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Love at First Bite: The Cabrillo Music Festival's audience went batty for David Del Tredici's 'Dracula.'

Gods and Monsters

Cabrillo Music Festival pulls off a spectacular tribute to Lou Harrison and two creature features

By Scott MacClelland

Where else but the Cabrillo Music Festival--or some B-movie house--would one expect Dracula to meet Frankenstein? Though not the first time music director Marin Alsop has made "camp" at her festival, these two imaginary characters were only kept from going over the top by colorful and resourceful orchestral music played on Friday and Saturday evenings at Santa Cruz Civic.

Overheard during Saturday's inter-mission: "Are you enjoying the festival so far?" The response: "I love it even when I hate it!" Under Alsop's leadership, the festival throws only curves, new pieces that no one around here has ever heard before. The best one can hope for is a strong impression, one piece at a time. Failure is merely forgettability. Both love and hate are preferable to no reaction at all.

As for Dracula and Frankenstein, the real imagination spilled from the composers, the American David Del Tredici and the Austrian Heinz Karl Gruber. Del Tredici, who was present, fashioned an operatic scene for singing actor and orchestra out of Alfred Corn's first-person-singular poem, "My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count." For Gruber, the Frankenstein reference was mainly a pretext to arouse the specter of childhood haunts. In fact, he chose to amplify those fears with a "pan-demonium" for orchestra with a chansonnier who recites a collection of creepy new nursery rhymes and fantastic verses, some with sexual overtones, by the Viennese poet HC Artmann.

For Dracula, Del Tredici wrote transparently for a chamber orchestra, a refreshing alternative to the symphonic thicket of Michael Daugherty's just-played Fire and Blood violin concerto. Del Tredici's economic use of materials--including wind machine--gave soprano/actor Hila Plitmann a colorful and atmospheric context to perform Corn's narrative of the girl-next-door justifying her affection for and service to her toothsome neighbor. For Frankenstein!!, Gruber makes his music amusingly surreal by adding musical toys (flutophone, glissando pennywhistles) and special effects (popping inflated brown bags, plastic bull-roarers) to his orchestra, while chansonnier Joseph Ribeiro groaned, crooned and croaked the grotesque texts.

Best of Lou

The Sunday night tribute to Lou Harrison proved a richly memorable highlight of this or any previous festival. Presented without intermission, a pageant of Lou's life alternated his music with excerpts from Eva Soltes' splendid documentary A World of Music: Lou Harrison. Phil Collins conducted his New Music Works Ensemble in Concerto in Slendro; Sanford Sylvan sang the climactic soliloquy--a circumspect search for psychological archetype--from the opera Rapunzel; Marin Alsop presented emeritus music director Dennis Russell Davies with the 2003 Lou Harrison award; and Davies and violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams performed Harrison's Grand Duo.

While Lou was known to almost everyone he met as a "glandular optimist" (his words), this program made vivid the force of his creative personality. Like Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, Harrison's Grand Duo by itself would assure his immortality. This amazing piece distils virtually all of the myriad influences Harrison absorbed over a lifetime, shot through with his sweetly distinctive originality. One hears Hovhaness and Brahms, Shostakovich and Cage, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and even his gamelan-flavored ostinatos. The succinct virtuosity of the writing--the five movements take 35 minutes--never lapses. Its introductory Prelude follows classical sonata form, its "stampede" spins like an ecstatic dervish, its slow movement is a reminiscence of a different time and place. Much of its excitement comes from cliff-hanging suspense; Davies and Hwang made it seem easy, but the work allows no room for error. Harrison, the man, remains vivid in the memories of those who knew and loved him. But ultimately, it is the man's music that will stand the test of time.

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From the August 6-13, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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