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All Shook Down

[whitespace] Marin Alsop
Director's Cut: CabMuFest director Marin Alsop conducted the festival orchestra through a sparkling final weekend.

The Cabrillo Music Festival brings the house down with a skillful collection of modern music

By Scott MacClelland

IF MUSIC COULD SET the San Andreas Fault in motion, then Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 2, performed at Mission San Juan Bautista last Sunday, would be the test. Tectonic releases of symphonic energy, punctuated by seismic repercussions on timpani and bass drum, shook the very walls that, earlier in the week, shed bits of plaster during an early-morning temblor.

In fact, this Cabrillo Music Festival-sponsored West Coast premiere did suffer a shake-up of its own when, at the end of the first movement, designated musicians unexpectedly disconnected from conductor Marin Alsop's cues and the reading came to full stop. Momentarily rattled, Alsop restarted her crack orchestra, which then drilled into even greater depths of power.

Rouse skillfully built his musical architecture on classical forms and procedures, assuring memorable clarity. In this case, he also unleashed--for him-- unprecedented decibels of loudness. But it was Rouse's shrewd reconciliation of loud with clear that made musical sense. Extensive syncopations in the motorized outer movements and unique sound effects from ordinary orchestral instruments added more thrills to this ground-breaking performance.

On Sunday, John Corigliano made his first festival appearance with a similar fearlessness toward fortissimo, tremendous climaxes and unique sound combinations from conventional sources. Fantasia on an Ostinato and The Red Violin concerto are both variations of other music, the former based on themes from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, the latter a chaconne using music composed for a film of the same name scheduled for release next year.

Both works find the composer's well-known talents burning at full brightness with an extraordinary range of expressive ideas and formal control. Violinist Brian Lewis delivered as much personality as virtuosity and--don't tell mission priest Edward Fitz-Henry-- managed to impersonate the devil himself inside the church.

Lewis also appeared in Leonard Bernstein's five-movement "concerto" Serenade, as the seven characters who speak at Plato's Symposium, and gave each a distinctive inflection. The adagio soared with deep expression in the hands of conductor Alsop, who, like so many of her generation, is in awe of the great Lenny. (Word out now is next year's festival will feature Bernstein's sprawling Mass.)

But it was at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Saturday night that Alsop's programming made its most memorable impact, through Michael Hersch's Prelude and Fugue for Orchestra and Joan Tower's Duets. At age 26, Hersch has already established himself as a major talent and prolific composer. From the stage, he heaped praise on everyone involved in the performance of the piece, and startled Alsop by adding, "I didn't plan on anybody actually doing it."

The grand fugue of the Hersch established itself in rich sonority on the strings before the rest of the orchestra joined in. From there, the work grew in color, imagination, pace and power to a great climax before subsiding to a quiet, if uneasy, conclusion. At the right moment, Hersch lightened the texture to give flight to his fancy.

Tower's 23-minute Duets, pairing off winds, brass, strings and percussion in the manner and spirit of a Baroque concerto grosso, achieved an exceptional confidence and authority. Her Music for Cello and Orchestra--heard earlier with Lee Duckles as soloist--massaged mottos and fragments but failed to convey a big idea.

Frank Zappa's The Perfect Stranger embraces the aphoristic language of Anton Webern but with a dense, symphonic texture. However, since Webern died in 1945 and his Schoenberg-inspired serialism lost currency with the public soon thereafter, this Zappa sounded strangely old-fashioned.

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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