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Three Skyward Missiles, One Burnout

August 12, 2008

Concertgoers are lucky, compared to critics. They can simply like or dislike the music, but critics have to figure out why. At Saturday's Cabrillo Festival concert, after being tremendously disappointed by the clarinet concerto Riffs and Refrains by Mark Antony Turnage, a composer I normally admire, I couldn't put my finger on the reason. The problem certainly didn't lie in the Festival Orchestra's playing, and especially not in soloist Bharat Chandra's warm tone and flawless execution.
Fortunately, Music Director Marin Alsop came to my rescue simply by having programmed the succeeding pieces, The Mannheim Rocket, by John Corigliano, and the "Doctor Atomic" Symphony by John Adams. Their strengths showed up Riffs' weaknesses.

One of the highlights of the previous week's programs was Meet the Composers, during which Corigliano, in answer to the question "Who do you compose for?," replied with a series of maxims:
If you say you're writing for an audience, the word "panderer" comes up.
I don't write for an audience, but to an audience.
Complexity has been given a high moral authority, but
Complexity is a selfishness instead of a givingness.
Clarity is important.
It is so hard to hear.
Really point out what is clear [in your music].
Corigliano's Rocket whooshes up to reach an acme of clarity. Although the title is based on a rapid rising scale that the 18th-century Mannheim Court Orchestra performed with such brilliance that they won it a nickname, the piece is conceived as an 11-minute, whimsical ride on a "wedding-cake rocket" as if piloted by Baron Munchausen. (Whatever that is — I imagined a Montgolfier-decorated balloon somehow turned into a projectile.)

The piece blasts off with a 12-tone fuse that generates an "engine" of a chugging bass line from the 18th century, followed by a series of rising pitches and chronologically advancing quotations of German masters, from Johann Stamitz through Haydn, Brahms, Wagner, and Schoenberg, until a "glass ceiling" is broken.
Rarified Air, Clarified
At perihelion, the rocket floats for two-plus minutes in a heart-in-throat G-major melody with a raised fourth (Lydian mode). High muted strings, a twinkly glockenspiel, bird-calling woodwinds, and even an amplified saw brilliantly intertwine with the tune so that each contribution is heard as sharply as a 4,500-dots-per-inch digital photo is seen.

By contrast, the Turnage piece, I realized, wallows in thick orchestration, with little sustained line, except in the undistinguished part for the poor clarinet, which isn't even given many extended techniques to show off Chandra's virtuosity. Turnage should have listened to the clarinet concertos by Corigliano, Magnus Lindberg, or Anders Hillborg to get a better idea of what a master orchestrator can do with such an instrument.

After intermission came the first West Coast performance of the "Doctor Atomic" Symphony. Based on material from Adams' 2005 opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the first atomic bomb in 1945, the work noodles around with various postminimalist figures, but, just as in Corigliano's music, the orchestration is clear. Ominous interjections of brass abound, but never sound thick.

And like the space-time sounds in Rocket, the score for "Doctor Atomic" gave listeners something to take home with them, such as the powerful melody from the baritone aria, "Batter my heart, three person'd God," that ends the opera's first act. Set mostly for solo trumpet and wonderfully played by Principal Craig Morris, the aria, along with the closing section of the symphony, perceptibly tied the previous sections into a cumulative whole. Toward the conclusion, I realized that this was powered by intimations of the functional harmony of a Bach chorale.

Adams proves that functional harmony and sustained, repeatable melody are not dead, and that both greatly appeal to audiences, since this one whooped their hearts out at the conclusion. As for the Turnage work, my take-home bag contained only negative memories of its two gimmicky false endings, in which pauses, according to the score, can be taken for "any" length of time.
Shtick Fizzles
To try to insert something distinctive in the proceedings, Alsop and Chandra worked out a deal whereby the soloist would hand the conductor his clarinet as if something was wrong with it, and then stretch his neck a bit. Well, the idea was appropriate to the lead-balloon effect of the previous music. All it did was unnecessarily puzzle everyone.

A far better humorous idea was taken up by the cello section, which every year for this concert pulls a surprise. This year, they emerged after intermission with white lab coats on, and radiation warning signs on their backs, all ready to play "Doctor Atomic."

In case those readers who attended the concert are wondering whether I missed something, my critical security-apparatus caught the opening number, Sneak in a Window, right in the act. An upstart composed this five-minute provocation: 19-year-old Matthew Cmiel (pronounced "kuh-MEEL"). He is a Cabrillo groupie whose success, in addition to talent, has been based on what was prefaced as Alsop's advice to young people: "Pursue that which you are passionate about and pure and simply, never give up! If the front door is locked to you, go around the side and sneak in a window!"

My advice to Matthew Cmiel, if he has not done so already, is to read George Antheil's Bad Boy of Music and continue to surprise and charm as much as possible. Keep up the engaging rhythmic sensibility, but don't overdo things: You made the orchestra members clap too much; save that for the audience.

And study, study. If you can put together half the orchestral transparency of Corigliano's Rocket with half the melodic, structural, and functional harmonic interest of Adams' "Doctor Atomic" symphony, you'll be able to arrive in the future through the front door ... in a sedan chair carried by your admirers.

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.