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The Allure of Premieres

August 7, 2007

If posting the phrase "World Premiere" on a concert program seems to lend a certain aura to the proceedings, imagine how aurific a program must be that consists solely of premieres, three "world" and one "U.S." Such was the promise of the first concert of the Cabrillo Music Festival of Contemporary Music on Friday, whose music turned out to please listeners mightily, despite the varying quality of the offerings.
Festivalgoers are rightly proud of Music Director Marin Alsop's national and international achievements and her eagerness to entertain. Moreover, the highly rhythmic aspects of most works allowed Alsop to show off her rousing, all-body-parts-moving conducting style. So the audience was primed, wined, and dined.

Marin Alsop

The concert began with the first U.S. performance of a five-minute romp by Scottish composer James MacMillan, titled Stomp (with Fate and Elvira). In typical postmodernist fashion, the opening theme to Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and the Andante theme from Mozart's 21st piano concerto (the latter irrevocably linked to the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan) are mixed up with Scottish dance music. The whole thing was a lot of fun, except for the trombonists and trumpeters who had difficulty with some of their music.
Interstellar Slumming
Next came British composer David Heath's Colourful World (2007). Inspired by his 6-year-old child's painting of Earth as if viewed from space, Heath concocted a scenario of a space alien visiting parts of the planet, developing an affection for both it and an L.A. girl (Heath: "but they can't do anything because he has a space suit on"), and leaving with a prayer, as the composer put it, that "we [earthlings] don't muck things up." Heath's background is in jazz, so it's not surprising that chords and rhythm play an important part in his music.

I wish I could have been as enthusiastic about the colorful world as the rest of the audience was. But for me, the rhythms were too persistent and repetitive, and the orchestration lacked transparency. Nor did the work's narrative add to the musical experience: The beat-laden music for the movements "Teeming With Life," "Earth Rhythms," and "African Crossing" seemed fairly interchangeable. The thought of outer space was, however, effectively portrayed by a bow drawn against the edge of miniature cymbals (crotales), which created an eerie whine that opened and closed the work.

The concert's highlight concluded its first half: Jennifer Higdon's Soprano Sax Concerto (2005-2006). This was a rewrite of her 2005 Oboe Concerto (which I have not heard), and it was superbly realized by soloist Timothy McAllister. Higdon is now the most-performed living composer in the U.S. and Canada — deservedly so. Her melodic and orchestration skills are formidable, and she can reach audiences without having to pander to them.

The single-movement concerto consisted of long stretches of ever-evolving melisma, with phrases cleverly imitated by other solo instruments in a way that seemed to weave a tapestry to the glory of melody. This work, and perhaps the oboe concerto as well, is a significant testament to beauty.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The second half of the concert was devoted to Mark O'Connor's Symphony No. 1, Variations on Appalachia Waltz (2007). The five-movement work included a brass fanfare, a jig, a hard-to-discern fugue, an infectious hoedown, and a final peroration on the fanfare theme. The original Waltz, written in 1992, does the genre of solo Appalachian fiddle music proud by adding a double-stopped countermelody to a fairly ordinary tune, making the whole far greater in beauty than the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, the orchestral variations do not enhance the purity of that inspiration, and fail to transcend the three-chord underpinning of the tune. To my ears, the result, despite polyphonic and rhythmic variety, is 25 minutes of harmonic monotony. To be fair, this opinion was not shared by the audience, who gave the music a rousing reception.

What critics hope for in a premiere is the chance to hear new music before it becomes famous and to brag about being one of the first to recognize its greatness. That the Cabrillo Festival can sport four premieres suggests its increasing prestige, but as to critical hopes, I would hazard the prediction that only the Higdon concerto has the potential to last. The entertaining MacMillan piece will fade as the quotational aspect of postmodernism falls increasingly out of fashion, and the Heath and O'Connor works may enjoy a relatively short period of popularity before they too fade into obscurity — a fate better than many premieres, I hasten to add.

But don't take my word for it. Critics expounding on premieres are quite likely, in the end, no better than the encore with which Alsop awarded her cheering listeners — a fanfare of kazoos by John Corigliano with a tune that sounded something like "What Can You Do With a Drunken Sailor?"

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.