Challenging Music Recharges Spirit At Cabrillo Festival

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is held every August at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is held every August for two weeks at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
By Jeff Dunn

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – As expected, two recent pieces began this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. But unlike the last few years, the offerings generated few whistles and cheers, and no general standing ovations. This was a needed improvement, a tonic. For once, music director Marin Alsop presented the audience with truly new music that offered hitherto unimagined soundscapes.

Dylan Mattingly's 'Play' conjures sonic images of computer gaming.
Mattingly’s ‘Sky Madrigal’ had its premiere at the Cabrillo Festival.

Rather than press the same old new-eclecticism buttons, as so many well-crafted but not particularly adventurous works often do here, the music this time challenged the audience to create new circuits within themselves for future buttonization. That most patrons would be willing to do so was indicated by the warm but somewhat hesitant reception awarded composers Dylan Mattingly, for his Sky Madrigal (2014), a premiere, and Andrew Norman, for his Play (2013).

Mattingly, inspired by immersions in ancient Greek and Medieval philosophies of music, wrote Sky Madrigal as a “secular testament to this world of astral synchronicity.” Although an homage to the seeking of transcendence in general, the 14-minute work incorporates a specific narrative: George Mallory’s failed attempt at Mt. Everest in 1924. Judging from the effect of the music, Mallory’s death is viewed not as a tragedy of hubris but as evidence of a “synchronicity between our soul and the natural order of the cosmos.”

Whether or not the listener wishes to ponder metaphysics, the music offers a fascinating and original journey in tone color, unified by an arpeggiated “wandering” motive first heard on a solo violin and then in various guises among other instruments. Subtle references to the Medieval composer Pérotin occur at the outset in string harmonies. Later, The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives is evoked (though not quoted) by a solo trumpet. Additional evocations of gamelan and Appalachian musics emerge and submerge as the composition progresses ever higher, ending in a stratospheric wash of strings.

When I last heard Mattingly here two years ago (his I Was a Stranger), he had yet to find his voice and sounded too much like his sponsor, composer John Adams. But already, not yet 24, he’s his own man, with plenty more time to climb additional peaks. I look forward to his bringing back to us the results of future ascents.

Andrew Norman's 'Sky Madrigal' had its premiere at the Cabrillo festival.
Andrew Norman’s ‘Play’ conjures sonic images of computer gaming.

The most impressive work on the program, and yet the most problematic and difficult to appreciate, was Norman’s, premiered last year by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. At 38 minutes, nine shorter than its former length, Play is still too long, with many pauses, static planes of activity, and extended pianissimo passages that strain listener patience. Nevertheless, much of the music is so electric with innovation and energy that all longueurs are forgiven.

The main conceit of Play is computer gaming, with start, stop, and replay buttons. Consistent with this idea, its three movements are called Levels, but they are not levels of difficulty. Instead, they reflect levels of instrumental independence. As Norman states in his program notes:

“I’m … fascinated by how the orchestra, as a meta-instrument, is played, how its many moving parts and people can play with or against or apart from one another. While the word “play” certainly connotes fun and whimsy and a child-like exuberance, it can also hint at a darker side of interpersonal relationships, at manipulation, control, deceit, and the many forms of master-to-puppet dynamics one could possibly extrapolate from the composer-conductor-orchestra-audience chain of communication.”

Cabrillo music director Marin Alsop.
Cabrillo Festival music director Marin Alsop.

The piece appears to have its performers playing independent ad lib sections, but in the first two levels, these sections are actually controlled by specific sounds rendered by percussionists (e.g., a swipe of a washboard means “replay”). Future analysts may have fun with Norman’s complex procedural apparatus, but the important thing is, how does it sound? To these ears, fantastic. The first Level in particular is some of the most stimulating stuff I’ve heard since Christopher Rouse’s Gorgon.

As Norman put it, “The percussion is kind of monkeying everything,” there is “scrambling and jumping,” “there is a lot of crazy in it.” A cornucopia of extended techniques permeates the orchestration. In parts of the second and third levels, different instrumentalists, not just first chairs, play solo riffs. These coalesce toward the end of the work in a glorious climax strangely reminiscent of Sibelius in his use of crescendos and decrescendos. Norman is the most promising new American voice I’ve heard in some time. If he can further tighten his rhetoric, he may well conquer the highest levels in the classical-music game.

Banjo player and composer Bela Fleck share applause with conductor Marin Alsop.
Bela Fleck shares applause with Cabrillo music director Alsop.

The concert concluded with The Imposter Concerto, smack in the mainstream of Cabrillo popularity contests – a crossover work by banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, whose skills on his instrument were truly amazing. At composing, they were less impressive. Much of the concerto sounded like an overlong Bachian invention with awkward attempts at counterpoint alternating with mostly unrelated, overly sequential episodes. Jazz and folk riffs showed up briefly from time to time, along with occasionally pleasing melodic snippets.

The three movements’ titles – “Infiltration,” “Integration,” and “Truth Revealed” – did not seem reflected in the music: The “Truth Revealed” was supposed to be that the banjo was a banjo and not something else (like a guitar?). It sounded like a banjo from the outset. Fleck’s encore was the highlight of the second half of the evening: an improvisation that brilliantly evolved into “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

Jeff Dunn writes regularly for San Francisco Classical Voice.