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Around the World of Cabrillo

August 8, 2009

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

The Cabrillo Festival’s second night brought program music of various sorts to the full house that on Saturday filled the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Music Director Marin Alsop and her high-energy orchestra provided sharp, dynamic performances of three works that drew on eclectic sources of inspiration and were generally quite accessible. The range of composers was international, with artists from Mexico, Australia, and Israel, and the music even more so, reflecting an array of global influences. As always, all the composers were present, and they traded remarks with Alsop to begin each piece with the familiar and inviting tone that helps to define the festival.

Brett Dean’s Moments of Bliss, a U.S. premiere that occupied the concert’s second half, is an often striking four-movement work for orchestra and electronics, drawing on material from Dean’s upcoming opera, Bliss. The opera itself is adapted from Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, which tells the story of advertising agent Harry Bliss, the near-death experience that opens his eyes to the sordid details beneath his life’s bright sheen, his travels through a hell of his own imagining, and the redemption that follows.

Dean portrays various stops along the way with some truly theatrical music, such as the fleet percussion and wind lines dashing about in the third movement, “Knocking at the Hellgate.” A longtime orchestral violist, Dean is an expert orchestrator and has the ability to clearly define a strong musical mood, most memorably in the final movement, “Family Secrets.” Here a darkly beautiful texture is sustained by gongs, low brass, cellos, and basses, with bass and contrabass clarinets soloing in the midst of it all.

Less convincing was Dean’s use of electronics. Some nice airy sounds were heard in the opening movement, “Hotel Room (Awakening),” and Dean’s later use of tapes from TV game shows to portray a traversal of Hell wasn’t a bad idea. However, this approach, repeated through much of the third movement, came across as relatively mild-mannered, especially compared to the media onslaught you can easily find all around you. Otherwise, this intriguing piece suggested that an important opera could well be ahead when Bliss premieres in Sydney next year.

Percussive ShowpieceThe festival brings together an outstanding ensemble of players from around the country each summer, and Alsop found an opportunity to spotlight two of her expert players with Avner Dorman’s Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! This 2006 double-percussion concerto by the young Israeli composer, intended to evoke three kinds of alluring but dangerous substances, received an ace performance by principal percussionist Galen Lemmon and principal timpanist Steve Hearn. It’s a real showpiece for the players, covering a shared spread of solo instruments that looked to be about 30 feet across, and they rose to the occasion with virtuosic flair, as well as sensitivity, to elicit the maximum potential out of the piece.

The music draws on Indian and Middle Eastern music, along with some substantial Baroque influences, yet manages to avoid a feeling of pastiche, and comes across as authentic and expressive. The slow middle movement, in particular, was unabashedly romantic, recalling both Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. The solo writing had some especially fine passages for marimba duo, though the writing for paired drum kits was a bit less effective.

The program opened with Enrico Chapela’s ínguesu, another U.S. premiere. Written in homage to composer Carlos Chavez, the piece takes off on Chavez’ musical nationalism with a musical portrayal of what Chapela calls “the ultimate expression of nationalism,” Mexico’s soccer victory over Brazil in the 1999 FIFA Confederation Cup. This funny, exciting, and most accomplished piece breaks the orchestra into sections portraying the starting teams, the respective benches, and the fans, with Alsop, of course, playing referee, complete with a striped ref’s shirt and whistle.

Chapela’s musical retelling of the momentous event weaves together Brazilian and Mexican folk tunes, instrumental paraphrases of fan cheers, and many other ideas into a vibrant, propulsive whole. Some comedy was included too, as Alsop first warned the bass trombone, portraying a fouled-out Brazilian player, with a yellow card, and then ejected him with a red card. All of this sounds good without any program at all, and recalled Chavez’s colorful expansiveness while sounding quite contemporary.

Benjamin Frandzel has written on music and the arts for a wide range of publications. He has a background as a guitarist and composer, and has collaborated with dance, theater, and visual artists.