As New Director, Măcelaru Brings Flair To Cabrillo

Cristian Măcelaru led the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s Percussion Concerto ‘Ad Infinitum,’ with Evelyn Glennie,
at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. (Rehearsal and concert photos by rr jones, courtesy of Cabrillo)
By Richard S. Ginell

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — For 25 seasons, Marin Alsop held sway as music director of the incorrigibly progressive Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. But last summer, she finally gave it up, taking the position of music director laureate and turning the reins over to Cristian Măcelaru, who had just risen from assistant conductor to conductor-in-residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Măcelaru is 37, personable, Romanian-born. He speaks with animated, sharply-etched diction that reminds me a little bit of Gustavo Dudamel (who happens to be only a year younger). Everyone calls him “Cristi,” which fits the casual atmosphere of this two-weekend beach-town festival where the orchestra members perform in street clothes. The old-fashioned, multi-purpose Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium was packed to the top of the room on opening night to greet the new young maestro.

In interviews, Măcelaru has made it clear that in taking over from Alsop, he is not about to rock the boat – yet. And it’s true: The line of continuity with Alsop is apparent in this year’s festival, which features many composers and performers who have been regulars or semi-regulars. Also, the coming of Măcelaru coincides with the centennial of composer Lou Harrison, who was there at Cabrillo’s beginning in his nearby home town of Aptos in 1963. Măcelaru talks about preparing for his first Cabrillo season:

The layout of the Civic Auditorium looked like acoustical trouble from the moment I walked in (it was my first visit there), and indeed it proved to have bone-dry sound, though the bass response was pretty sharp and instruments projected directly and with revealing clarity toward a seat high in the steeply-raked back section. There are plans afoot to renovate the 1939-vintage building, but at this point, they remain a distant dream, subject to a local bond measure not to be voted on until June or November 2018 at the earliest.

Măcelaru with Michael Gandolfi, who discusses his new version of ‘Points of Departure.’

The first piece on the festival’s opening concert Aug. 4 was designated as a world premiere, but only on a technicality. Michael Gandolfi’s Points of Departure dates back to 1988 in a chamber orchestra version co-commissioned and recorded (on DG) by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. For Cabrillo, Gandolfi re-arranged the piece for approximately twice as many instruments.

The idea of Points of Departure is that the beginnings of the second, third, and fourth movements take off from the endings of the movements that precede them; the one movement where this transition is most obvious is the fourth. Much of the piece is a kaleidoscope of dissonant effects, with a lyrical mood of anxiety and anticipation dominating the third movement, subtitled “Visione.” If anything, this mid-sized orchestra version with its augmented strings has more lushness and activity than the chamber orchestra version, and the Cabrillo contingency was challenged to their limits in the rapid passages of the fourth movement.

Clarice Assad’s Percussion Concerto Ad Infinitum was a genuine world premiere, and it turned out to be a predictably spectacular, made-to-order tour de force for percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who emerged very slowly from the wings after the piece opened, gently shaking some barely-audible hand bells.

For Glennie, the Assad concerto ‘Ad Infinitum’ is a made-to-order tour de force.

The agenda here was a life cycle, literally from womb to tomb and beyond. A gong and battering drums produced some tumultuous birth pangs. A music box gently playing Brahms’ “Lullaby” and the orchestra reciting the alphabet represented infancy and early childhood. A cajón set up a complex groove representing adulthood, more raging drums signaled death, and Glennie ended the piece as she began it, representing rebirth “through the release of the soul back to its origin.” Long gray hair flying, moving between three sets of percussion batteries, sparring with an equally loaded-up percussion section manned by three orchestra members, Glennie couldn’t help but make a mighty noise in this room, and Assad’s piece focused tightly on her kinetic energy.

Clarise Assad listens as her percussion concerto is prepared for its world premiere.
Four more new compositions will be featured at the Festival finale, Aug. 12.

Aaron Jay Kernis’ Second Symphony in effect picked up the thread from John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, which was the last piece played under Alsop’s leadership. Both pieces date from around 1990 and both are often violent symphonic reactions to issues in the air then; Corigliano’s subject was the AIDS epidemic, Kernis’ was the Persian Gulf War.

Kernis’ symphonic protest joins Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4, Holst’s “Mars,” Honegger’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, and many other 20th-century works as an indictment of the brutal futility of wars. The first movement in particular is a roiling, broiling piece of business, with spectacular percussion breaks. Măcelaru managed to get a raucously dynamic response from this orchestra of new-music mavens; they got the fury of it all well in hand.

Outside the hall before the second concert (Aug. 5), a percolating Latin band called Broken English wailed on some Santana and Buena Vista Social Club material, which turned out to be a perfect lead-in for Gabriela Lena Frank’s Three Latin American Dances indoors. While the opening is an attention-getting paraphrase of a signature  theme inWest Side Story, Frank takes off in the direction of South America from there, with sections that channeled the energy of the streets and some pounding turbulence with a distant kinship to The Rite Of Spring. Măcelaru seemed to become physically more loose and animated, as he would be for the rest of the night; he shows every sign of becoming a crowd favorite.

“Fearless” violinist Jennifer Frautschi, composer James Stephenson, Măcelaru take bows.

James Stephenson’s 2009 Violin Concerto opened with a lovely soaring tune over a complex background and ran through varied territory throughout the first movement without losing its unity. The appealing opening of the second movement was supposed to be a slowed-down transcription of Louis Armstrong’s scat-singing on “Hotter Than That” – although there wasn’t a hint of jazz feeling that would give away the source – and the lengthy third movement proved to be the weakest, most discursive part of the piece. Jennifer Frautschi, for whom the concerto was written, was the fearless soloist, though the hall did no favors for her tone, which couldn’t bloom under such parched conditions.

David T. Little’s world premiere was an homage to Lou Harrison.

In The Conjured Life, a world premiere, David T. Little took on the task of constructing a centennial memorial to his hero, Lou Harrison –  and it turned out to be an overwhelming emotional journey. The second movement became a relentlessly pounding depiction of doom, getting more violent and obsessive as it went, until Harrison’s gentle Asian-flavored gamelan language suddenly washed all of the anger and hostility of the real world away. Cindy McTee’s Double Play, with its slow-moving permutations on the theme of Ives’ The Unanswered Question followed by tense, jazzy, ticking rhythms like a crazy clock, gave the evening a razzmatazz ending.

The Cabrillo Festival has one more weekend to run, with Friday’s concert (Aug. 11) highlighted by the U.S. premiere of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s Piano Concerto, which could be a treat if it is as loony as his recent operas. Also featured are William Bolcom’s Symphony No. 9, Jörg Widmann’s Con Brio, and McTee’s Symphony No. 1.

The final concert Sunday (Aug. 12) is given over to four world premieres, including a suite from Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick arranged by Măcelaru himself; Christopher Rountree’s Overture to La Haine; Gabriella Smith’s Field Guide, a 70th birthday tribute to one-time Cabrillo music director John Adams; and Karim Al-Zand’s The Prisoner, based on letters from an inmate in the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.


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