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Nadja Au Natural

She may have fretted about a lack of nylons, but Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's raw wit and virtuosity shone through at Cabrillo Music Festival's first weekend

By Scott MacClelland

Marin Alsop gave a huge leg-up to the gifted young Brazilian composer Clarice Assad by conducting the world premiere of her brand new Violin Concerto to open the 2004 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music on Tuesday last week, a program featuring the always-fascinating violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The concert was actually a prequel to the season, set early as an appetizer for the two Cabrillo weekends to follow.

Alsop began the evening with a three-way interview, with music that revealed Assad's range of talents--as singer, pianist and composer--as well as the quirky, fidgety personality of Salerno-Sonnenberg, whose first words were "I'm horrified that I forgot to put on pantyhose." Original songs and arrangements by the daughter of guitarist Sergio Assad deported rhythms and syncopations that Salerno-Sonnenberg admitted were "challenging," plus some scat singing that Ella Fitzgerald fans could happily praise.

After a change to more formal attire, Alsop and Salerno-Sonnenberg returned with the orchestra for Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Meditation by Massenet and Assad's graduate thesis concerto. Each got an excellent performance, with Salerno-Sonnenberg showing off her Gypsy inclinations, especially in the Saint-Saens.

Friday night, Alsop conducted what she called her "favorite orchestra" in new works by Kevin Puts, Julia Wolfe and Aaron Jay Kernis, whose Color Wheel redeemed a difficult program with outstanding craft and wide-ranging expression. Kernis proved yet again his masterful command of symphonic and stylistic resources in a kaleidoscopic pageant of contrapuntal textures laid on a harmonic foundation. Messiaenic brass chords led the climb to a gleaming finish in A major.

The concert opened with Puts' Vespertine Symphonies, a piece intended to flatter the orchestra with tunes influenced by the Icelandic "swan" Björk. Puts showed off his rapidly maturing technique but, counting more on long-limbed melodies than strong architecture, delivered a fairly lightweight opus when compared with his programmatic "9/11" symphony heard last season.

Despite a serious and dedicated effort by the musicians, Julia Wolfe's My Beautiful Scream laid one of the biggest eggs of Alsop's career at Cabrillo. The New York composer made a major effort to conceal her inadequacy as an orchestral composer under a turgid din that rose to a painful unremitting shriek. If all the numbing repetition represents the new face of minimalism, it's not a pretty one. Here was an opportunity squandered, a shapeless, formless, undifferentiated grind. It featured the Kronos Quartet, whose amplified strings sounded garish and grotesque, whose entrances were often ragged and unbalanced and who suffered to play in tune.

Just the opposite occurred, and with stunning success, when Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra finished off the Saturday concert. The range of ideas, color combinations, solos and ensembles bespoke a talent as powerful and original as any on the scene today. No wonder Higdon is getting so much play. Like the Kernis, this piece was composed for Philadelphia. One can only wonder if that orchestra played it as spectacularly as Cabrillo's. Not a moment was unimportant, or wasted. But the fourth movement, for percussion, and the finale with everybody engaged were as mind-boggling in their complexity as they were visionary in their clarity. I'd like to get a pinch of whatever Higdon was smoking when she wrote it.

That entire evening was a winner, opening with David Little's hilarious Screamer!--a three-ring blur for orchestra, a five-minute laugh riot, complete with whoopee cushions, aluminum pie-plate trumpet mutes and cellists in clown attire. In turn, came Oliver Knussen's Flourish With Fireworks, an homage to Stravinsky's Fireworks. Not least was Christopher Rouse's splendid Concerto per Corde, an all-strings tribute to Shostakovich, each of whose movements was based on the Russian composer's musical monogram, D-E-flat-C-B.

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From the August 11-18, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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