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August 16-22, 2006

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Leila Josefowicz

Hitting the Heights: Violinist Leila Josefowicz gave a stirring performance of Mark Grey's concerto 'Elevation.'

Magic Number

The Cabrillo Festival featured seven original compositions in a row for its closing weekend

By Scott MacClelland

ONE MAJOR orchestral statement each by seven composers in a row filled the final weekend of the 44th Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, with five of the seven heard at the festival for the first time. Only Aaron Jay Kernis was a repeat in person, however, here to witness the West Coast premiere of his nostalgic Newly Drawn Sky, a 17-minute childhood recollection. Its real climax, setting aside the big noisy ones, was a gorgeous melody that expanded on the strings and floated a lonely trumpet solo.

Opening the Sunday afternoon program at Mission San Juan Bautista, it was followed by a concert suite from Nicolas Maw's new opera Sophie's Choice and Esa-Pekka Salonen's L.A. Variations. Like Kernis, Maw was in the audience for his own West Coast premiere. His style, in a reworking of orchestral interludes from the opera, complemented the Kernis, even containing a similarly lonely trumpet solo. Seamlessly played, the lushly expressive interludes managed to reveal themselves discretely, the next to last imbued with frightful anxiety. In the closing moments, mezzo-soprano Gale Fuller sang Sophie's affecting farewell letter to Stingo, the first-person character of Styron's harrowing novel.

Salonen's piece celebrates the talents and power of his Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's a virtual concerto for orchestra, whose greatest virtue is conciseness. It makes clear use of its two hexachords (together accounting for all 12 tones of the chromatic scale) and a terse "mantra" motto. These were quickly recognizable fingerprints of a distinctive musical personality who just happens to conduct a major orchestra.

Saturday night in Santa Cruz heard Daniel Brewbaker's Dark Angel, Mark Grey's violin concerto Elevation, Michael Gatonska's The Whispering Wind (a world premiere) and America—A Prophecy by Thomas Adès. The Grey was written for Leila Josefowicz, who gave it a mind-boggling performance. At 20 minutes, this longest piece of the evening was described by its composer as a tone poem with violin solo (in truth, much more the latter than the former.) The orchestra used a full complement of strings, with only six winds and three percussion. At one point, a fine and original melody rose on the strings, and the climactic finale enjoyed a skillfully paced crescendo.

The Brewbaker, inspired by a nightmare, proved to be a showcase for orchestra, superbly orchestrated and reminiscent of the classico-romantic American style that emerged at the Eastman School in the mid-20th century. It made effective use of a three-note chord and a five-note theme.

As Gatonska explained, his piece represented shades of wind through the oak trees of Nisene Marks State Park. The shimmering leaves were vividly portrayed, but the quaking grew to such climactic ferocity as to suggest the Loma Prieta temblor of 1989, also centered at Nisene Marks.

The Adés proved to be a clever but obvious confrontation between the "benign" Maya civilization and the conquering Spaniards, each with its own theme. Mezzo Gale Fuller's recitation of a Mayan text was hard to savor under the orchestral onslaughts, until its quiet closing on the words "Weep, weep ... ash feels no pain." A fierce and spectacular brass display provided the work with a climax.

For the 2008 season, the festival has raised more than half of the $60,000 needed to cover its commission of Christopher Rouse for a concerto for orchestra.

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