Sunday, August 20, 2006

Bravo! Bra-a-a-a!

[This review is about a week late, because of... uh, sloth?. Sorry.]

At the more refined passages of the singing, at the more delicate phrases of the music, which passed unapplauded by others, [Fosco's] fat hands adorned with perfectly-fitting black kid gloves, softly patted each other, in token of the cultivated appreciation of a musical man. At such times, his oily murmur of approval, 'Bravo! Bra-a-a-a!' hummed through the silence, like the purring of a great cat.

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

While there is little reason to expect an accurate description of Fosco from the narration of a cardboard "hero" such as Walter Hartright, Mr. Hartright does indeed capture Fosco's appreciation for fine music. Fosco has been a devotee of contemporary classical music for some years, even, while living on the East Coast, hosting a weekly classical radio show dedicated to the 20th century on a community station.

Imagine Fosco's surprise and delight to find that, by relocating to Santa Cruz, he had unwittingly moved to the home of the premier festival of contemporary orchestral music in the country--the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music!

Alas, while other commitments (many of them Dickens-related) prevented Fosco from attending most of the concerts and events at this year's festival, he did make it to the "Elevation" concert on Saturday, August 12. Here are his impressions:

The Venue: The composer Mel Powell once said that "Serious new music, like serious old music, isn't made to be dribbled around in a basketball arena." This is probably wrong--at least when it comes to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. While the Civic isn't only a basketball arena (and, for all I know, hasn't been a basketball arena for decades), it does have the shellacked wooden floor of one, in addition to arena-style seating (surrounding the court). This description makes it sound like a terrible venue for orchestral music, but it's actually surprisingly congenial to it. The Festival blocks off one half of the arena (setting up a backdrop behind the orchestra) and covers most of the wooden floor with black tarps. There is no stage--the orchestra is seated on the floor (although there are some risers for the brass and percussion). The effect is extremely intimate and accessible--an effect that is rare in orchestral music. And the sound is really quite good considering the limitations of the space. Would a more traditional concert hall layout be preferable? Well probably, but there is something so appealingly democratic about listening to challenging contemporary music in a glorified gym that I'm just not willing to give up the Civic.

The Orchestra: Again, perhaps my expectations were a bit too low. This was a first-rate orchestra, composed primarily of players from various second-tier orchestras around the country. Maestra Alsop admitted, in a pre-concert address to the audience, that whenever she is asked her favorite orchestra to conduct, she has to resist saying "The Cabrillo Festival" in favor of a more diplomatic evasion. They are totally committed to this repertoire (and spending part of the summer in Santa Cruz is certainly a nice perk). Adding to the intimate atmostphere, the players dress in "business casual." The thing I love best is that all of the players are housed by Santa Cruz residents. Next year, I would love to have the pink-polo-shirt-wearing Assistant Concertmaster stay with me...

The Maestra: Marin Alsop, Intrepid Girl Conductor. How much do I love having a woman conductor (in a field that is still almost totally male-dominated)? And how much do I love that she is TOTALLY AWESOME? She has been the Music Director of the festival for fifteen years and, this fall, takes over as the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, one of the better second-tier ensembles in the US. (And no, she is not responsible for that orchestra's "Czech It Out!" concert. Thank god.) Of course, she will continue to summer in Santa Cruz.

The best thing about Maestra Alsop? She has the jauntiest lesbian strut ever. It's like the coolest lesbian jazz is playing in her head while she's walking. Absolutely divine.

The Program:

  • Dark Angel (2003), by Daniel Brewbaker. The surprise of the evening--this piece is seductive and well-orchestrated, with both dark and light elements. Powerful, muscular writing for the brass and strings. And I love the subtitle: "Et in Arcadia Ego" [Trans.: "Even in earthly paradise I (death) exist"].
  • Elevation (2006), by Mark Grey. Soloist: Leila Josefowicz, violin. This is Grey's violin concerto, written entirely, according to the composer, on his guitar. Unfortunately, this limitation could be heard--some of the orchestral writing was a bit too thin. There were some very competent passages, but, overall, the work was a bit too similar to John Adams's violin concerto. As a soloist, Leila Josefowicz is charismatic and technically competent (and maybe a bit of a hottie--see above picture). As much as she might like to make this composition a signature piece, I'm afraid that it isn't quite substantial enough.
  • The Whispering Wind (2001), by Michael Gatonska (World Premiere). Primarily a master class for the percussionists. They even got to crumple gold foil!
  • America--A Prophecy (1999), by Thomas Ades. Soloist: Gale Fuller, mezzo-soprano. Clearly, this work was the heavyweight on the night's card. I was excited to hear Fuller, as her voice has been described as sultry and distinctive. Unfortunately, this piece was not the showcase for her voice--there is little room for sex appeal in a libretto that is a Mayan prophecy of the end of civilization. The libretto is powerful, though. I love the first line: "Oh my nation. Prepare." And the final two stanzas are searing:

    Burn, burn, burn
    On earth we shall burn
    We shall turn to ash
    Drift across the land, over the mountains
    out to sea

    Weep, weep, weep
    But know this well:
    Ash feels no pain.

    This was a seriously-skilled orchestral performance of this work, with an unfortunately mis-matched mezzo.

There was even a celebrity sighting: I spotted Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis in attendance (wearing a clashing v-neck sweater/collared shirt combination).

And while I may have occasionally yelled "Bravo!" during the applause, let me assure you that I was not wearing black kid gloves. Walter Hartright can bite me.

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