Măcelaru Sparkles With Modern Fare At Cabrillo Festival

The 1939-vintage Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium where the Cabrillo Festival presents its annual agenda of new and
recent music. (Richard S. Ginell)
By Richard S. Ginell

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Cristian Măcelaru started his second summer as the helm of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium over the weekend of Aug. 3 and 4. Already, from the evidence of this weekend, the 38-year-old Romanian-born conductor is putting his stamp on the programming here.

Macelaru opened the festival with an international cast of composers. (RR Jones)

Măcelaru seems to prefer loud, flashy, splashy pieces that make abundant use of the unlimited bag of tricks that a full orchestra with an overflowing assortment of percussion instruments can supply. In a highly engaging pre-concert talk outdoors, he enthused about the “unanimous excitement” that the orchestra has about approaching new music, while adding that the musicians were often “stretched to the maximum” in going about it. He’s a crowd-pleaser alright – funny, sharply articulate. I found his speaking style very much like that of Gustavo Dudamel yet more fluid and voluble. He is also extravagant in his gestures, the way Gustavo used to be before he toned down his act in recent times.

Huang Ruo rehearses his fascinating `Folk Songs For Orchestra.’
(RR Jones)

For the first evening of music on Aug. 3, Măcelaru drew from a truly international cast of composers hailing from China, Canada, Macedonia, and Romania. Huang Ruo’s fascinating Folk Songs for Orchestra began with a raucous “Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang” that produced an archaic, anarchic blast of pentatonic sounds. The next two songs toned down the virulence to some degree, but Ruo was merely preparing us for a dramatic coup. At the outset of the fourth song, “Boatman Song from the Yellow River,” Ruo stood up from his place in the audience two rows in front of me and sang unaccompanied in a loud, heavily-inflected bellow. That led to a grand statement, densely harmonized, by the orchestra, interrupted by calm rustlings from the double basses and tuba, drumstick rolls on the bongos, distant thunder on the drums, and finally the entire orchestra softly singing the words “Do you know?” in Chinese as the strokes of a tam-tam rose and faded.

Folk Songs for Orchestra saved its big theatrical punch for last, and it was a tough act for the rest of the composers to follow. But Canada’s Zosha Di Castri, just a few weeks after her participation in Music From Japan in July, proved equal to the task with the U.S. premiere of Dear Life, which until now had only been played by Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra live and on an Analekta CD.


Zosha Di Castri introduces `Dear Life,’ based on an Alice Munro story. (RR Jones)

Alice Munro’s adapted text, as read by the pre-recorded voice of Martha Henry, is a memoir without rose-colored glasses of life in the hinterlands. Very often the speaking voice is nostalgic, but the unstable orchestral background perilously and deliberately undermines it with the sustained pitch of the strings, winds, and growling brass straying off the pitch into microtone land. Here and there, Mary Mackenzie sang in a beautiful, often wordless soprano: I can imagine Barbara Hannigan also excelling in this part. In this performance, as opposed to the recording, the narration was pushed further into the background, allowing us to hear more clearly Di Castri’s highly resourceful orchestrations, experimental treatment of percussion instruments and bare oboe reeds, and haunting depiction of the fog of Parkinson’s disease.

Pande Shahov gives the Cabrillo orchestra a challenge. (RR Jones)

“I read that there’s an orchestra (here) that wants a challenge,” said the Macedonian/French composer Pande Shahov prior to the U.S. premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2. “So I was as crazy as I could.” But this supposedly crazy concerto started off rather innocuously, even sparingly, before it got into the first 7/8-meter fragment of a series of Macedonian dances. Although the 20-minute concerto is played continuously, one can sense three distinct movements, with the center one being a “slow” movement of sorts where the piano part is more rhapsodic than elsewhere. Otherwise, pianist Simon Trpčeski – who had a significant hand in selecting the dances that Shahov used in this piece – seemed to be having a marvelous time as he bounced to the odd-meter rhythms.

