The 2010 edition of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is wrapping up tonight. Led by the brilliant music director Marin Alsop, this is always a highlight of the Northern Californian summer. This year proved no exception.
The first weekend was highlighted by a concentrated look at two composers: Jennifer Higdon and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Both composers were introduced to me at earlier Cabrillo festivals. Higdon has been a particular favorite, so it was a great delight to hear two concertos: her concerto grosso for eighth blackbird, On a Wire, and her Percussion Concerto performed by Colin Currie. The Percussion Concerto might be my new favorite of the Higdon works that I have heard performed live. The writing where the percussion soloist was halo-ed by the percussion section was particularly evocative.
There seems to be a lot of concerto grosso in the air at Cabrillo these days. The eighth blackbird concerto of course is in this idiom with a sextet of soloists, but the halo percussion parts in the Percussion Concerto and the halo soloists in last year’s Azul cello concerto by Osvaldo Golijov are pretty close relatives.
Although I liked Turnage’s Riffs and Refrains clarinet concerto two years ago, other works of his have not had the same effect. His opening Scherzoid this year fell into this category – it was fine, but I didn’t find it particularly compelling listening. But when you get to hear three works by a composer in two nights, it makes it easier to find your way into their language. Midway through Chicago Remains in the second concert, I had an “ah-hah!” moment where the musical language started to make a lot more sense to me, and my listening became much more involved. I then thoroughly enjoyed the concert-concluding Drowned Out. Thanks to Marin for such great programming – and, of course, for conducted such inspired performances of these works.
Last night’s concert featured John Adams‘s most recent orchestral work, City Noir. The Cabrillo Festival Orchestra fielded 16 extras for this one, including San Francisco Symphony principal trumpet Mark Inouye on second trumpet. It was well worth it! This score sounds quite different from the other orchestral works by Adams that I have heard – even denser with musical ideas than before, and with a rather different treatment of rhythm. It also sounded crazy difficult, with a lot of tricky lines at fast tempos. While I enjoyed the performance tremendously, this is definitely a piece I will need to hear more to absorb. And as one of the orchestra members said at the post-concert reception, it’s the type of work that you would like to play multiple times in a subscription setting to really dig into it.
The other special highlight of the concert was Kevin Puts‘s piano concerto Night, with the composer as soloist. Even though Mr. Puts was introduced by Marin as being a festival favorite, somehow I’ve missed his past compositions. I’ll try not to repeat that mistake in the future. This was a beautiful concerto that makes me eager to hear more of his music.
As usual, there were many shorter pieces in the concerts that served to introduce composers new to the festival. Anna Clyne, Sean Hickey, and Michael Shapiro all offered attractive and interesting compositions, and once again whetted the appetite for more of their music.
This year I believe that all the composers being performed were present at Cabrillo, which I think is a first for the festival. One of the joys of Cabrillo is being able to talk to the composers and performers about their music and experiences. At intermission last night, I introduced myself to John Adams and told him how thrilled I am to be performing El Niño with him in December as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. He asked what part I sang; when I answered “tenor”, he seemed to wince a little and mentioned that “I write pretty high for tenors.” We’ll see how it compares with Der Freischütz – but it’s a lot different singing with a large tenor section compared to the 6-voice section we’re limited to at West Bay Opera! In general I’d rather have a composer write pretty high for tenors than pretty low, but I’ll know more after our first rehearsal next month.
Executive director Ellen Primack and development director Tom Fredericks received many accolades and honors before the opening concert to honor their 20 years with the Festival. I haven’t dealt directly with Mr. Fredericks, but ever since singing in the chorus of the Bernstein Mass at the 1999 festival, I’ve been in awe of Ellen Primack’s skills in making things work out so well behind the scenes. Hats off to everyone at Cabrillo for another great success of a season!