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Cabrillo Music Fest's mix of film and music had dimension and integrity

By Philip Collins

THE CABRILLO MUSIC Festival has always been an intersection of musical paths. Some seasons it has been a juncture for other performance mediums also, and 1996 will surely be remembered as the summer of celluloid symphonies.

Movies continued to be a running theme during the festival's second weekend of events. Friday and Saturday nights were light and fluffy for the most part, with a bias for slapstick. The one exception was Bernstein's Symphonic Suite to On the Waterfront, which has very few laughs. A matinee screening of the film at the Nickelodeon Theatre prior to the evening performance immensely added to one's appreciation of the concert version.

As during her past three seasons with Cabrillo Music Festival, Music Director Marin Alsop exercised rivaling passions for repertoire of whimsy and grandiloquence. Her own 10-piece swing ensemble, String Fever, took us perilously close to the pops realm with sweet jazz-style numbers, while James MacMillan's percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, performed at the Mission San Juan Bautista on Sunday, championed the cause of modernism irresistibly.

Sunday's program also featured Henryk Górecki's global hit, Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"), arguably the most requested contemporary orchestral piece. The Górecki made a soothing, if lengthy, epilogue to MacMillan's mighty concerto. Mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse's warm, clear voice fullfilled the work's dramatic needs and her nurturing phrase work suffused the Mission in radiance from end to end. The symphony's broad, meditative atmosphere was supported steadfastly by both the orchestra and the Mission's embracing acoustics. A better location for the work would be hard to find.

James MacMillan's percussion concerto is a major work to be reckoned with. Relentlessly imaginative and bursting with emotion, it is music of profound richness that operates on multiple levels.

Colin Currie, Scotland's 20-year-old percussion phenomenon, made a striking American debut in his performance of the concerto. With instruments spread across the stage's full width, Currie had to jog between stations in order to catch some of his entrances. This was in itself entertaining, and MacMillan's driving score made a thrilling soundtrack to the percussionist's maneuvers.

The Friday and Saturday evening concerts featuring String Fever and the Festival Orchestra amounted to high-stakes virtuosities and easy listening for the most part. It was the movies that made both programs memorable, though focus and screen size didn't always measure up.

On Friday, String Fever offered a set of "jazzy" charts composed especially for them and then, with the assist of ten CMF Orchestra players, accompanied Mack Sennett's silent classic, Teddy at the Throttle. The score was a patchwork of stock silent film charts compiled by Donald Hunsberger. The music ranged from quaint ditties to pompous opera send-ups and included period tunes like "Oh, You Beautiful Doll." Hunsberger's delicious orchestrations, as well as his selection of tunes, suited the story well. Teddy--in case you didn't know--is a dog who not only dances, but saves a damsel tied to the railroad tracks.

Saturday's film installation featured the entire orchestra performing Scott Bradley's score to the Tom and Jerry cartoon, Quiet Please (1945), replete with foley sound effects and voice-overs by Peter Troxell. Alsop maintained syncronization between Bradley's madcap musical romps and the screen action tenaciously. The orchestra brought off the score's stylistic mayhem with distinction and panache.

There were also two works composed for String Fever and orchestra--David Rimelis' Dance of Affinity and George Bogatko's Smoke and Mirrors--that offered playful jazz crossovers. Individual technique and ensemble rapport glowed in both instances--especially among the violins--but drummer Chris Adams' aggressive rock-oriented grooves drastically hemmed in the musics' capacity to swing.

In his Suite for On the Waterfront Bernstein captured jazz elements more convincingly, and Saturday's performance by the orchestra held nothing back. The score's violent episodes hit with the force of brass knuckles, and likewise its tender sequences were lovingly evoked, ensconced from the brutal outside world by principal flutist Sheryl Henze's long arching melodies and Jennifer Cass' delicate harp arpeggios.

All in all a profoundly entertaining round of concerts. Alsop's incorporation of film and music had dimension and integrity, if not much of a cutting edge, and one looks with interest to where the festival will pick up next summer.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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