Romania’s Dan Dediu claimed that his Grana, Op. 101 (another U.S. premiere) is one of those rare pieces that begin with a finale, albeit one that lasts barely more than a minute. The piece’s outbreaks of crocodile-like brass, the scraping of a cymbal, swirling winds, and weird pizzicati strings were not without humor. But the various episodes did not hang together even within each movement – and by the time we got to the real finale, the piece had become incoherent, one disconnected agitated section after another.

The concert on Aug. 4 had two coherent themes running through most of its length. For one thing, three of the four compositions on the program were written by William Bolcom and his onetime students Kristin Kuster and Gabriela Lena Frank. For another, three of the four compositions were written by women – the third being Vivian Fung – which was probably no accident (the day before, Măcelaru urged his audience to tweet their local orchestras to encourage them to play music by female composers).

William Bolcom addressing the audience in his shorts. (RR Jones)

They’re making a fuss about Bolcom this year because he turned 80 on May 26, but he isn’t letting it go to his head. Turning up in shorts because, as he sheepishly admitted, he forgot to pack a belt, he was as funny, unpretentious, and free-associating as his music often is. He made a simultaneously serious and satirical point of writing a Violin Concerto in D, knowing full well that three of the most ubiquitous concertos in the business by Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky are also in D. Accordingly, this one – a 1984 golden oldie by Cabrillo standards – adheres to the fast-slow-fast, three-movement tradition, yet is just as much inspired by that jazz violinist/practical joker Joe Venuti. There is a cadenza in the usual place toward the end of the first movement, but this one is full of eccentric figurations. There is a Rondo-Finale in its proper slot whose central tune is accompanied by doo-wop chords (some folks in the hall who got the point laughed). Adeptly executing the Venuti-derived slides here and there, soloist Philippe Quint conveyed the slyness of Bolcom’s affectionate mocking of the classical music routine, and so did Măcelaru. It was delightful fun.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Peruvian roots showed in `Walkabout.’
(RR Jones)

Kuster displayed some of her mentor’s unpretentious profile in her pre-performance banter, while her brief Rain On It was another snazzy Măcelaru-era showpiece powered by a very active percussion section, running on a parallel rhythmic path with John Adams. Frank calls her Walkabout: Concerto for Orchestra a “symphony” – which its classical four-movement form would indicate. A string quartet consisting of the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra’s principal players launched and dominated the opening movement; the second movement scherzo provided the most overt reminder of Frank’s Peruvian lineage with its hammering rhythms on three sizes of marimbas. In the end, the composer threw everyone a curve by building a pounding stretch run that seemed to signal an all-flags-waving coda, but the piece instead ended quietly in the double basses.

Both pieces by Bolcom’s female alumni were West Coast premieres, as was Fung’s Dust Devils, yet another brief, colorful, snazzy scherzo for big orchestra where the dust devils were simulated by whirring strings. But Măcelaru injected an unscheduled note of seriousness by starting the second half with a short, unidentified, mournful, quite beautiful elegy by Karim Al-Zand that was dedicated to the migrant crisis in this country and around the world.

The Cabrillo Festival Orchestra warming up in the Civic Auditorium. (Richard S. Ginell)

A group called Friends of the Civic Auditorium in a tent outside the hall stepped up their campaign to renovate the festival’s aging, creaky home, not only for acoustical reasons but also for the comfort and even safety of its patrons (I witnessed a poor fellow with a cane losing his balance on the steeply raked, handrail-less aisles and just barely staying on his feet). Although there are sketches of a new design ready to go, so far it appears that any talk of rebuilding the interior of the Civic is just talk for now. But it’s obvious to this out-of-town visitor that a festival of this quality and enterprise needs a good modern hall.

In the meantime, the Cabrillo continues at the Civic with more heaping helpings of new and recent music. Aug. 11’s concert contains Andrea Tarrodi’s Liguria, Sean Shepherd’s Melt, Peter S. Shin’s Hypercolor, and Anna Clyne’s Abstractions, along with John Corigliano’s 1968 Piano Concerto in celebration of his 80th birthday. The concluding concert Aug. 12 has Pierre Jalbert’s In Terra, Nico Muhly’s Impossible Things, Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (For Orbiting Spheres), and Part 1 of Michael Gandolfi’s gigantic The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

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