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Life Is a CabMuFest

[whitespace] Marin Alsop Direct Hit: Cabrillo Music Festival director Marin Alsop leads the festival orchestra through an exercise in musical modernity at this year's concert series.

Paul Schraub


The annual festival ushers in its 36th season with a return to the sonorous basics

By Philip Collins

AUGUST IS HERE, and it's starting with a bang--a big one courtesy of the Cabrillo Music Festival. The festival's 36th season, beginning Friday, Aug. 7, has the makings of a sonic thrill ride through musical territories that few--if any--of us have heard before. The high-octane repertoire spans the Americas, from the Bronx to Uruguay, and, most notably, is not for musical wimps.

Music director Marin Alsop, now in her seventh season with the festival, has an exuberant agenda planned that optimizes the festival orchestra's world-acclaimed virtuosities and draws from the compositional energies of some of today's brightest talents. Out of the 10 living composers represented in this six-concert run, only three--Richard Danielpour, Russell Peck and Joseph Schwantner--will not be in residence, which, if you do your math, leaves us with seven composers live and in the flesh. And a magnificent seven they are: Miguel Del Aguila, Christopher Caliendo, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, Michael Hersch, Christopher Rouse and Joan Tower. It's an amazing guest list, and auspicious too, considering that three of them--Corigliano, Rouse and Tower--are Pulitzer Prize winners.

Also slated are works by three late, great American composers, two of whom festival audiences have heard from quite regularly since Alsop's appointment-- Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. The other is a most unlikely, but welcome, name: Frank Zappa, whose featured piece, The Perfect Stranger, pretty well summarizes his place in the scheme of Cabrillo things.

Alsop is especially pleased with this year's series, in part because of the pieces being performed, but also for what is being omitted.

"I'm excited that we're back to really focusing on the music," she says in a phone conversation from her home in Colorado. "After working in the past seasons with film, dance and opera, it's great to be emphasizing what we're here to do--to play music."

The festival opener, Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony, adds an animated presence through witty interplays of Superman-based themes. The work's over-the-top hi-jinx and garish orchestral colorings have generated an avid following over the past two years. One suspects that the work's blend of humor and accessibility will make it a favorite in Santa Cruz as well.

"This piece allows us to enjoy ourselves; it's about serious listening and having fun at the same time," Alsop says.

Opening night then takes off at break-neck speed with Richard Danielpour's curtain-raiser, Toward the Splendid City. Danielpour is among the Eastern seaboard's most honored up-and-comers. His music is savored for its sonorous elegance and lyricism, but in this instance Alsop assures us we'll experience the composer's fire-breathing side. In terms of tonality, one might find it useful to simply analyze it on the Richter scale.

To offset all this pathos, Alsop has included Christopher Caliendo's lyrically inclined Trio Concertino, featuring Rachel Purkin, violin; David Young, double bass; and the composer himself on guitar. Alsop describes this new work--receiving its world premiere--as "flavored by strains of Argentinean and American folk music." (Caliendo and friends will return on Sunday night, joined by festival soloists, as well as dancers Natalia Mavor and Allen Walls, for a scintillating program titled "Tango Americano.")

Saturday night's bill, "Big Bang--Music for a Great City," evens out the decibels from Friday's opening blow-out with a repertoire of volatile modernity. The evening commences with Uruguayan composer Miguel Del Aguila's Conga-Line in Hell. "Pure madness," Alsop says. "I'd heard a terrific piece of his performed at Emily's [festival pianist Emily Wong] recital last year, so I asked him what he had for orchestra."

Daugherty's Motown Metal for brass and percussion alloys funk and fun in a way that arrests rockers right in their tracks, while Copland's no-less-adventuresome Music for a Great City (originally scored for the 1961 film Gone Wild) will stir memories for the more mature listeners who experienced the original jolt of the piece back in its heyday. Joseph Schwantner's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, with soloist John Kasica swinging the mallets, promises to be a spectacle to hear.

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The complete CabMuFest schedule.

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THE ENERGY CONTINUES at peak levels for the festival's second week. Both the Aug. 8 and 9 concerts trumpet 60th birthday salutes to composers Joan Tower and John Corigliano, respectively. On Saturday, the festival showcases three works by Tower, America's most celebrated woman composer: Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (Aaron Copland's got nothing on this lady), Duets and Music for Cello and Orchestra, featuring the festival's principal cellist, Lee Duckles, as soloist.

Sharing the limelight with Tower will be a piece by the founding Mother of Invention, Frank Zappa. Zappa's The Perfect Stranger is one of many orchestral works he composed before his untimely death in 1993. Alsop has performed one of Zappa's pieces before (Duprez Paradise), but she confesses that The Perfect Stranger appeals to her even more. "I especially like this one," she says. "It has a storyline, you know. It's about a vacuum cleaner salesman, and at the beginning you hear these chimes as the doorbell. It's very amusing."

Also in store is the world premiere of a work by 26-year-old Michael Hersch titled Prelude and Fugue. "A work of Michael's won a competition held by Concordia [Alsop's N.Y.-based chamber orchestra] a couple years ago," notes Alsop. "It may be early to really tell how his personal style might develop, but he's very gifted."

The festival finale on Aug. 9 at the San Juan Bautista Mission will, as in recent years, be performed twice, enabling everybody to attend--if both performances don't sell out well in advance.

The mission's warm acoustic environment always provides a sympathetic atmosphere for the festival orchestra, and Corigliano's richly textured scores-- Fantasia on an Ostinato and The Red Violin-- are perfect choices. The latter, featuring violin soloist Brian Lewis, was scored for a film of the same name, due for release this fall. Fantasia..., according to Alsop, is Corigliano's single foray into the "minimalist" camp. Lewis will also perform in Bernstein's most ravishing orchestral work, Serenade (after Plato's Symposium). The concert's denouement will be Christopher Rouse's rousing Symphony No. 2, an assured way for this year's Cabrillo Music Festival to go out like it began, with a bang.

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From the August 6-12, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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