[MetroActive Music]

[ Music Index | Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Dulled Edges: Conductor Marin Alsop has made a mark as a sharply defined personality, but her programming for the opening weekend of this year's Cabrillo Music Festival was largely soft and derivative.

Photograph by Lisa Kohler

Soft Focus on New Music

Despite a soft opening, the Cabrillo Music Festival concludes its first weekend with a spectacular bit of rock & Wagner

By Scott MacClelland

IT'S NOT DIFFICULT to figure out why Aaron Copland's The Tender Land is mounted so infrequently. This Appalachian Spring-with-words is as pastoral and eventless as Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet. And like that bucolic exercise, its tunes and spells are equally ephemeral.

Because of its passive subject matter, Copland's large orchestra sounds overwrought, brass and winds giving excessive weight and coloration to the simple events and exchanges of the libretto. In 1987, Murry Sidlin seems to have felt something similar when he fashioned a chamber orchestra version--approved by the composer--for nine strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano. Even the celebrated Appalachian Spring sounds more in scale to its subject in its original chamber scoring for 13 instruments.

Still, as conductor Marin Alsop's performance at the Cabrillo Music Festival demonstrated Aug. 5, the music is lovely and the composer instinctively turns the libretto's speech into easy melody at every turn. Moreover, Alsop got a handsome production designed by Matthew Antaky and directed by Michael Scarola that complemented a first-quality cast of principal characters. Milagro Vargas and Douglas Webster (the celebrant in last summer's production of Bernstein's Mass) appeared in the same roles--Ma Moss and the drifter Top--they took in Sidlin's 1999 recording of The Tender Land. Vargas sports a gorgeous mezzo-soprano and created a sadly ineffectual mediator between daughter Laurie and Grandpa Moss. Lisa Vroman was excellent, both vocally and as vulnerable character, in the starring role of Laurie. Milton Williams inspired his festival chorus with the force and focus of his Grandpa Moss. Gualtiero Negrini set an appealing presence as Martin, the drifter who steals Laurie's heart. Kendra Love Light and Andrew Carter were convincing in their respective roles as the prepubescent sister Beth and the sympathetic postman, Mr. Splinters.

Knowing the work is slow paced and virtually without action, Alsop and her orchestra made snappy work of such animated moments as the dancing at the party and the confrontation between Grandpa Moss and the drifters. She interposed a previous Copland arrangement of the old folk song "'Long Time Ago" and added a final gratuity, "Shall We Gather at the River," an anthem long associated with Charles Ives. The sometimes excerpted "The Promise of Living" stood proud as the conclusion to Act 1. Maria Basile's dancers gave the Act 2 party the highest energy of the production.

Copland wrote only one other opera, The Second Hurricane. Both are uneven--the vivacious orchestrations notwithstanding. The composer seems uneasy with tunefulness, and proves it by only fully relaxing into existing folk songs. Because of this unease, Laurie's opening "aria" and "The Promise of Living" shed rare personal light on Copland's sense of himself as an American.

Despite a successful and crowd-pleasing production, The Tender Land is a soft choice. In the context of the festival it can be defended because the work is so rarely heard. However. Alsop herself is a sharply defined personality, not known for softness, reawakening a question about her commitment to the best of new music. The Tender Land is hardly cutting-edge stuff, and Alsop wisely submerged herself in its character.

Not-So-New Things

THE TITLE OF THE FESTIVAL'S Aug. 6 concert, "The New New Thing," was misleading to say the least. The works on Marin Alsop's Sunday night program could, with one exception, more easily have been called "The New Old Thing." All four works were as plainly derivative of existing, even familiar, practices as they could claim to be new. Alvin Singleton's After Fallen Crumbs of 1987 paraded brassy fanfares, keening woodwind and close-harmony strings the way composers have for generations. Festival pianist Emily Wong's Waves and Raves of 1989, revised this year, was less about jazz (as suggested) than about easy listening lounge music of a decade ago. Both works fell easily enough on the ear, and were wise in their brevity.

Michael Hersch's Symphony no. 1, composed last year, and Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich each had a playing time of about 25 minutes and constituted the major works on display. Hersch says his First Symphony is representative of a turn toward denser textures and darker moods. Yet this work not only speaks with optimism but frequently recalls Roy Harris and Samuel Barber. If it struggles, strives and shouts, it does so with a clear sense of phrase and cadence. Fateful fortissimo bell strokes open the work and punctuate it from time to time, even at its conclusion. In the middle, Hersch winnows down his texture to favor a string concertino of violins and violas, even floating a violin solo, but at times he doubles the cellos with trombones, effectively burying the cello timbre. Out of its Geschrei emerge chorales which, like other developments in the work, are derived from material presented early on.

The Rouse piece, while consciously descended from Wagner, wins the originality award in this program by default. The work, from 1997, mischievously delves into the fate of Wagner's ambitious Nibelung dwarf, Alberich, who sets in motion the entire "Ring" tetrology by renouncing love and stealing the Rhine maidens' gold. Since Alberich remains unaccounted for in the fires and floods that destroy all others at the end of Götterdämmerung, Rouse chose to explore the possibilities. The final chords of that work, therefore, open this one, followed by the resurfacing of Alberich, indicated by tentative scrapings on a guiro. Amid a three-part, ongoing recollection of themes from "The Ring," Alberich turns into a rock drummer, asserting himself with all manner of virtuoso display of sticks and mallets, drums and metal, marimba and Jamaican steel. Percussionist Colin Currie was demonically inspired, to say nothing of being everywhere at once. And while he was caught up in his own relentless whirl, he continued to reign sovereign in the moment. At one point, from the percussion department emerged the sound of the Nibelung dwarves still enslaved by Alberich's power to render the hoard of gold.

For his part, Rouse dazzled in his manipulation of rock & Wagner, a display that would have spun the old anti-Semite in his grave. And why not? Weren't the Nibelungen Wagner's metaphor for Jews? And didn't Alberich survive the holocaust of Götterdämmerung? Quel postscript!

In the wake of Currie's spectacular performance, the audience went nuts. It's hard to imagine a better reading, although the added charge of a repeat at Wagner's shrine in Bayreuth lingers amusingly on the mind.

[ Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

From the August 9-16, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate