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Photograph by Candace Di Carlo
COOL CAT: Composer Jennifer Higdon dazzled audiences at Cabrillo last weekend with the West Coast premiere of 'On a Wire' and a performance of her Grammy-winning 'Percussion Concerto.'

Sweet Dissonance

The Cabrillo Festival opens with a bang and a clang

By Scott MacClelland

THREE CHEERS for Jennifer Higdon! The 2010 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music upstaged her colleagues—with all of them present—during the two orchestral programs of the Cabrillo Music Festival last Friday and Saturday in Santa Cruz. And the competition was not slight. Englishman Mark Anthony Turnage is enjoying a heavyweight international reputation, promoted forcefully by—among others—Cabrillo music director Marin Alsop through her performances made on his home turf (and previously in Santa Cruz) and on recordings. Alsop and her crack orchestra played three of Turnage's works: Scherzoid (completed in 2004), Chicago Remains (2007) and Drowned Out (completed in 1993).

What tends to afflict composers of new music for orchestra is remembering the axiom: less is more. Like moths to flame, today's composers of orchestral music are drawn to use all of an orchestra's resources, especially one as spectacular in execution as Cabrillo's.Nothing wrong with that, until all the resources are at play at the same time. That results in information overload. Scherzoid suffered substantially, the other two Turnage pieces to a lesser extent. Between comments by the composers and excellent program notes by Lawrence Duckles, Cabrillo's audiences are about as well prepared for what's coming as they could be. Once the pieces are under way, however, the layers of busy-ness throughout the orchestra challenge listeners to track main events in highly congested contrapuntal textures. Imagine every private conversation at a large cocktail party amplified against the collective din.

How Higdon contends with this puts her in a class by herself. Her two works on the weekend's programs were concertos, or, more precisely, concerti grossi. The "soloists" for On a Wire (2009) were six members of the eighth blackbird sextet: piano, violin, cello, clarinet(s), flute(s) and percussion. Her Percussion Concerto'/s soloist was the astonishing Colin Currie, who worked three different batteries of at least a dozen instruments and as many sticks and mallets.

Higdon is better than most at seeing the big picture from the audience's perspective. The result is music that is more transparent and better balanced, all under a formal clarity that facilitates a listener's ability to capture the experience in memory. For all of his virtuosity of composition, the Turnage experience becomes ephemeral by forcing the audience to work extra hard to gain purchase. (Of the three works, Chicago Remains more successfully achieved formal architectural clarity.)

Higdon doesn't want for compositional virtuosity. On the contrary, her ability to manage the interplay between the soloist(s) is of itself breathtaking, no less than the range of her creative imagination. On a Wire opened with the sextet all crowded around the piano with rosined strings woven through the instrument's wire strings, along with drum sticks, fingernails and hand-muting, altogether turning the instrument into an orchestra as colorful as the orchestra itself. For this 26-minute piece the six players had totally memorized their parts, and it soon became clear how necessary that was. In Percussion Concerto, the soloist at least had a few moments of rest while the orchestra took wing. And though Currie had his sheet music out, it was frequently obvious that he too had memorized lengthy passages dense with notes at high speed.

Michael Hersch's Symphony no. 3 (2009) was a festival commission getting its world premiere on Friday. Speaking from the stage, Hersch asserted somewhat defensively that nothing he could say about its "backstory" would shed more light; that the music had to stand on its own. He did allow, however, that a personal trauma had been involved. That proved an understatement. The lengthy first of seven movements offered about 10 minutes of loud, unrelieved dissonance, with little letup thereafter. A big string theme emerged in the last movement with sharp "wounded animal" cries from the brass that had punctuated the work throughout. A brief charm titled < by the 30-year-old Brit Anna Clyne opened the Saturday night program and added to the general sense of excellence on opening weekend.

THE CABRILLO FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC continues through Sunday, Aug. 15, with pieces by Kevin Puts, Sean Hickey, Elena Kats-Chernin and Philip Glass. For schedule and tickets visit or call 831.420.5260.

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