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Cabrillo Festival Closes With a Bang

August 15, 2017

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

From quotations to sampling, musicians often celebrate others who have influenced them. Saturday evening’s closing concert of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium was actually called “Tributes (Part Two).” The program’s four world premieres — all Cabrillo commissions — expressed gratitude not only to specific musicians, but also to unique qualities of Cabrillo itself. The called-out qualities show why Cabrillo numbers among the country’s most important venues for new orchestral music.

Cabrillo’s new director and conductor, Cristian Măcelaru, previously assisted conductor Patrick Summers at Dallas Opera's world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (2010). Măcelaru appreciated Heggie’s opera so much that he vowed to arrange an orchestral suite from it, and he began the program by making good on his word. Their joint Moby-Dick Orchestral Suite is dramatic: It feels like listening to a movie soundtrack. The Suite concatenates several vignettes from the opera via recurring musical motifs, such as string patterns conjuring undulating waves. The piece brought to mind two lines not by Melville but by Coleridge: “Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.” While I struggled to map the chronology of the Suite’s vignettes onto Melville’s narrative, this might stay true to Heggie’s opera, in which Melville’s famous first line — “Call me Ishmael” — is the last.

Christopher Rountree’s Overture to La Haine (Hatred) followed. All four composers introduced their works. Rountree explained he was initially approached about writing this piece merely three days after the U.S. presidential election last November. The tile refers to a film by Mathieu Kassovitz about mid-1990s riots in Paris. Roundtree wrote his piece while questioning the value of ephemeral music in times of loud and lingering hate.

Rountree’s Overture involves muted percussion, croaky strings, winds literally blowing hot air, chaotic noise, and stifled soundbites. The most mature melodic idea happened over/against percussionists scraping plastic foam with violin bows. For me, the piece was about a political climate in which talking at trumps talking with one another.

Cabrillo celebrated the 70th birthday of Berkeley-based John Adams with a new piece dedicated to him. Gabriella Smith’s Field Guide combines her dual passions for music and ecology. For years, Smith has recorded soundscapes both natural and human — and also both beautiful and decaying.

Field Guide combines some of these soundscapes. The piece ranged from an opening section evoking morning bird songs and frog calls that felt like walking through a vibrant rainforest into another with dystopian trills reminiscent of distant — and dissonant — urban sirens.

Smith is dauntingly original and competent. Just as she enjoys being awestruck by her physical environs, I look forward to being gobsmacked by the marvelous music she will surely continue to create.

The program concluded on notes both heavy and human. Karim Al-Zand’s The Prisoner is a song cycle about Adnan Latif. Although never charged with any crime, Latif was imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay from his mid-20s to mid-30s (2002-2012).

Under suspicious circumstances, he died there.

Letters he managed to circulate indicate that — while Guantánamo took his dignity and ultimately his life — Latif retained his humanity. The Prisoner is structured like a macabre rondo in which Latif’s letters are the refrain, while texts from sources including the Bible and Rainer Marie Rilke’s poems are episodes. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu was sometimes hard to hear over the orchestra. Even so, the work is compelling. Its recurring and resigned “Do whatever you wish to do” melody rightfully haunts.

This description of four remarkable pieces would be incomplete without mentioning the quality of Cabrillo’s musicians. The orchestra tackled a smorgasbord of new works with the apparent ease with which a competitive eating champion throws back hot dogs. But like anything meaningful that seems effortless, this ensemble’s flow masked the undoubtedly gargantuan efforts of everyone involved.

Meanwhile, every year Cabrillo engages the Santa Cruz and broader community with uncommon authenticity. In their own ways, all four composers expressed gratitude for the exceptional caliber of not only Cabrillo’s musicians, but also the community this festival fosters.

Both the musicianship and the community make Cabrillo special and important. In their own small way, these phrases pay the Cabrillo Festival a tribute it surely deserves.

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.