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The Arts
08.06.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by R.R. Jones
MAKING TIME: Conductor Marin Alsop in rehearsal for John Corigliano's percussion-intensive 'Conjurer.'

Dazzling in Double-Time

Christopher Rouse's alternating-tempo concerto does the Cabrillo Festival proud

By Scott MacClelland


Among the seven new orchestral works heard at last weekend's Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, one stood head and shoulders above the rest. Christopher Rouse's Concerto for Orchestra, composed with dazzling virtuosity, gave Marin Alsop's musicians a showpiece of fierce demands and breathtaking execution. Like Bartok's eponymous opus, it challenges every member of the orchestra and rewards each with at least cameos. Unlike the Bartok, however, it doesn't make any external allusions, such as the Hungarian's quote from his own Bluebeard's Castle and his mockery of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. (Actually, Rouse admitted before the performance that he inserted a quote from Jefferson Airplane in the contrabasses but was sure no one else would spot it.)

Half of the 28-minute performance, played without pause, went to the first five episodes, alternating fast and slow sections. Next came a development of the slow material followed with an eruptive finale elaborating the fast stuff. Chattering brass, intoning winds, punctuating and pounding percussion and eerie strings traded their material kaleidoscopically, often at high speed. A listener could be forgiven for craving another hearing; Alsop seemed as much traffic cop as artistic "lens" for the piece. Stravinsky once accused Olivier Messiaen of "piling up decibels as if he were jealous of the sonic boom." A similar charge could be leveled at Rouse, here and at other Cabrillo premieres. In the episode just before the long slow development, the xylophonist was seen with his hands over his ears while the timpanist next to him was pounding at full tilt.

But for all the dizzying activity, colors and effects, Rouse delivered this commission with an idiomatic mastery of the instruments and categorical style integrity. The work is an orchestral masterpiece and deserves ongoing exposure. Having paid for it, the festival should consider releasing this performance commercially.

Last Friday's program opened with Sinfonia by Stephen McNeff, a composer-in-residence at Alsop's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in southern England. If McNeff is a new music practitioner it was hard to tell, given that he modeled this gentle and mostly conventional three-movement work on a prototypal symphony by William Boyce, an 18th-century Londoner. Eric Lindsay's brief Darkness Made Visible impressively reconciled two opposing musical styles that "start out talking smack to each other." Cellist Matt Haimovitz, his Gofriller instrument amplified, devoured David Sanford's feisty, eclectic-with-swing Scherzo Grosso.

The Saturday program opened with Dorothy Chang's Strange Air, a sensitive, atmospheric impression of the Pacific Northwest's natural beauty and "intensity." Mason Bates returned to Santa Cruz to "play" electronica in his pictorial Liquid Interface, which represents glaciers calving, the Crescent City tsunami and, at last, retro dance music On the Wannsee. John Corigliano's Conjurer was all about percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie, who skittered across wood, metal and skins for 35 minutes of brilliant coloratura. The strings weighed in more as a support system, with allusions to the composer's Red Violin music. (Corigliano's The Mannheim Rocket is on this Saturday's program.)

Last weekend's works were more about orchestration than content, including Rouse's Concerto. Yet that piece wound up conveying the most substance of all. This is not surprising; most new music at any given time is spadework in pursuit of style focus that the most talented composers can and should capitalize on. Luckily for us, Marin Alsop and the Cabrillo Festival are at the ready.


THE CABRILLO FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC continues this weekend with 'Riffs and Refrans,' Saturday at 8pm at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz ($25–$41), and 'Music at the Mission,' Sunday at 8pm at Mission San Juan Bautista ($25). For details and tickets visit www.cabrillomusic.org.


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