Mysteries of Light Illuminates Cabrillo

Jeff Dunn on August 8, 2011

Actor Anthony Hopkins’ view that “Life isn't worth living if I miss an episode” seems to have been taken to heart by crowds at the Friday opening concert of this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music: A full house heard five 21st-century works by five composers, all distinguished by episodic qualities, not always with regard to cohesiveness. One episode that rang true, however, was that this, Music Director Marin Alsop’s 20th summer love fest that opens new doors in contemporary music-making, deserved the accolades of recognition bestowed on her by Congressman, mayor, board members, and flower-wielding musicians.

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The opener was an attractive aperitif called Pulse, by the Michigan-born composer Margaret Brouwer. In straightforward ABA form, the six-minute piece bookended a string-rich central section with funky, deliberately out-of-synch percussive passages on the front end, and some passages of what sounded like an orchestral imitation of a bagpipe in the concluding section. Brouwer’s talent for orchestration was apparent. It’s hoped that some of her more substantial works will be heard here in the future.

Next came Mason Bates’ Desert Transport, premiered earlier this year in Scottsdale, Arizona. The music depicts a helicopter journey the composer took northward from Phoenix, with aural reminiscences of spinning rotors, a cactus-hidden airport, desert colors, Sedona red rocks, and cliff dwellings.

Margaret Brouwer’s talent for orchestration was apparent. It’s hoped that some of her more substantial works will be heard here in the future.

The rotor sounds and geologic grandeur came through clearly, and Native Americana was evoked by a recording of a Pima chant. The result was pleasant diversion but nothing as pathbreaking or as individually voiced as some of Bates’ previous compositions.

The ABCs of Music

A life with distressing episodes concluded the first half of the concert, Christopher Rouse’s 20th contribution to the festival, called Odna Zhizn (“A Life” in Russian). The music was written in love and admiration for “Natasha,” who, as Rouse writes, is “a person of Russian ancestry who is very dear to me. Her life has not been an easy one, and the struggles she has faced are reflected in the sometimes-peripatetic nature of the music.” Biographical details are there for future musicologists to decipher, for Rouse has extrapolated the standard letter assignments to the 12 notes of the chromatic scale to encompass the entire alphabet. As he revealed in the program notes, “virtually all of the music is focused on the spelling of names and other phrases.”

Music is a notoriously multivalent and inexact substitute for words, but as generators of feelings, the sounds Rouse organized for his self-described “private love letter” stimulated me to reflect on (a) motherly warmth of amniotic fluid and parental breathing in the opening section, (b) unpredictable episodes of abuse from frequent interruptions of wooden slapsticks later on, (c) fears and fleeings of scampering strings, and finally (d) mature acceptance via Vaughan Williams–like string sonorities under a Charles Ivesian Unanswered Question trumpet. Thankfully, despite the deliberately episodic approach, Rouse somehow conveyed an inner wholeness, which I trust will prompt future performances of this intriguing composition.

Philip Glass’ work offered no surprises for the composer’s fans. Well, OK, he added anvils this time.

In honor of Alsop’s anniversary, five composers contributed short works (called “nightcaps”) for festival performance. The first of these, Philip Glass’ Black and White Scherzo, began the second half. The music, a movement from a work in progress, offered no surprises for the composer’s fans, with its standard minimalisms, predictable chord progressions, and driving rhythms. Well, OK, he added anvils this time, so I guess that’s something new. At six minutes, it was already too long after two.

Piano Mystery

The majority of composers have long abandoned most aspects of sonata form as a basis for structuring their music. The Scottish composer James MacMillan, in his quest for new patterns to stitch notes to, has alighted on Blessed John Paul II’s 2002 set of new Luminous Mysteries for the Rosary. Within them, as the composer writes, “each image or event becomes the springboard for a subjective reflection, and proceeds in quasi dramatic fashion, not too distant in concept from the musical tone poem.”

The work consisted of five springboard episodes, partially held together by two repeating elements, an Ave Maria plainchantlike melody, and a base-line cantus firmus. But the biggest, sixth mystery, was: Why is there a piano in this work, despite the best efforts of soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s sight reading? Occasionally, the instrument would function in an obbligato manner and add some trickling tone color to jagged or quiet goings-on. Most times, however, the piano music seemed irrelevant, even counterproductive. The rest of the orchestra had a few nice things to do from time to time — Scotch tunes, weird marches, churchy chorales — yet the overall effect on first hearing seemed highly disparate. Perhaps some deep reading into the Mysteries would help listeners, postconcert.

On Friday, all works were greeted warmly — a tradition at Cabrillo, thanks to Alsop’s singular achievement: the cumulative power of expectation. Through her, Santa Cruzans have been consistently exposed to new music that proves to be no-harm-no-foul. They have grown to be a sophisticated bunch, anxiously awaiting Alsop’s next episode for them.