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Photograph by R. R. Jones
Blonde on Blonde: Soprano Amy Burton (left) shares a moment with Maestra Marin Alsop as the Festival Orchestra looks on.

Light in August

This season the Cabrillo Music Festival emphasized accessible new music

By Scott MacClelland

Top-heavy with light music, the 45th Cabrillo Music Festival suggested that its audience, now 60 percent from out of town, was ready for a respite from works that challenged the curious intellect. Program music—picture painting, storytelling and "sounds-like"—figured prominently in all four of the festival"s symphonic programs. But large-scale works that reveled in the play of purely musical tones, colors and rhythms made important points as well.

Some audience members were not happy with all the program music and being forced to wait for "the good stuff," as one complained to me. Notwithstanding the apparent sophistication of such a comment about new music, the programmatic usually depends on something easily recognizable. So it was in the "Fate" motto from Tchaikovsky"s Fourth Symphony and the slow movement from Mozart"s Piano Concerto no. 21 (Elvira Madigan) in James MacMillan"s exhilarating Stomp, and the pictorialisms of David Heath"s Colourful World, both heard on Aug. 3. Likewise, the Latin rhythms of Michael Daugherty"s sensational Raise the Roof and the pictographic allusions in his Ghost Ranch after paintings by Georgia O"Keeffe on Aug. 4. In like kind, the night creatures of Mason Bates"s Rusty Air in Carolina and movie music sound-alikes of Kenneth Fuchs"s United Artists and Kevin Puts"s Symphony no. 4 continued the easy-listening indulgences last weekend.

In a way, all music, not least the new, draws on something that came before. In the new, the difference is whether or not the piece leaves some measure of mystique, the feeling that there is more there than could be satisfied by only one exposure. High marks in that category therefore go to John Corigliano"s Mister Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, Thomas Adès" violin concerto Concentric Paths, Philip Glass"s Symphony no. 8 and Aaron Kernis"s Valentines. The Corigliano and Kernis are both "song cycles," implying a relationship between the words and the music. The Adès and Glass made no such extra-musical allusions, though the Adès did feature the "personality" of the soloist, in this case, concertmaster Yumi Hwang Williams.

The latter-mentioned works both made hay out of terse patterns organically cycled and recycled. Glass"s notes would have one believe he is out to honor the 18th century tradition of musical practices, but the eight themes of the first movement beg the question. Moreover, Glass doesn"t actually develop them in the classical style, but he does play them all at the same time near the end with a contrapuntal result. None of this makes a lot of difference to the audience, but the multiple rhythms and mind-numbing repetitions do challenge the musicians. Ultimately, it"s a topsy-turvy paradigm: for the audience chewy miniatures that lack a big picture, for the players a vigorous exercise in keeping everything on track, but for neither leaving much that can be captured in memory.

By comparison, the Adès did offer a big picture, despite its miniature concentricities, and plenty of intrigue, compelling another hearing. (KUSP–FM 88.9 will broadcast this concert on Aug. 27.) The Corigliano will probably always be a novelty, given the familiarity and popularity of Dylan"s songs and the composer"s surprisingly original music. The opulent and understated orchestral score deserves another hearing, and it is hard to imagine anyone giving a better performance than soprano Amy Burton. The Kernis song-cycle may be faulted for an overwrought orchestration given the intimacy of Carol Ann Duffy"s poems. But for orchestral display, it was stunning (to borrow music director Marin Alsop"s word) and no easy fabric for the remarkable soprano Susan Narucki to slice through.

From last weekend, Mason Bates" Rusty Air revealed a young composer of much promise; Kenneth Fuchs flattering the London Symphony and Star Wars composer John Williams; and Kevin Puts in a romantic portrait of Mission San Juan during its heyday plus a plushy Healing Song suitable to resolve all the stress and anxiety of any contemporary Hollywood movie or television melodrama.

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