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Conjuring Timbres and Climes

August 5, 2008

Whatever work that Music Director Marin Alsop decides to program at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, you know it will at least be interesting and intellectually provocative. Whether it's beautiful or ultimately satisfying is more subjective, but I found Saturday's "Triple Play" concert fairly successful on those counts, as well. The musicians, under Alsop's confident direction, sounded articulately and passionately committed to the music. With Dame Evelyn Glennie, the world's most amazing percussion virtuoso, as a soloist, everyone else had all they could do to keep up with her.
The program's three works are all recent compositions — two West Coast premieres written within the past two years, and one world premiere finished this May. All were inspired by basic elements of one kind or another: One depicted air (mixed with water), another depicted water (mixed with air), and the third was about wood, metal, and skin, the elements of percussion instruments.

John Corigliano's Conjurer, for percussion and string orchestra, is his attempt to integrate a diverse percussion ensemble into the role of a single concerto soloist. He does it by using just one family of percussion in each of the three movements — first, wood (largely xylophone and marimba with some unpitched wood blocks); second, metal (tubular bells, vibraphone, tam-tam, and suspended cymbals); and third, drums (including timpani, bass drum, hand drum, and kick drum).

Each movement begins with an unaccompanied cadenza, introducing the listener to its particular sound world, which, in the second and third movements, palpably kicks the previous movement's sound out of the way. The title, Conjurer, refers to the soloist in the cadenzas, who conjures up the material that forms the basis for each movement.

Percussion is so frequently used to punctuate loud passages in music that listeners may forget it can be used differently. Much of this concerto is actually fairly quiet, though the second movement rises to an agitated middle section. The finale, which is very loud indeed, nevertheless has a subdued section with a distant violin solo (the only such passage in the work) over quiet bass drum.

Corigliano chose string-only accompaniment to provide the most unified possible orchestral timbre, to contrast with the diversity of the percussion. But each movement has its own distinctive string sound, as well as its own percussion ensemble. The first movement's wood percussion has a dry sound with quick decay, so the strings, appropriately, are also dry and chattering, with rough scraping and some col legno bowing. The metal percussion of the second movement has a long decay time and is suitable to perform extended melodies, so this is the most tuneful movement, with lyrical strings playing open harmonies. In the final, drum-heavy movement, the strings mostly play heavy, sustained chords.
Mesmerizing Virtuoso
In concertos it's usually hard to take your eyes off the soloist, and this one more than most. Glennie turns from instrument to instrument, striking each with blazing speed and the confident abandon of a true virtuoso. She had some opportunity for improvisation, especially in an unnotated extra cadenza at the end of the finale. At 40 minutes, the work outstayed its welcome, and coming, as it did, at the end of a lengthy, intellectually challenging concert didn't help. Glennie appeared as untired at the end as when she started.

The premiere, opening the bill, was by Dorothy Chang. Take note of her name: This 38-year-old composer is a master orchestrator with a keen sense of form. A native of the American Midwest, Chang was thrown by the very different weather of the Pacific Northwest, where she moved several years ago to teach at the University of British Columbia. So she wrote this work about it and called it Strange Air. (Although I'm a former northwesterner, I'm not insulted by this title, as I find the Midwest's weather as strange as she finds the Northwest's.)

To depict the intensity and speed of change of Pacific weather — she cites one balmy afternoon that turned to six inches of snow within three hours — Chang packs extreme contrasts into her 15-minute work. It has four sections, alternating fast and slow. I heard slow wind chords faintly recalling American populist style, thickly harmonized strings more directly resembling Soviet theater composers like Khatchaturian and Kabalevsky, growly brass, and icy percussion.

But to cite these is to emphasize passing details at the expense of a well-constructed whole. Chang has the aesthetic sense of an Impressionist composer, but married to a distinct palate exhibiting clarity, balance, and variety. Another concertgoer I spoke with was reminded of the landscapes of John Constable. This is exactly right: Chang resembles musical Impressionism the way that Constable resembles painterly Impressionism.
Drip, but Not Dry
The remaining work was by local favorite Mason Bates, known for his compositions mixing classical music with computerized electronic pop rhythms. Bates, who provides his electronics in person from his handy laptop, is restrained and tasteful in his additions — he's no Waldo de los Ríos — yet they don't always mesh with his orchestral writing. Liquid Interface is all about water, but the electronic thumps and clicks in the first movement, "Glaciers Calving," sounded awfully like the "insectoid techno-beat" (in Bates' words) of the bugs chirping away in his contribution to last year's festival, Rusty Air in Carolina.

The effect was of a giant mantis stalking around the glaciers behind the rather plain wash and echo of the orchestra. Drips and drops of rain in the "Scherzo Liquido" movement came out as electronic thuds over pizzicato and staccato orchestral playing. "Crescent City" honors New Orleans in the form of the kind of smooth jazz I associate with 1950s to 1960s easy-listening albums. Hurricane Katrina arrives near the end, but tamely. (Evelyn Glennie walloping away on drums would have been a welcome realistic addition here.) The finale, "On the Wannsee," is gentler still, depicting balmy humidity and resuming the echo effect — repeated notes played diminuendo — of the first movement.

If the electronics in Liquid Interface were sometimes distracting, the work as a whole was neither frozen nor vaporous. It was as varied and interesting as Strange Air, if not as impressive. Indeed, Chang and Bates bear some similarities as orchestrators, both using the winds as the heart of the orchestra, and usually placing the strings in a subsidiary role as a solid base.

Several children and at least two babies — babies! — were in attendance. The babies weren't always visible, but they were audible. One got a small round of applause when carried out after the first piece. I know sitters are hard to find, but what were the parents thinking? Had they confused this with the family concert? And shouldn't the ushers have said, "This is not an appropriate event for a baby"?

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.