More than 450 people filled Santa Cruz’s Civic Center on Sunday evening to hear the Del Sol String Quartet perform a program of contemporary music, which is either a remarkable testament to the liveliness of cultural life in this sleepy beach town, or to the vitality of the Cabrillo Music Festival’s sponsorship — probably both.
Opening the concert was a bow to the tutelary spirit of the Cabrillo Festival, the late Lou Silver Harrison, whose 1979 String Quartet Set is a fine example of Harrison’s love of melody, modes, and invention. The “set” is a suite of five movements, beginning with a masterful series of variations on a theme by the 13th-century minnesinger Walther von der Vogelweide, in which Harrison employs medieval-sounding counterpoint in octaves, fifths, and fourths. The mood is solemn and almost elegiac for most of the work, but the lively “Estampie” movement injects considerable energy while requiring several of the players to use their instruments as drums.
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Unfortunately the use of pure melody, drones, and octaves leaves the players exposed, and the slightest waver of intonation or loss of energy is immediately apparent. The Del Sol fought valiantly to bring it off, but didn’t quite reach the level necessary to make the work sparkle.
The Cabrillo Festival has fearlessly championed the work of living composers. Including “Founding Father” Lou in several of this year’s 50th anniversary concerts is nevertheless highly appropriate.
Next on the program was the extraordinary Spiral X: In Memoriam by Chinary Ung, one of the great masters of tone color. Dr. Ung was born in Cambodia, trained at Columbia University, and is now a Distinguished Professor of Composition at UC San Diego.
Writing for the first time in memory of the people who died in the Cambodian holocaust, Ung asks the performers to vocalize in many forms, from shouts to song, to quiet, whispery tones, while simultaneously playing complex parts on their instruments, often with extended techniques. The players made the most of this virtuosic construction, and it emerged as a masterpiece — the most difficult and at the same time the most exciting, satisfying work of the evening.
Including “Founding Father” Lou in several of this year’s 50th anniversary concerts is highly appropriate.
Elena Kats-Chernin’s Fast Blue Village, the most traditional work on the program, was an energetic, lightweight confection tinged with Latin jazz and played with appropriate verve. It was followed by minimalist settings of Twelve Folk Melodies from Spain (Spanish Garland), by José Evangelista. It was “minimalist” in the sense that the melodies were not arranged, developed, or even harmonized, but rather presented simply in unisons and octaves, with an occasional drone. The overall effect was boredom: I don’t expect the Spanish National Board of Tourism to adopt the work in their advertising campaigns.
The world premiere of Mason Bates’s Bagatelles for Amplified String Quartet and Electronica closed the program. The four-movement work was rich with rhythmic vitality and extended string techniques extended further by electronic sounds, pre-recorded by the performers, usually creating a percussive accompaniment.
A small technical glitch caused some electronica to intrude in the one movement where it was not called for — the kind of problem that all too often plagues composers with the temerity to embed modern technology in their work.
The style of the Bagatelles is listener-friendly for the most part, at times overly busy, at times almost ingratiating. Though not a large-scale work, it would be presumptuous to critique it further on a single hearing. The Del Sol Quartet will be recording the piece on one of their upcoming CDs, and I look forward to hearing it again.
The appreciative audience gave the musicians and Bates a standing ovation, after which the Quartet returned to offer an encore, Wapango, a Mexican dance by the great Cuban jazz saxophonist and composer Paquito D’Rivera — one of the most effective works of the evening, and an appropriate send-off.