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Hue's Next

The Cabrillo Music Festival's most recent program radiates the new rainbow of color and timbre of the 21st-century orchestra

By Scott MacClelland

Last week's Cabrillo Festival program neatly defined the problems today's composers face. In this renaissance of new music--this exciting rise of originality and experimentation following the decline of impersonal minimalism--a vast new range of colors and timbres has infused the 21st-century symphony orchestra. With few exceptions, today's composers go full-tilt for this rainbow. But that alone, even among the best of them, does not assure lasting success.

At the laboratory of the Cabrillo Festival, living composers of demonstrated talent, along with those who seem more skilled at attracting grants, sometimes hit home runs, sometimes strike out but mostly get base hits. Since base hits win the most games, music director Marin Alsop has long enjoyed a high batting average.

The program last week introduced Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Screaming Popes, Thomas Ades' Asyla and John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur. The Ades was the most successful for a couple of reasons. First, as a matter of instinct, the English composer visualizes structures in three dimensions--in other words, musical forms. Clear formal practice is what allows the listener to organize the experience in memory. Second, the composer hears what will work in performance, making sure lines are clearly heard and not buried within a dense texture or by sonorities out of balance. (These things do not account for inspiration or invention, but are rather the tools of his trade.) On top of that, Ades creates in this piece a "unique sound world" (to quote Alsop) that calls for so many exotic effects--cowbells and prepared piano among them--that a longer than usual setup was required before the performance began. Ades scored the work in four contrasting movements, the third, Ecstasio, propelled like drug-induced pounding in the brain punctuated by frantic chirpings and nightmarish bumps. You had to love it.

The Turnage

The Turnage, inspired by expressionist Francis Bacon portraits, had plenty of color but less structural coherence. Dating from 1988, it is refreshingly free from stereotypic minimalism, and follows the sequence described in the program notes. The effect of saxophones, as well as tango, almost comes up empty, sounding more like undeveloped afterthoughts. That could be a mark of success since something similar can be said of Bacon's disturbing paintings.

The Adams, composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's inauguration of the Disney Concert Hall, makes a serious and risky departure from the composer's familiar sound and style. So much so that he falls into two traps, the first of inflating sonority with synthesizers and intoning winds so much as to blot out the strings in the second of the two-movement concerto. That problem began with the amplified electric violin played by Tracy Silverman, a six-string device that reached down into the cello register and was often enhanced by an electronic echo. Adams' use of just-intonation tuning also made little impact in the overall welter of sound, not least for some of Silverman's meanderings. But the bigger problem of the piece is that Adams deferred too much to the putative spirits of Lou Harrison (long-limbed melodies with expressively bent tones) and Terry Riley (In C obsessively revisited) and handed over too much authority to Silverman. As a tribute, it made good as a sentimental favorite, but it speaks with too little of Adams' original voice.

Color Wheeling

Alsop's great orchestra opened the San Juan Bautista program Sunday afternoon with Jennifer Higdon's gorgeous Blue Cathedral of 1999, a short work that begins in delicate intimacy only to rise up into a fireworks show suitable for Robert Schuller's "only-in-California" Crystal Cathedral. Higdon asks--and answers better than most--one of the tough-nut questions facing today's composers: when does color overwhelm the other components of composition?

Christopher Rouse answers it by balancing color and form, witness his guitar concerto, Concert de Gaudi, which makes the solo instrument more a part of the orchestral fabric than apart from it (with a couple of exceptions). Sharon Isbin, who recorded the work in 2000, noticeably read her part and even was seen to count measure, but proved an able and responsive partner to Alsop and company (though the amplification of her instrument was a less-than-desirable compromise).

James MacMillan's Tryst of 1989, here getting its West Coast premiere, is a marvelous half-hour work that depends on two themes, an angular fanfare that first takes shape five minutes after the piece begins than returns obsessively on the violins for the last five minutes. A melody MacMillan wrote for a song (based on William Souter's poem, "The Tryst") makes up the work's long midsection, weaving close, sensual, dissonant harmonies, at times expressed intimately and at times forcefully. The work sustains a clear technique, style and directionality.

For Alsop overall, it was a great season.

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From the August 25-September 1, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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