Macelaru and Cabrillo Festival garner praise for opening weekend

Macelaru and Cabrillo Festival garner praise for opening weekend

Conductor Cristian Macelaru takes a bow with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra
(Photo credit: RR Jones)

Review: Cabrillo Festival opens with a weekend of jazzy, exuberant music
By Joshua Kosman
San Francisco Chronicle
August 5, 2018

SANTA CRUZ — Nobody actually got up to dance in the aisles of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium over the course of the opening weekend of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. But a little shimmy here or there would not have been out of place, and there were times when Music Director Cristian Macelaru and the orchestra seemed to be urging us to go for it.

It was that kind of weekend — zesty, invigorating, largely joyous — and the musical ideas were flying thick and fast. Even in works of a more serious bent, the profusion of inventive and often unpredictable strokes kept audience members on their toes.

That brand of elegant buoyancy may well be taking shape as a stylistic fingerprint for Macelaru, the Romanian-born conductor who is in his second season at the festival’s helm after taking over from longtime Artistic Director Marin Alsop. The concerts on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 3 and 4, were shaped with a winning combination of rhythmic precision and interpretive fluency, and the programming offered an alluring blend of familiar and new voices.

Serving as structural pillars for the weekend were two broad-beamed concertos. Pande Shahov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, whose commissioned world premiere came at the center of Friday’s concert, was built from a densely written tapestry of Macedonian folk dances, with Simon Trpceski serving as the physically extroverted soloist. Saturday found violinist Philippe Quint bringing soulful suavity to William Bolcom’s 1984 Violin Concerto in D, a characteristically smooth amalgam of jazz, neoclassicism, and various other flavors as well.

Yet as well-groomed as both those pieces were, there was more to chew on in music that went further afield. I was especially enchanted by Zosha Di Castri’s “Dear Life,” a craggy and beautifully resourceful treatment of a short story by Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro.

In combination with a prerecorded reading of the story by Martha Henry, Di Castri set off cascades of wonderfully imagined orchestral details — a brass chorale with screechy violin counterpoint, a collection of ominous percussion effects, an avian chorus of oboe and bassoon reeds — while soprano Mary Mackenzie delivered a piquant vocalise. Going toe to toe with Munro’s literary brilliance is the kind of setup that could easily have created an unequal power struggle between words and music, but Di Castri balances her forces impeccably, keeping a listener both surprised and engaged at every turn.

There was a kind of mad impetuosity, too, in “Grana,” an elusive tone poem by Dan Dediu that had its U.S. premiere. Dediu begins at the end — the first thing that happens is a climactic finish like something out of the last pages of a Beethoven symphony — and then starts walking it backward. There are elaborately plotted instrumental duets and trios (including a killer for violin and trombone with occasional clarinet interjections), and big orchestral swells that heave into view with tsunami-like force. It wasn’t entirely clear on first hearing how the parts all fit together, but there was no denying the cumulative dramatic effect.

Saturday’s concert featured a pair of vivacious rhythmic etudes that were similar enough to make you wonder why Macelaru had put them on the same program — except that hearing them both, almost back-to-back, amounted to a double delight. Vivian Fung’s “Dust Devils” sent squiggly melodic figures racing around the orchestra in an ebullient whirl, while Kristin Kuster’s “Rain on It” conjured up eight minutes of breathless, brightly colored kinetic energy. And Kuster, God love her, skipped the expressive slow section that composers always seem to feel is expected in a piece like this but that in fact would only have killed the music’s delirious momentum.

The weekend was framed by the work of two other composers drawing, like Shahov, on national and ethnic sources. Huang Ruo’s suite of four Chinese folk songs for orchestra opened Friday’s concert in a sleekly polished performance that included the composer standing in the audience to sing one of the songs in a firm, expressive baritone. Gabriela Lena Frank’s orchestral concerto “Walkabout” invoked her Peruvian heritage in a series of bright-hued character pieces. And in a last-minute addition to the program, there was “Luctus Profugis,” a richly woven elegy for migrants by Karim Al-Zand that served as a somber grace note for a largely upbeat weekend.

