi. Halka, 33, is Houston-based, about to move to Las Vegas.

Overall MSJB judgment: A strong concert repertory, appropriately chosen for this intimate awe-inspiring 218-year place of worship, whose beauties greatly outweight its ultra-resonant acoustics. And once again, the San Juan Mission provided mussical adventures almost beyond compare.

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
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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