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[whitespace] Bye-Bye Minimalism

Cabrillo Music Festival showed the constraints of a music movement

By Scott MacClelland

MARIN ALSOP named her Cabrillo Music Festival finale "Angel of Light," after the Seventh Symphony by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Along with the two other works heard Sunday at Mission San Juan Bautista, Christopher Rouse's Rapture and James MacMillan's Symphony no. 2, it seemed as if the last vestiges of musical minimalism were gone forever.

Scholars and commentators are now in a position to place the entire history of minimalism within temporal boundaries. If the style began with Terry Riley's In C, in 1965, and Rautavaara composed his Angel of Light Symphony in 1994, that means the mainstream of new classical music and minimalism had parted company after three decades.

Since that appears to be what happened, stalwart minimalist lions like Philip Glass and Steve Reich are now in a historical dead end. Those who used minimalism as a springboard to a wider range of styles, like John Adams, Michael Torke and even Riley, have continually redefined themselves in new--and sometimes old--lights. But while Rouse and MacMillan, two Alsop favorites, sound like they're onto something new and original, this particular Rautavaara was a surprising throwback to the lush romanticism of movie music and matinee idols.

At its most elegant, echoes of Samuel Barber and Gustav Holst surfaced. At its most ephemeral, it blended Hugo Friedhofer (The Sun Also Rises) John Williams (Star Wars) and Gordon Jenkins, symphonic accompanist to Frank Sinatra. The unchallenging sweetness of the half-hour piece might have warranted the title Angel of Lightweight.

Rouse offered a few introductory remarks before his piece opened the concert, describing his usual preoccupation with dark subjects and loss. However, "man does not live by dread alone," he quipped, in explaining the brightly tonal character of Rapture. The 13-minute opus continually rose to the light, featuring full-bodied string sonorities, numerous concertante solos and a spectacular cacophony of all forces, topped by metal percussion and drums, at the end.

MacMillan, flown in from Scotland, spoke eloquently about the "winterness" of his homeland, the "strife and violence," and of how the Scottish people "deny the hopefulness of beauty." A short prelude and postlude surrounded a large, dark central movement, mercurial and impulsive with ideas, struggling but failing--on purpose--to lock into a genuine rhythmic pulse.

Both works parlay classical forms, symphonic confidence and liberated imagination, but the Rouse was structurally more coherent.

In seeking to reconcile its extremes, Lou Harrison's opera Rapunzel, heard Saturday at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, remains more transitional than definitive. The combination of 12-tone Schoenbergian procedures, a text of largely confessional speeches, plus exotic instrumentation, led Harrison to extraordinary heights of invention and expression.

Too high, perhaps, for those Cabrillo festival listeners looking for music that makes less intellectual demands. As splendidly as Harrison spins his own innate lyricism into the arcane disciplines of serialism, only the very few are likely to "get" the myriad nuances and details of form that, like nuclear physics, will most excite the intensely focused specialist.

Even with plenty of time, learning a piece like this is no walk in the park. Moreover, Sanford Sylvan, freshly triumphant at the Carmel Bach Festival, took on his demanding and nearly nonstop role as the Prince with little prospect of future performances. Yet he captured the spirit of Harrison's lyricism and came through with sustained vocal presence (even while singing to the back of the set and when lying down).

At times, transit through the melodic tone rows includes strangely angular leaps. Sylvan's smoothly flexible baritone negotiated the turns with grace, while soprano Jennifer Foster, as Guendolen (Rapunzel, at first), had to contend with some awkwardly attacked high notes. In compressing William Morris' verses into the constraints of serial technique, Harrison's vocal settings are often stiffly formal, not impulsive sounding and spontaneous like his later and most familiar styles. Wendy Hillhouse carried the smaller role of the witch (the real Rapunzel).

Much of the opera's best material lies in the orchestra, a sensual entity whose instrumentation is continually colorful and surprising. The strings together came up with the most richly romantic sonorities of the piece.

The program ended with a screening of Pare Lorentz' 1937 documentary, The River, with the orchestra playing Virgil Thomson's great score and the estimable Milton Williams as narrator. Thomson's manipulation of American folk music and popular songs is as fresh and bracing as when it was fashioned, not least for the exquisite distortions made to match the bad times depicted in the film.

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From the August 15-22, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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