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Mallets Aforetought: Evelyn Glennie gets in shape for her percussion premiere at the Cabrillo festival.

Sparkle of The New

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music shatters expectations with unprecedented number of premieres

By Scott MacClelland

JUST as Marin Alsop gushes over "my favorite orchestra" at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, her enthusiasm for composer Christopher Rouse is similarly unguarded. At a previous festival, Rouse told the audience that when Alsop proposed an all-Rouse program, he said, "Are you sure?"

Rouse is back this summer to hear the world premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra, a festival commission dedicated to Alsop and in honor of longtime staffers Ellen Primack and Tom Fredericks. Rouse says the 25-minute showpiece will "put the players through their paces." Describing the structure as "a little strange," he calls attention to its seven parts, played without pause, the first five of which alternate between fast and slow sections to constitute half its length. These are followed by a "development" of the slow material leading to a "blossoming" of the fast material in the finale. "It's not about anything but music," Rouse cautions those who might be tempted to look for programmatic elements. "I'm just playing with musical materials here," he adds.

 Also on this Friday night's opening concert at the Santa Cruz Civic, cellist Matt Haimovitz, in his festival debut, solos in Scherzo Grosso, a "classical-funk-jazz-bebop-hip-hopping" piece originally composed for cello and big band by David Sanford of Holyoke College. Like Rouse, Sanford is among 12 of this summer's composers in residence. They are joined in that circle by the Brit Stephen McNeff for Friday's U.S. premiere of Sinfonia, a work commissioned by Alsop's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. On that night, Eric Lindsay, a Santa Cruz native with a big composing career, sees the world premiere of the revised version of his Darkness Made Visible. That piece depicts the collision of two discrete musical ideas aggressively trying to find common ground. (Veteran festival-goers will be reminded of Thomas Adès' unrelated Darknesse Visible from 2003, inspired by a reference in Milton's Paradise Lost, and John Dowland's In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell.) 

The festival continues to reel out a record-breaking number of premieres (five world, three U.S. and five West Coast) on Saturday. Dame Evelyn Glennie, the diminutive, hearing-challenged, choreographically barefoot percussionist who last bewitched Cabrillo audiences in 2006, returns to the Civic for the West Coast premiere of Conjurer, a percussion concerto in three movements (representing wood, metal and skin, respectively) by John Corigliano, now in his second stint as a festival composer-in-residence. If not for Elliott Carter, alive and well and still taking commissions at age 99, Corigliano would qualify as elder statesman among American composers. And though he says, "I don't feel 70," he does admit, "I had to conjure something out of a brain that didn't want to write a percussion concerto." The name "Conjurer" didn't occur to him when he originally titled it Triple Play, but after the second hearing he realized the focus of the piece was on the performer. (Meanwhile, Santa Cruz being a recycling kind of place, "Triple Play" became the label for Saturday's concert.) The program opens with Dorothy Chang's Strange Air, a world premiere commissioned through the Women's Philharmonic Commissioning Initiative. The title refers to the intensity and natural beauty found in the Pacific Northwest. Now on the faculty at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Chang began composing at age 14. Her works have enjoyed widespread performances throughout this country and overseas. Mason Bates returns to Santa Cruz to play the electronics of his new Liquid Interface, inspired by water in all its forms, and dedication to his mentor, John Corigliano.  

Corigliano will also be represented on the program of Aug. 9 by The Mannheim Rocket, a commission from the orchestra that originally became famous in 18th-century Germany for its dazzling executions that inspired, among others, the young Mozart. The "Rocket," which Corigliano first heard about as a college freshman, inspired him to fabricate a virtuoso tribute to German music, with tongue in cheek. As he explains, "the term was used to describe a rising figure—a scale or arpeggio—that speeded up and grew louder as it rose higher and higher." Corigliano's version starts with the scratch of a "match" that ignites a 12-tone "fuse." A theme from an early Mannheim practitioner, Johann Stamitz, set over an Alberti bass, then lifts off and picks up speed along with snippets of Haydn, Mozart, Wagner and Brahms "all the way to Stockhausen." As it shatters a "glass ceiling," The Rocket pauses briefly to savor the heavenly "music of the spheres" before falling back to earth, surveying its original trajectory as it accelerates downward, then ends with an original version of the historic Rocket. For scoring his "glass ceiling," Corigliano got instructions from a glass shop near his upstate New York hideaway on how to safely break a lot of glass. (Yes, the name Mannheim Steamroller is Chip Davis' inside joke.)

Also on the Aug. 9 program is the much-anticipated West Coast premiere of John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony, drawn on music from the opera. Explaining why the scheduled premiere by the St. Louis Symphony did not take place as planned, Adams said, "I realized while working in earnest on composing [it] that the process of developing a symphony based on music drawn from the opera Doctor Atomic was creatively a much more time-consuming project than originally anticipated." (Adams conducted the first performance at a BBC Proms concert in London's Royal Albert Hall.) The program also includes the world premiere of 19-year-old Matthew Cmiel's Sneak in a Window. (The composer was mentored by Adams.) Clarinet soloist Bharat Chandra is featured in the U.S. premiere of Riffs and Refrains by Mark Anthony Turnage, whose Three Screaming Popes was heard at the 2004 Cabrillo Festival. 

Four composers new to the festival—three of whom are in residence—occupy the festival finale at Mission San Juan Bautista on Aug 10. Taiwanese-born Chiayu's Harvest Festival gets its world premiere; Belarus-born Alla Borzova's To the New World is U.S. premiered; and Israeli-born Avner Dorman's Variations Without a Theme will get its first hearing on the West Coast. Not in residence—yet—is acclaimed Argentine-born Osvaldo Golijov, represented by his Last Round.

  THE CABRILLO FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC opens Friday, Aug. 1, at 8pm at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz and continues at various venues (including Kuumbwa, Nestldown and Mission San Juan Bautista) through Aug. 10.

Tickets are $23-$125 (the Sunday, Aug. 3, performance is free); for schedule and events see or call 831.420.5260.

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