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August 15-21, 2007

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Glass House

Cabrillo Festival pulses with minimalist rhythms of Philip Glass' Symphony no. 8

By Scott MacClelland


SOME NEW MUSIC beats a quick path to one's ears, and the just-ended Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music delivered more than a little such easy listening. The young Mason Bates, a composition pupil of John Corigliano and performer on computer and synthesizer, got a flattering introduction Saturday night in Santa Cruz when his Rusty Air in Carolina twittered, chirped and cackled like a summer's night alive with cicadas and katydids. The work's orchestral fabric, while solidly employed, was callow in its moods but showed considerable promise.

This was followed by two impressive works that made no extra-musical allusions, Thomas Adès' violin concerto Concentric Paths and Philip Glass' Symphony no. 8. Both flogged terse note patterns, though the Adès, in its 20 minutes, made a more vivid impression with its greater variety and broader lines. Orchestra concertmaster Yumi Hwang Williams carried much of the latter and gave personality to the performance. The precociously gifted Adès has made a huge mark among young British composers, and this work maintains his memorably high standards. His "concentric" circles gathered reflections like ripples in a pond and gained the kind of mystique many composers can only hope for, featuring often-plushy strings and sometimes-vertiginous brass.

Glass' notes would have one believe he was is out to honor the 18th-century European tradition of musical practices, but the eight themes—try singling them out—of the first movement beg the question. Moreover, Glass doesn't actually develop them in the classical style, but he does play them all at the same time near the end with a contrapuntal result. None of this makes a lot of difference to the audience—the variations of the middle movement were the easiest to sort out—but the multiple rhythms and minimalist repetitions do challenge the musicians.

Ultimately, it's a topsy-turvy paradigm: for the audience chewy miniatures that lack a big picture, for the players a vigorous exercise in keeping everything on track, but for neither much that can be captured in memory. Even while each of the three movements settles into its own unrelenting and unvarying pulse, the work remains orchestrally riotous and much of the credit for that has to go to Alsop's fabled orchestra.

Kenneth Fuchs' United Artists, composed to celebrate the London Symphony Orchestra, sounded as much like a salute to ubiquitous film composer John Williams. It opened the San Juan Bautista Mission program that went on to Aaron Kernis' Valentines, settings of four poems by Carol Ann Duffy. While the poems are deeply intimate, the orchestral accompaniment is anything but. Explosive and vivacious, its extroversion not only exaggerates the irony of the poems, sometimes with excessive bitterness, but also competes with them for attention. Soprano Susan Narucki had all she could do to cut through the symphonic fabric. Alsop, who has described the score as "stunning," cut the singer little slack. I should think the original version, for piano, would make a better fit.

Kevin Puts' new Symphony no. 4 paints impressions of the Mission San Juan Bautista in its early-19th-century heyday, including allusions to folk songs and hymns. The last of the four movements, Healing Song, lapses into the romantic, long-held resolutions frequently heard in contemporary epic movies and relationship TV dramas made in Hollywood.


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