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Splashy Mission Travelogue

August 12, 2008

"May I ask which paper you're writing for?" asked the lovely gray-haired woman during intermission on Sunday afternoon.
First I explained that I was reviewing for the only classical music review–rich publication in the Bay Area, San Francisco Classical Voice, as well as American Record Guide. Then I noted that SFCV had recently published my feature ("The Adventure Continues") on Cabrillo that addresses Music Director Marin Alsop's programming choices and changes of direction since the days of Lou Harrison, Robert Hughes, and previous Music Director Dennis Russell Davies.

"Yes," she replied with a big smile, "there is a difference. Marin brings us wonderful music like the world premiere we just heard. As she has said many times, 'There is nothing wrong with programming music that's accessible.'"

Nothing at all. I prefer it, in fact, except when the music is stronger on color and splash than substance. Certainly that was the case Sunday with three-quarters of "Music at the Mission: To the New World," the festival's final concert. It was also true of much of the first half of the previous day's concert in Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, whose lightness and entertainment value were perhaps chosen to balance the gravity of the postintermission work, John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony. As if it were even necessary to lighten the serious and profound.
Around the World in 100 Minutes
According to one longtime festival attendee, a retired college-level music teacher and composer, Davies often exploited the unique resonance of Mission San Juan Bautista by programming works rich in subtle delicacy. From my experience of the last few years, Alsop's equally valid predilection is for colorful works that often include huge climaxes. The thrill is major, even if the combination of orchestral layout — narrow and many layers deep — and reverb-delay time tends to significantly obscure detail.

Our Mission travelogue began in Taiwan, as the premiere of Feng Nian Ji (Harvest festival), recently composed by the single-named Chiayu (b. 1975), took us to the harvest festival of the Ami, that island's largest aboriginal tribe. Beginning with a rhythmic warrior dance, the music evolved into lots of undulating, mysterious movement, a lush and romantic section representing female singing, and a big, colorful finale. I personally thought it more about color and energy than anything else — the aural equivalent of a carnival parade — but the audience cheered like crazy.

Then came a deeper work. Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) began the final movement of Last Round (1996) in 1991, after learning the news of tango composer Astor Piazzolla's stroke. Four years after Piazzolla's death in 1992, Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman of the St. Lawrence String Quartet urged Golijov to write another movement to finish the piece.

Last Round exists in two versions, one for double string quartet (recorded by the St. Lawrence and Ying String quartets), the other for string orchestra. Golijov borrowed his title from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar, metaphorically issuing a posthumous call to the fistfight-prone Piazzolla to fight one more time.

According to Golijov's program notes, the first-movement dance "represents the act of a violent compression of an idealized bandoneón." I'm not sure what that means, but the music was deeply moving. Distinguished by raw, naked passion, it grew progressively wilder and more abandoned, as violins commanded attention by slashing through the melody line. The dance finally wound down to a more plaintive melody, as if to convey that Piazzolla's lifelong dance with tango had ended.

As basses droned in the manner of bells tolling, Golijov's second movement gave us what he termed "a final, seemingly endless opening sigh." The fantasy on the refrain of Carlos Gardel's famed tango from the 1930s, "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" (My beloved Buenos Aires), went on and on like a never-ending dirge, then abruptly died off without fanfare. The highlight of the afternoon, the heart-touching work received the huge ovation it deserved.
Ellis Island, and Then Some
The U.S. premiere of To the New World (2002), by Alla Borzova (b. 1961), describes an imaginary ship that brings Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, African, Latin-American, and Chinese immigrants to the U.S.A. If that suggests many contrasting sections depicting recognizable ethnic melodies, you're on target. The work had an extremely lovely beginning, a "theme of immigration" that conveyed a sense of loss at leaving the old. The themes, however, were rather predictable. If the acoustic had allowed more detail to come through, perhaps I would have been more convinced of the work's worth.

The West Coast premiere of Variations Without a Theme (2001) brought us, in one sense, more of the same. Instead of a lyrical theme, composer Avner Dorman (b. 1975) seized on some of the basic elements of music — the repetition of a note, an ornament, scales, and the half-step interval — to give us 11 variations that reportedly contained elements from jazz, Middle Eastern music, the avant-garde, Indian music, rock, and the Romantic symphonic tradition. Although I failed to keep track of the style that each variation was intended to convey, it was hard to miss the cacophonous drama, the whirling, dancing energy, the occasional delicacy, and the final wild dramatic flourish that almost shook the image of Christ loose from the cross.

Maybe, in another context and acoustic, I would have felt that most of the program amounted to more than a travelogue. As it was, the addition of an international bazaar outside the Mission's gate would have seemed right in order.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.