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[whitespace] Weill Away the Hours: Lyric soprano Angelina Reaux charmed a Cabrillo Music Festival audience with formidable presence and personality in a showcase of music by musical theater composer Kurt Weill.


Tributes and Terminitus

Following a charming 'Lost in the Stars,' Marin Alsop leads the Cabrillo Music Festival orchestra in a big-bang finale

By Scott MacClelland

FITTINGLY, THE CABRILLO Music Festival took account of both Aaron Copland and Kurt Weill during this 100th anniversary year for both composers, and the works presented opened a window on the unfamiliar. For Copland, it was the opera The Tender Land; in the case of Weill, it was Marie Galante and Lost in the Stars, the former from his brief stay in Paris in the early '30s, the latter written in the U.S. in 1949, just before his death at age 50.

Lyric soprano Angelina Reaux--who can push down to baritone when required--starred in the Weill songs at the Santa Cruz Civic Aug. 12, accompanied by Marin Alsop's orchestra (which had a couple of dance moments to itself) and Milton Williams' festival chorus. Reaux is plainly a Weill specialist, a cabaret singer with formidable presence and personality. Indeed, she energized the evening beyond even Alsop's uncommon powers to do so.

Leading with Lost in the Stars, Reaux described the scenario and set the scene for each work, of which both could claim the subtitle "musical tragedy." Weill's Berlin cabaret style (with accordion and saxophones in the orchestra, but no violins) transplanted comfortably to Paris for Marie Galante. In the sordid tale of a naive young woman abducted by a ship's captain and abandoned in South America, Weill set all the songs and choral ensembles in French (one was taken up as an anthem of the French resistance during World War II). Forced into prostitution in order to buy passage home, the hapless Marie's song of hope only leads to her demise at the hands of a murderer.

With a libretto by Maxwell Anderson, Lost in the Stars derives from Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved County. From the erotic "Who'll Buy My Juicy Rutabagas" to the wistful "Lost in the Stars," Weill's unique talent (including his orchestral arrangements) still commands love and admiration, perhaps most conspicuously among those who didn't return after intermission. If Alsop's choices didn't indulge in Weill's most popular songs, they certainly enhanced the scope and stature of a great composing career.

Getting a grip on Rouse's Symphony No. 1, which occupied the second half, depends largely on recollection and recognition of its countless references. As a protest against 19th-century orchestral excess and its 20th-century extension, the composer opts to use similar forces to do it in. Therefore, Bachian naivete finds itself squeezed through a medical examination: all pain and pressure in eager anticipation of discovering something dire.

While Rouse has never hesitated to borrow from other recognizable (and proclaimed) sources, he outdoes himself here. Echoes of Wagner's dragon Fafner and Siegfried's death, Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, Holst's Mars, Mossolov's Iron Foundry and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet are speckled with the musical mottoes of Bach, Shostakovich and probably others. For all its dissonant eruptions, however, Rouse exercises a sure mastery of his resources.

Four Wagner tubas and an oboe d'amore lend their own distinctive sound, while woodwind solos doubled by chimes and bells create others. Further, the composer's grasp of form gives virtually all his works, including this one, a clarity that can be remembered in detail even after the listening is done. The single long adagio of this work alternates sorrowful, soft-spoken string "prayers" with violent outbursts on brass and percussion. (According to the notes, the composer calls the central string passage pieta.) Like the adagios of several admired 20th-century composers, this one begins and ends quietly.

Sound and Fury

HE WAS GUILTY of "piling up decibels as though he were jealous of the sonic boom." So said Igor Stravinsky of the French composer Olivier Messiaen. If she isn't a bit more cautious, Alsop will get a similar reputation. Her final Cabrillo Festival program Aug. 13, at Mission San Juan Bautista, moved her to the head of the line for unmitigated and seemingly unending loudness. Patrons with bright orange earplugs dotted the Sunday afternoon audience Aug. 13. Even a few of the many music critics present chose to move to the back of the room for the second half.

Scottish composer James MacMillan could hardly expect to find a more fervent advocate than Alsop. Not only has she championed him repeatedly at Cabrillo, but she now runs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia, ensembles decidedly caught up in some of the most energized new-music enthusiasms on the planet.

The case can be made, however, that MacMillan has been spoiled by success. It's one thing to appropriate old liturgical tunes and to construct sprawling works around a programmatic idea. It's quite another to compose music concisely and economically. In a performance that exceeded two and a half hours, MacMillan fell deeply into terminitis--a gross inflammation of endings.

In particular, the last two works of his Easter-inspired Triduum, the Cello Concerto and the Symphony "Vigil," continued to beat their final ideas until long after they had died a natural death. Moreover, they extended much of that material in relentless poundings of metal percussion and brass expletives. Messiaen may have been loud, but he was not given to such sheer physical brutality.

These assaults, alternately ear-shattering and mind-numbing, conspired against the many moments of distinctive vision, extraordinary orchestral technique and even soulful utterance. Setting a brass chorale against a chaos of symphonic pandemonium finds its archetype in Bach.

Eric Bartlett's spectacular virtuosity in the Cello Concerto and the richly hued cor anglais (English horn) of Thomas Stacy in The World's Ransoming were two more of the afternoon's rewards. Offstage brass and keening strings in "Vigil" also held their ground in spite of explosions of pounding percussion and blaring trombones that exchanged their original impact for a parody of themselves. (Somehow, Alsop managed to make the latter piece last 50 minutes, 10 more than the composer promised in his notes.)

MacMillan and Christopher Rouse, both dear to Alsop's heart, use many of the same devices and generate many similar results. But as loud as he can get, Rouse is generally unwilling to sacrifice form for din. It is the resultant clarity, coherence and efficiency that keeps Rouse's music from wallowing in its own infatuation. It is exactly the same that keeps it memorable.

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From the August 16-23, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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