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08.12.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Sebastien Chambert
Sky Pilot: Composer Osvaldo Golijov's airborne 'Azul' brought down the house on opening night of the Cabrillo Music Festival.

Sound of The New

Scott MacClelland attends opening weekend at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and finds accessible narratives and technical virtuosity

By Scott MacClelland


FOR EVEN brand new music, the traditional expectation for personal artistic expression holds. Whatever else is afoot, the composer is expected to have "something to say." So says Marin Alsop, music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, in defending her choices of orchestral music that she hopes will reward the hundreds who now flock regularly to Santa Cruz, from near and far, each August.

While Alsop and her amazing orchestra consistently deliver great goods, the very personal expression on tap can be, and indeed often is, the exact challenge facing both composer and listener. For the latter, that has to be evaluated on the fly, with little preparation and maximum conscious attention.

Take David Heath's Rise from the Dark, heard on Festival opening night last Friday in its world premiere and the British composer's favorite among his works (as he said by way of introducing it). The 25-minute score calls for a virtually uncountable number of sonic combinations and "special" effects. Composed 24 years ago, it took inspiration from the untimely death of a child and attempts to give the deceased a full lifetime of experience. Rhythmically charged episodes alternate with spacious "romantic" passages on the orchestra's strings, often with plaintive wind solos. Stylistically, it sounds like the work of many other contemporary composers, rather in the box. The busier bits, where "everybody does everything all the time," were difficult to track, hence to capture in memory. Nevertheless, Alsop and the orchestra gave as compelling an account as could be imagined.

Outside the box, and the high point of the program, was Osvaldo Golijov's Azul, a cello concerto in four movements that, as the composer said, "never touches the ground." The soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, pretty well owns it now, after participating with the composer as he reworked the 2006 original. Weilerstein soared across the blue sky with riveting conviction. Golijov's instincts for "main event" tracking, clarity of resources and ease of expression feel totally comfortable in any style. In this case, there were Bach-like ostinatos supporting the outer movements, flitting fireflies in the nocturnal second movement and a virtuoso improvisatory third movement with soloist, exotic "native" percussion and "hyper"-accordion, for which Alsop stood without conducting. That electrifying moment, with hints of Indian ragas, became the obvious de rigueur encore.

Australian Brett Dean's Amphitheater opened the show, and, on the following night, his Moments of Bliss, four "intermezzos" from his only just completed opera, confirmed great variety and imagination. On that program, the standout work was Avner Dorman's double-percussion concerto, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins, a staggering tour de force for (mostly) marimbas and drums that orchestra members Steve Hearn and Galen Lemmon nailed.


THE CABRILLO FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC continues this weekend at the Santa Cruz Civic and Mission San Juan Bautista. For details visit www.cabrillomusic.org.


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