Review: William Bolcom and Acolytes Shine in Cabrillo’s “After Dixieland”
By Jessica Balik
San Francisco Classical Voice
August 7, 2018

What does the term “Dixieland” mean to you? Perhaps it brings to mind New Orleans, early jazz, or the American South more broadly. On Saturday evening at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, the annual Cabrillo Festival presented a program called “After Dixieland.” For me, that theme was even more ambiguous than the concept of “Dixieland” itself. Among other possibilities, I imagined not only a postmodern mix of classical and jazz, but also a charged contemporary debate about still-erect Confederate statues.

Although the theme remained elusive even after hearing the show, I can resolutely confirm that Cabrillo remains an almost magical mecca for new music. Certainly, too, the concert celebrated William Bolcom’s 80th birthday with a performance of his jazz-infused violin concerto, alongside works by two of his former students. Exceptionally, all the composers were at this festival concert. And with Cabrillo’s magic in the air, the performance managed to weave in life-affirming meditations on how — irrespective of any political climate, including the current one in the U.S. — we are all dynamic humans who, commonly and constantly, are always migrating to and from somewhere.

The evening opened with Vivian Fung’s Dust Devils, a single-movement piece inspired by the idea of emotional volatility. When Fung introduced the work, she explained that she delights in writing for orchestra partially due to its colorful palette. In this piece, the orchestra’s different colors represented emotional and cerebral swirls. It culminated with a chorale in which the brass section demonstrated it was small but mighty.

Bolcom’s Violin Concerto in D closed the first half. Listening to the composer introduce it was a special treat: This man is as humble as he is accomplished. He spoke about his friend, the violinist Sergiu Luca who premiered the work in 1984, as well as Joe Venuti, a noted jazz violinist who inspired him and the final movement of this piece.

On Saturday, the solo violinist was Phillip Quint. The first movement opens with the solo part, and Quint commanded from the start. He performed the whole piece with clean technique and nonchalant virtuosity typical of the understated brilliance of Cabrillo performers. Unsurprisingly, before intermission the audience rose to its feet for Quint, Bolcom, the orchestra, and Cabrillo’s gifted conductor, Cristian Măcelaru.

The second half opened with a short piece, not on the program, by a composer familiar from last year’s Cabrillo festival, Karim Al-Zand. Măcelaru explained the composer wrote it as a response to contemporary political debates about immigrants/migrants; he also said that our inevitable shared status as migrants helps to make humanity beautiful. Măcelaru asked for no applause after this work for string orchestra plus marimba playing a 3-pitch ostinato that, perhaps metaphorically, migrated across the bars.

The concert closed with works by two women who studied with Balcolm while completing their doctorates: Kristin Kuster and Gabriela Lena Frank. When Kuster introduced her Rain On It, she called out the thoroughly delicious unpretentiousness of Cabrillo, a quality that I wholeheartedly second. Her piece consisted of fascinating rhythmic layers, some of which sounded like rain and were inspired by her father, a meteorologist.

Frank bravely introduced her Walkabout by sharing that she grew up as a multiracial child in Berkeley, and also that, when she was studying with Bolcom as a doctoral student, he encouraged her to explore both her identity and her mother’s native country of Peru. Frank explained that she grew up in a town where diversity was normal. To her, such diversity, combined with opportunities that enabled her — someone with a hearing disability who writes music professionally — help to define what makes America great.

Even though her piece is subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, structurally it is a four-movement symphony. Written in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Frank thinks of it as a “celebration of multiculturalism.” Memorably exotic was the last movement, which paired a percussionist playing a whistle with a clarinetist. The sound represented a tarka, an indigenous wooden flute played by Andean musicians.

Judging not only by this concert but also by my several years of visiting Cabrillo, there truly is something akin to magic in the air here: Vitality, originality, humble inclusivity, and a warm je ne sais quoi palpably radiate from this festival. If you want to hear world-class new music, or if you’re simply craving reaffirmation of basic human decency and goodness, turn off your television and migrate, however briefly, to Santa Cruz while Cabrillo’s concerts are still sounding.

More Information

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music: Through 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12. $20-$65. Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. 831-426-6966. cabrillomusic.org

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