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Child's Play, All the Way

August 5, 2008

Abstract, intimidating, unintelligible: These are words I often hear used to describe new music. People who use them might assume that every new-music festival is chock-full of serious, difficult sounds that can daunt even trained musicians, not to mention the musically uninitiated.
The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, however, fits no such description. In fact, it even makes room for some child's play. This new-music festival, now in its 46th season, held its annual children's concert Sunday at the Santa Cruz Civil Auditorium. The free program delighted children and parents alike.

The concert aimed to mix education with entertainment. The tickets, for example, lacked the usual row and seat assignments. Seating sections were labeled instead by descriptions of sounds that various instruments make, including "gong," "pluck," "toot," and "bang." Inside the auditorium, festival workers held signs with the same words, which were big enough even for little eyes to read. Thus, everyone could find their assigned seating section quickly. But nobody would remain seated for long.

The music started off with a bang — literally. The percussion section performed first, playing a short, taiko-inspired piece on Western drums. This was the first of several introductions made to instrument families, coming before the Festival Orchestra played together as a whole. Since this program catered to the short attention spans of its short audience members, though, most of the remaining introductions took place outdoors.

Led by workers bearing the seating signs, the audience left the auditorium in groups and traveled to stations around the building. Brass and woodwind quintets, a harp, and a string quartet performed at the various stations. After the short performances, children were free to ask the performers questions. Astute members of my group, for example, inquired about how many strings there are on a harp, or why woodwinds are called "woodwinds" when they obviously are not all made of wood.

After the introductions to the instruments, everyone gathered back inside the auditorium to hear two pieces performed by the entire Festival Orchestra. The first, Machine by Jennifer Higdon, layered noodles of scale figures on blocks of staccato rhythmic patterns. With the piece clocking in at a brisk three minutes, the children appreciated that it was energetic and, at times, delightfully loud.
Jamming on That Incident in Troy
The program's longest work was Troyjam (2008), a piece for narrator and orchestra. Michael Daugherty, the work's composer, set a narrative by Anne Carson to child-friendly music. Led by Marin Alsop, the magnificent festival maestra, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra was joined by Marco Barricelli, the director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, who recited Carson's narrative.

Musically, the piece unfolds not unlike Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, in the sense that instruments take turns playing solos before they play together. During the solo sections, Carson's narrative introduces the Greek hero Achilles and his nemesis, the Trojan Hektor. Daugherty's music represents Achilles with a nimble theme that first sounds in the violins. In contrast, Hektor is represented by a debonair theme in the brass, which is why Daugherty described Hektor to the audience with the humorous epithet "tamer of trumpets."

According to Homer's Illiad, the rendezvous between Achilles and Hektor ends with the former slaying the latter. Then Achilles secures Hektor's dead body to the back of a chariot with a rope, and drags the corpse around the perimeter of Troy for days on end. Homer's version might not be particularly suitable for a children's concert. Fortunately, though, in Carson's narration, the two warriors lead no battles. Instead, Achilles and Hektor lead a "jam session" together on the beach (hence the title, Troyjam).

While this program began by teaching about instruments, it concluded by dramatizing a message about peace, and about music's potential for creating it. Even if that message was lost on the children, the program nonetheless forged a certain peace of its own between its audience and its new music.

The Cabrillo Festival took its children's concert seriously, delivering a well-organized program that was filled with family-friendly music. As a result, members of its audience might describe the new music they heard on Sunday with words such as these: encouraging, enlivening, enlightening.

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