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Percussion Concerto Opens Cabrillo Festival With Crickets (Not a Bang)

August 7, 2017

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

I admit that I thought it was absurd to see an American Sign Language translator take the stage at Friday’s opening Cabrillo Festival concert to translate the composers’ and conductor’s remarks. You’d think the sense of hearing would be a prerequisite for anyone wishing to attend the symphony — why go and stare at an unheard orchestra for two hours?

Boy, did I get schooled. The off-duty usher who sat in the empty seat next to me told me all about the evening’s featured soloist, Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. Understandably, Glennie has gotten tired of journalists misrepresenting or focusing solely on her hearing impairment; her “Hearing Essay” published on her website helps to clear up misunderstandings by explaining the nature of deafness. She points out that the ears are not the only part of the body that can experience sound vibrations — she can pick up low frequencies in her legs and feet, for instance, hence her trademark habit of performing barefoot.

But Glennie rightfully hopes that her artistry will be judged according to her skills as a musician, and not through the lens of her disability, which she considers something as superficial as hair color or gender. She ends her essay with the request to “Please enjoy the music and forget the rest,” so I will respect her wishes.

And all this aside, Glennie is a formidable percussionist whose playing balances minute technical precision with intense physicality. Brazilian-born composer Clarice Assad took full advantage of Glennie’s musical athleticism for her percussion concerto AD INFINITUM, performed Friday in its world premiere. It’s a kind of tone poem representing the stages of life, from womb to tomb and back again in a cycle of reincarnation.

The composer incorporated a great deal of theatricality into Glennie’s solo part, especially in the dramatic birth prelude. With the percussionist nowhere to be seen, the work opened with what sounded like a chorus of crickets, produced by some unseen source. To this, members of the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra added aquatic timbres that conjured slushing amniotic fluid: mouth pops, bowed tam-tam, and the ghostly sound of a waterphone (the weird instrument that creates those eerie howls you hear in horror flicks).

Finally, we discovered the source of the cricket chirps: Glennie entered slowly and ceremoniously from stage left, like a Noh actor, rotating a pair of strange bell or cymbal instruments. Given the subject of the piece, she looked appropriately “Earth Mother” with her floral-print shirt, bare feet, and flowing white hair. Once she reached her drum set, a gong set off the explosive “birth” — an intricate and aggressive solo that combined elements of rock and Japanese taiko. Later, in the childhood movement, there was a miniaturized version of the birth solo, this time performed to great comic effect on smaller instruments and objects (a squeaky toy among them), calling to mind a hyperactive toddler beating away on pots and pans.

Such theatrical gestures served to amuse the audience, but it soon became clear that the piece was merely a series of these gimmicks connected with filler material. The orchestral accompaniment didn’t provide much support other than some hazy string chords and a few weak-sounding climaxes.

What is more, Assad’s program grew too literal. The lullaby scene with two overlapping music boxes punctuated by Glennie’s delicate twinkling on chimes and crotales produced a magical effect, but it was followed up by ridiculous shouts of “ABC” and “123” from the orchestra members. It felt like a lazy gesture and slightly condescending to the audience — aren’t there other, more musical means of depicting a child’s world than through something so obvious as numbers and letters? You might as well have the conductor stop and announce, “Here’s the childhood section!”

The program for Aaron Jay Kernis’s Second Symphony was far subtler. He composed the piece in 1991 as a reaction to the Persian Gulf War, and there are sonic images of battle throughout, especially in the third and final “Barricade” movement. The composer makes use of Shostakovich-inspired signifiers of war — angst-ridden, unison melodies in the violins that reach tense high points, supported by pounding, militaristic snares.

The Cabrillo Festival’s new director, Cristian Măcelaru (succeeding longtime director Marin Alsop), didn’t shy away from the unabashed emotionality of Kernis’s piece. He masterfully traced the work’s dramatic arc toward the unrelenting final theme, which is obliterated by an extended gong crash. In this gut-wrenching final moment, I understood Kernis’s preperformance remark that he saw his symphony as a voodoo doll that “takes all the dark things, all the destructive things, and then destroys them.” While the work shows its age in some passages (the sentimental slow theme sounds straight out of a ’90s Spielberg war epic), I appreciate the festival’s commitment to establishing a canon of recent works rather than simply pumping out an endless string of new commissions.

This was also the case in Michael Gandolfi’s Points of Departure: Cabrillo, which, though labeled a “world premiere,” was actually an expanded arrangement of a 1988 chamber-orchestra work. It was more academic than the other two compositions performed that evening, and shied away from extramusical narratives in favor of interesting experiments in form, variation, and possibility.

Each of the four movements opened with material from the previous, taking it and developing it in a new direction so that the piece is constantly doubling back and reworking itself. Măcelaru made sure to highlight these titular points of departure when they initially occurred so that we could more easily pick up on them when they returned in successive movements. And despite the expanded instrumentation, he was able to draw chamber-like precision from the orchestra, with every individual voice in Gandolfi’s busy contrapuntal textures stated clearly and expressively. It made for the most satisfying number on the program — proof that such formalistic games can be as much a source of musical engagement and drama as a program or story. 

Joe Cadagin is a doctoral student in musicology at Stanford University. His research focuses on post-war and contemporary opera, musical settings of Lewis Carroll, and the works of György Ligeti.

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