August 4, 2012

Revelatory Cabrillo Festival Concert

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
By Jeff Dunn

Mary Had a Little DragonIn addition to a blow-by-blow depiction of Revelation, chapter 12, Saturday night’s “Discovery” installment of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music offered three additional revelations: the fine music of two composers new to the festival, and a surprising lesson on the value of repetition in music.

The festival commissioned the well-regarded Scottish composer James MacMillan to provide a work for its 50th anniversary. He delivered a discursive, 28-minute symphonic poem Woman of the Apocalypse and was present in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, where the work occupied the final slot on the program, to introduce its premiere performance.

In case you don’t read this scary part of the Bible regularly, the woman of Revelation, chapter 12, appears after the Seventh Trumpet and is “a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” who is pursued by “a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.” Because she gives birth to a “man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne,” the woman is often identified with Mary (or, alternatively, Israel, or the Church). The glory of this woman is depicted in the first and last sections of the piece.

The dragon hurls stars at her, tries to eat her child, and coughs up a flood of water to drown her, but she is given wings to evade capture. These events are covered in the middle three sections of Woman, beginning with “The Great Battle.” There is much banging to be heard, by a hammer whacking a large metal pipe and by a bass drum thudding a death knell over and over. There are the glories, with descending and ascending harp motives and string sweeps. There are loads of dissonant brass choirs, with a pleasant triad thrown in from time to time. But the drama is fitful, more posturing than inherent, the musical flow stop-and-startish. The heavy orchestration is nevertheless interesting at times. The piece was well-received, but below the level of very high enthusiasm that is the norm here.

Score Huang a 10

Huang RuoThe concert began with the most impressive “discovery” of the evening, Huang Ruo’s 2006 Shattered Steps, a 9-minute, highly charged, analytical yet driven essay on an original tune. And what a tune! Sung unaccompanied at the outset by the composer into a mic in a Chinese folk-rock-rap style, it took off into the orchestra like a mass of carrier pigeons, each element heading toward a different destination at first, but coming back at the end while accompanied by a recorded, multivoiced reprise of the composer doing the tune. I’d heard nothing quite like it, and hope Music Director Marin Alsop and others will perform more of Huang’s compositions in the future.

John Wineglass, a composer native to Washington, D.C., with considerable experience in writing for film and TV, contributed Someone Else’s Child, another festival commission receiving its premiere. The 17-minute piece, which concluded the first half of the concert, uses texts from a periodical published by juveniles held in the Santa Cruz detention center. It is a study in contrast, from the anger and violence of its first half to a lyrical and poignant wish for spiritual freedom at the conclusion. The 48-line text was clearly and passionately read by actor Charles Holt. Unlike less-successful works by others with spoken words, Someone Else’s text was wisely structured by Wineglass to (a) not break the thrust of the music, (b) occur only in the second half of the work, and (c) not take up too great a percentage of the work’s length. While the music and orchestration did not break new ground, its sincerity and concluding melodic/harmonic beauty were most attractive.

The concert began with the most impressive “discovery” of the evening, Huang Ruo’s 2006 Shattered Steps.

After Shattered Steps, to draw attention to her festival’s illustrious history, Alsop conducted a 1969 commission that propelled its famous Mexican composer, Carlos Chávez, into the Cabrillo directorship the following year. His piece, Discovery, latched onto as the theme for Saturday’s anniversary concert, suffered from a severe, self-inflicted gunshot wound. This was Chávez’ thoroughly enforced rule for the music: “If one repeats, one does not discover; if one discovers one does not repeat, because one does not call discovery what is already known.”

Mother of Invention Ignored

Repetition is one of the key sources of meaning in music. Doing away with it destroys the pleasures of apprehending musical structure or having expectations fulfilled or thwarted. Aside from some interesting passing of sound from one orchestral section to another, there was nothing memorable in Chávez’ failed experiment, which, like much of the “concept” music of High Modernism, sounds pathetically dated today.

“Contemporary” should mean “composed recently by a live human being.”

While acknowledging with deep gratitude all the wonderful things Marin Alsop has done and said in the past, I must rebuke her for her comment at the beginning of Discovery, “This sounds more contemporary than any of the other pieces.” 1969 is not contemporary. Much of the music from that era turned off so many classical-music patrons that they carry a chip on their shoulder to this day every time a new piece appears on a program, for fear that it might sound “discovered,” in Chávez’ sense. “Contemporary” should mean “composed recently by a live human being,” not “composed at any time in the past that approximates the now-passé style of Modernism.”

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. A photomontage enthusiast, he illustrates his own reviews.