COSTA MESA, Calif. — When last we visited California’s Orange County, that high-property-value enclave just to the south (and far to the right) of Los Angeles, the Orange County Philharmonic Society’s first “Eclectic Orange” Festival had run its course. Local audiences may have seemed surprised at their having survived (and even derived a certain prickly pleasure) from a month’s exposure to music very old and very new, experimental, and challenging, but the best news is that they came back for more.
The second run began with high decibels on Oct. 13 (Philip Glass’s new Fifth Symphony in its West Coast premiere [see previous review]) and ends on a similar volume level with worthier fare (Mahler’s Second), on Dec.1. In between there has been something for everyone, at least for everyone endowed with proper tolerance for horizon-stretching and high musical adventure.
By accident or design, “Eclectic Orange 2000” bore striking resemblances to its predecessor. Once again, there was one long and useless evening-filling symphony (the reconstructed Elgar Third last year, the Glass Fifth this year). The marvelous early-music ensemble Anonymous 4 joined forces with instruments in a new venture into spiritual affectation (last year’s “Voices of Light,” this year a new commissioned work by England’s Sir John Tavener). Downtown New York composer Mikel Rouse, whose astounding media opera “Dennis Cleveland” drew cheers last year, drew more of same this time with another new work, “Failing Kansas.”
Like “Cleveland,” “Failing Kansas” is an opera mostly because its composer says so. Its story line is the famous murder of a Kansas family in the 1950s, the capture and execution of its perpetrators, as retold in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” One live performer, Rouse himself, speaks and sings material relevant to the story; other voices on tape create a panoramic collage of ordinary lives invaded by horror. On screen, Cliff Baldwin’s films invest the drama with a visual counterpart. Why it works is not easily explained, why the power, the tragedy — even the beauty — combine for a compelling 75-minute drama. But it does.
The term “more of same” also applies, alas, to the new Tavener piece for Anonymous 4 and the Chilingirian String Quartet, co-commissioned by the Philharmonic Society: 20-or-so minutes of Tavener’s familiar juicily harmonized syllabic chug-chug as a setting of the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins — which Bach turned to better use in his “Wachet auf!” cantata.
Far more stimulating, if poorly attended, was one other of the festival’s excursions into current creativity, a splendid duo-piano evening by Ursula Oppens and Aki Takahashi, demonstrating Richard Teitlebaum’s creation of super-pianos through electronic processing. Boston’s splendid young Borromeo String Quartet introduced Steve Mackey’s “Ars Moriendi” in its world premiere: nine movements, 23 minutes of soft (if, at times, rather spongy) death-meditation.
Not everything at Eclectic Orange turned out all that eclectic, or that fresh-out-of-the-box. Pianist Andras Schiff’s wonderful take on the “Goldberg Variations” served to establish Bach, as if anyone still doubted, as a composer for all centuries. And, as the ultimate demonstration of music’s power to move the immovable and draw the tears of the hardest of heart, there came the Southern California recital debut of the miraculously gifted young tenor Ian Bostridge, in a Schubert-Wolf song program given, as proper, in the kind of improvised small space where this music belongs.